As the (last) recession crept up, pubs and restaurants got a lot of airtime. And not for a good reason.
Back in 2009, 52 pubs were closing each week and there was just a 20% chance that a restaurant would survive its first two years. Scrimping and saving was having a knock-on effect, and the future seemed bleak.
Now as recession number two encroaches, the story is different. Sure, it’s not an easy climate to open a new bar in, but a kind of Darwin’s Theory has ensured that the places which have adapted and changed to survive the harsh climate aren’t just weathering the storm. They’re thriving.
Take Russell Norman (Polpo, Polpetto, Spuntino, Da Polpo and Mishkin’s), or Wilson and Barker (Terroirs, Brawn and recently-opened Soif), or Nuno Mendez (Corner Room, The Long Table and Viajante) or Mark Hix (Hix Oyster & Chop House, Mark’s Bar and HIX at Selfridges) or Hawksmoor (which has quickly duplicated its original Spitalfields restaurant at Seven Dials and Guildhall). Get the equation right and you’ve got the London dining scene in the palm of your hand.
While the restaurateurs who listen to their customers are nailing it, those that aren’t are having a hard time—but this isn’t typical of the all-out doom and gloom of a recession, but more like an exaggerated version of normality.
Look at ‘bring your own booze’ as an example—a cunning way of luring customers through the door. Bonnie and Wild invite you to bring your own bottle, as does The (Soho) Breakfast Club, Le Café Anglais (on Mondays), and even big names like St Johns and Hawksmoor are dipping their toe in the water with various deals. BYOB reassures diners that their hard-earned money is being spent on good ingredients and good cooking, rather than being blown on crazy, boom-period alcohol mark-ups.
Another good strategy is, quite simply serving reasonably-priced food. Just walking through the door of a lofty, gilded, napery-heavy restaurant can effortlessly blow £100 out of your wallet before you’ve even looked at the menu…which makes places like Spuntino’s even more popular—diners can order calamari with ink and chickpeas for a very reasonable £8 without panicking about hidden costs to cover the starched linen, crystal glassware and silver service waiters.
Taking all of this into consideration neatly brings me onto lastnight’s dinner at Yianni Papoutsis’ new venture. Having graduated from his cult, Peckham-based Meat Wagon (which was exactly that—burgers out of a van parked in an industrial estate), he has opened Meat Liquor (be careful when googling this), and it seems that, in a Norman/Hix/Hawksmoor fashion, everything he touches turns to gold.
The restaurant is three weeks old, but when I arrived at 6:30 yesterday, there was already a queue snaking round the car park behind the Oxford Street Debenhams where the diner is based.
After a 45-minute wait we were ushered inside. In its former life, Meat Liquor was an unknown Italian restaurant, but with the help of interior architects Shed and design collective I Love Dust, the diner has been transformed into an artily grunge room with graffiti-inspired illustrations covering the walls and ceilings—all in a meaty, blood red or charcoal-y black colour.
The menu was straight out of Vice magazine in quite a hilarious but endearing fashion, and I couldn’t help but appreciate the time spent by whichever hipster came up with soundbites like:
“ARGENTO MALBEC IS MADE TO GO WITH A BURGER – EVEN THOUGH THEY DON’T EAT THEM IN ARGENTINA – BUT IS ALSO A CRACKING WINE FOR JUST NECKING AND GIVING YOU RED TEETH”
“JOURNEYS END SHIRAZ MADE BY MANCHESTER RAVE KING ROLLO GABB, THIS IS A SPICY POWER PACKED BEAST THAT WINS AWARDS ALL OVER THE WORLD, BUT HE ENJOYS NOTHING MORE THAN GETTING NAKED AT BURNING MAN FESTIVAL WITH YIANNI AND GILES”
The menu also gave details of the ‘house grog’ being limited to two serves per person (due to its potency), salads were listed under the heading of ‘rabbit food’ and one of the puddings on offer was ‘crack pie’. Edgy as sin.
The meal kicked off with a delicious (but quite small) daiquiri, counterbalanced by a very generous amount of Malbec served in a jam jar.
Next came the burgers which really were worth all the hype. With a McDonalds serving £5 burgers made out of cow bum holes just round the corner, it really is no wonder that there’s a 45-minute long queue for £7 burgers lovingly made from happy cows, with soft flavoursome buns and well-balanced cheese, pickle and onion extras.
As I left Meat Liquor, the queue was still snaking round the corner. Anyone’s instant thought might be something along the lines of: “recession, reschmession”.
But I disagree. Because I spent £20 on what felt like an extravagant night out—a cocktail, a glass of wine and possibly the best burger I’ve ever tasted.
And what else could that £20 have got me—a nasty Primark jumper or a 1% share in this season’s Mulberry bag. Perhaps consumers aren’t ‘treating themselves’, with material rubbish this time round, but will be keeping up morale with fun experiences instead, which could make diners like Meat Liquor this recession’s ‘lipstick’.
Closed on Sundays and Mondays
“NO RESERVATIONS our Qing policy is straightforward and we believe fair: If there is a Q when you arrive, you join the end of it. NO exceptions, EVEN if your friend/date/probation officer/slave/master/gimp is already inside. Ta.”