(Bloomberg) -- After two years of severely restricted dining options, seasoned City professionals feared the worst.
But rest assured, “the two-bottle lunch is alive and well.” That’s according to Russell Norman, owner of Brutto, the smart, friendly Tuscan trattoria that has been luring the Square Mile’s finest to Smithfield since it opened last September. For the past few months, he’s watched guests show up in droves from the financial district to do business over lunch. City of London offices might not be full, but the surrounding dining rooms are, and that’s spilling over to nearby neighborhoods. If you want a midday reservation at Manteca, in Shoreditch, or Sessions Arts Club, in Clerkenwell, think a month ahead. Their restaurants are a notch louder than is usual in the City, and their fellow diners less buttoned-up, but that’s not stopping deals from being done and money being spent.
Ed Martin, co-founder of ETM Group, owners of a nine-strong clutch of City restaurants and bars including The Jugged Hare, is also cheering the return of the business crowd. “Office occupancy might only be 30% or 40%, but those are the people who always dined with us, and they’re back.” He says that people “aren't coming in to the City to sit in front of a screen all day: they can do that at home. You come in to go out.” And you pay for it: at his newly renovated Aviary, the £40 Cornish wild turbot ($49) is “flying out of the kitchen.”
Not that the City’s heavy-hitting dining rooms have been forgotten. Under the lofty dome of One Lombard Street, the former banking hall that has fed and watered City folk for the past 24 years, owner Soren Jessen is as bullish as Norman. He knows a thing or two about City lunches—in a previous life, he was an investment banker at Goldman Sachs. “Our diners are spending more than ever,” Jessen says. “They’re ordering fillet, not bavette, and Meursault, not Mâcon [a Burgundian trade-up, including service, of £100 a bottle]. I think there's a real feeling that the City is bouncing back. Even if offices aren't full yet, our dining room is. After a couple of really tough years, it’s great to see.”
Martin Williams, chief executive officer of M Restaurant in Threadneedle Street, has seen a 20% to 30% jump in revenue compared with the same period in 2019. Half of this, he says, “is down to the inevitable price rises associated with higher costs—ingredients, fuel, staff—but the rest is just diners being willing to spend. We are doing a lot more midweek business: Thursday has become the new Friday.”
Both Williams and ETM’s Martin are investing in new places: Williams’s third M Restaurant opens in Canary Wharf later this year, while Martin’s Wagtail, a rather beautiful rooftop restaurant and cocktail bar perched on the old House of Fraser building in King William Street, opens this week.
Here then, the six best new spots to talk business over a terrific meal. As Jessen says: “If you want to close a deal, don't try to do it over Zoom. Do it over lunch.”
Russell Norman’s gingham-bedecked Smithfield trattoria opened last September. Taking Tuscany as its inspiration, the menu hops happily from anchovies with butter and St. John sourdough to pappardelle with rabbit, and vast slabs of bistecca alla Fiorentina, much favored by the power elite, while coccoli (deep-fried dough balls, translated as “cuddles”) stuffed with stracchino and prosciutto are a particular favorite with the gregarious, dressed-down clientele who hang out at the bar for all-day £5 Negronis. “We get a young crowd of City folk and creative types,” says Norman. “It’s definitely not monastic, it can get quite loud. And some of them kick off lunch with a couple of cocktails, which is very encouraging.”
After years of pop-ups, co-owners David Carter (once of Smokestak) and Petersham Nurseries alum Chris Leach have put down permanent roots in Shoreditch, less than a mile from the Bank of England. With more than a whiff of what Romans call “the fifth quarter” —animals’ innards—the menu at Manteca describes itself as “nose-to-tail” and “Italian-inspired.” The word “inspired” is apt here: there is culinary genius at work in their audacious cacio e pepe sauced with brown crabmeat, and plates of campanelle pasta with pig’s tail ragù, or order-if-you-dare pig’s head fritti with apple mostarda. The lunchtime buzz already exudes the confident air of a City hotspot.
An old rule of thumb about high-end restaurants is that the altitude of the dining room is inversely proportional to the quality of the food. At Wagtail, however, Ed Martin is determined to go beyond the view from the 9th floor of the old House of Fraser Monument building. He’s enlisted the talented chef Phil Kearsey, formerly of Corrigan’s Mayfair, to work the stove. His opening menu is unashamedly opulent: glazed lamb’s sweetbreads with new-season peas and wild mushrooms, followed by stuffed Dover sole with morels, white asparagus and vin jaune. Meanwhile, former Aqua bartender Angelos Bafas— “Mr. Ungarnished” is his sobriquet—mixes Bramley apple cocktails spiked with horseradish and wasabi.
The smart new space at 100 Liverpool Street has a secret up its sleeve: A revolving roster of star chefs whose dishes will personalize the menu each month. For now, however, co-owner Tristam Hillier’s self-described “brasserie extraordinaire” features the talents of ex-Scott’s chef Arran Smith. The menu is semi-classic French with options like escargots with roasted bone marrow butter; pâté de campagne perked up with smoked raisins; and British cheeses and charcuterie. Later in the year, we are promised guest spots from Lee Westcott (The Typing Room), Anna Hansen (The Modern Pantry), and Gareth Ward of the Michelin two-starred Ynyshir in mid-Wales.
The landmark, converted warehouse site in Shoreditch that once housed Conran’s Albion and Boundary has been completely refurbished and given a simpler name: Boundary. James McCulloch, the founder of Harcourt Inns gastropubs like Clerkenwell’s popular The Coach, is behind the new place, which features both a ground floor dining room and a rooftop bar/restaurant crying out for a spell of sunny weather. The opening menu is hugely enticing. Head chef Robin Freeman, who used to cook at One Lombard Street, has the happy knack of coaxing the best from his stellar ingredients. Lulworth Bay scallops are sauced with anchovy and parsley butter; rump of beef has smoked béarnaise and bacon jam for company; and new season Norfolk asparagus is pleasingly paired with capers and a cured egg yolk. The magnums of rosé are already on ice.
Sessions Arts Club
Florence Knight and Jon Spiteri’s much-lauded Clerkenwell restaurant is the antithesis of a corporate dining room —buzzy, arty and laid-back. But that hasn’t stopped the City faithful from making lunchtime pilgrimages. Front-of-house ace Spiteri is the co-founder of St. John; Knight worked the stove at Soho’s Polpetto. Their brilliantly understated, fourth-floor restaurant is delightful. Find the entrance first: look for a side street and a red door. Then dig in to Knight’s menu highlighted by dishes like panisse with cod’s roe; beet with goat’s curd and olive crumb; and hake with n’duja and the tangy Italian vegetable agretti.
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