Lavishly spiced, left-field curries and shattering kulcha flatbreads in a shoebox room filled with cushion-laden floral sofas; ferment-dribbled, culturally eclectic small plates served beside an insalubrious loading bay; sumptuous, steam-billowing bowls of rustic fresh pasta flanked by in-house charcuterie and wine poured from a tap, not bottle. If you were asked to locate these three recently opened London restaurants on a map, you would be forgiven for confidently thrusting a finger towards Hackney. Or Highbury. Or even Peckham. Or any of the city’s hipper enclaves known for casual, experimental eating out. But, dear friends, you would be wrong every time.
Because what this trio of openings (Lucknow 49, Scully and 10 Heddon Street, respectively) have in common is that they have all sprung up in – and, to a degree, gently revolutionised – the area of Mayfair. Yes, that’s right, Mayfair. Where once restaurants in this stretch of the city exclusively dealt in old-fashioned, white-jacketed grandeur or noisy, celebrity-luring luxury, a new wave of operators is loosening things up, ditching the caviar supplements for something that’s as unexpected as it is exciting.
Dhruv Mittal, head chef at Lucknow 49
The experimental spicesmith behind Mayfair’s most un-Mayfair Indian
What Ex-Fat Duck chef Dhruv Mittal does away with molecular gastronomy to bring big-portioned, vividly colourful Lucknowi dishes to a chintzy-hipster dining room on Maddox Street. It’s joyfully un-Mayfair: a charismatic counterpunch to the area’s high-end Indian restaurants.
Eat this Smoky chicken thigh in a cashew-nut sauce splattered with yoghurt has you scraping the bowl. But leave room for the too-good-to-share purple-carrot cake, dusted with cardamom: an epic sign-off to some totally original – and great-value – Indian cooking.
What they said “Occasionally it knocks your socks off,” Jay Rayner, The Guardian.
He says “We came to disrupt the area’s fine dining scene by bringing something fresh and never done before to Mayfair – but at Soho prices.”
There is still the nostalgic exactitude of The Wolseley and the Damien Hirst-littered sensory assault of Sexy Fish. But now, also, there is Nieves Barragán Mohacho’s Michelin-starred Sabor, with its clattering, electric atmosphere and counter of clued-up Londoners messily ferrying romesco-doused rabbit shoulder into their mouths. There is the compact, cool Kitty Fisher’s, where a well-oiled youthful crowd mainlines mini Welsh rarebit toasts, and future stars of the global culinary stage (like Brat’s Tomos Parry) hone their skills. There is Emilia, tucked away within Bonhams auction house, where the pace-setting patrons behind Clerkenwell’s The Quality Chop House are interpreting the cuisine of Italy’s northerly Emilia-Romagna region through the medium of vivid antipasti, deft pastry work and seasonal tortellini bobbing in broths of hypnotising depth and potency. As Laura Rowe, editor of Olive Magazine, notes, “These restaurants aren’t just places to be seen or, rather, to be seen spending money. They’re rebellious, playful and they reflect the way people eat now.”
“Rebellious, playful – Mayfair reflects the way we eat now”
And though these establishments vary in their offering, they are united by central tenets (knowledgeable but relaxed service, buzzy rooms that dissolve the barrier between chef and diner, a puckish willingness to experiment and innovate) more readily associated with places outside this venerable, moneyed postcode; they generally kick against the buttoned-up, the self-serious and the coldly exclusive. 10 Heddon Street – which is a collaboration between Smokestak’s David Carter and former Kitty Fisher’s and Sager + Wilde chef Chris Leach – is even being marketed as a “restaurant residency”. So why does what is essentially a pop-up – possibly the defining signifier of encroaching hipsterdom – materialise, here, a short walk from Savile Row? How does any of this happen?
Stuart Andrew, head chef at Emilia
Ex-Clipstone chef does the bidding at a new, raved-about Italian in Bonhams
What Paying homage to the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, restaurateurs Will Lander and Daniel Morgenthau’s latest space sees the head chef of their much-loved Fitzrovia bistro Clipstone installed at one of the most critically swooned-over openings of the summer. The setting? Bonhams auction house. The food? Masterful regional Italian.
Eat this The excellent riff on the classic vitello tonnato or the smoked eel-stuffed tortellini.
What they said “Pasta… worthy of a love letter. [This is] some of London’s best Italian food,” Jay Rayner, The Guardian.
He says “We’re not overly conceptual. It’s about treating the raw ingredients respectfully without artifice.”
Well, paradoxically, the treacherousness of the restaurant landscape in 2019 is partially to credit for this burst of vitality. High produce costs, mounting ground rents and general pre-Brexit jitters have caused operators and property owners alike to mitigate risk by kicking against convention. Upscale food courts (like Centre Point’s splashy Arcade Food Theatre) are on the rise, hotels such as The Standard London are snaring talented young chefs, and landlords – like The Crown Estate, which looks after 10 Heddon Street’s site – are, ultimately, trying new things. After Magpie (another restaurant that nobly attempted to bring some east London swagger to this historically conservative flank of the West End) closed, a deal was brokered to bring Leach and Carter – licking their wounds after a proposed permanent location in east London neighbourhood Dalston had fallen through – into a newly vacant, fully kitted-out kitchen.
Ramael Scully, founder and head chef of Scully
The boundary-pushing Ottolenghi alumnus goes solo in St James
What Much is made of Ramael Scully’s ethnic make-up – born in Malaysia to a Chinese-Indian mother and Irish-Balinese father; raised in Sydney – partly because it so well reflects the chef’s inventive, hard-to-peg pan-Asian cooking. Scully, his first solo effort after more than a decade working with Yotam Ottolenghi, was one of the biggest London openings of 2018. And it’s still smashing it.
Eat this The simple but seriously good salad of yellow-red tomatoes, green strawberries, coconut and flowers; or the excellent arepa with eggplant sambal and bergamot labneh.
What they said “Some of the craziest and most inspired work I’ve seen,” Tim Hayward, Financial Times.
He says “Mayfair has a history of being upmarket so I set out to do something relaxed; fine dining and fun shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.”
“We were only looking at places in east London but then this landed in our laps and gave us an opportunity to bring something to a space that would otherwise be sitting idle,” says Carter, a barbecue expert who is taking more of a supportive, advisory role at the whole-animal butchery and handmade pasta concept.
“We don’t fit the bill of Mayfair by any means but I don’t think we really want to. Because when you’re confident about what you’re sending out of the kitchen, it shouldn’t really matter where you are.”
Nieves Barragán Mohacho of Sabor
The ex-Barrafina chef opens London’s best tapas bar
What After over a decade as the exec chef of London tapas standard-setter Barrafina (which, claims one critic, “changed the face of Spanish dining in the UK”), Bilbao-born Nieves Barragán Mohacho opened her first solo outing on Heddon Street in 2018: a no-reservations, avowedly un-up-itself tapas counter with bags of personality. The simple, classic Basque cooking comes at a price point gleefully at odds with its address.
Eat this Pretty much everything is bang-on here (from the simple pan con tomate to the herb-crusted rabbit shoulder), but save space for the sublime bombas de chocolates, three praline-and hazelnut-covered doughnuts: divine.
What they said “It’s not ground-breaking or revelatory or reinventing the genre. But it is the kind of place that makes me glad to be alive,” Marina O’Loughlin, The Times.
She says “Most important is that we create a fun place where you can relax.”
Emilia – restaurateurs Will Lander and Daniel Morgenthau’s critically acclaimed regional Italian opening – is another example of a successful accord between savvy Mayfair building owners and talented, youthful operators. Approached by Bonhams in January 2019 to conceive a new in-house restaurant, Lander and Morgenthau ignored the fact they “had never really thought about Mayfair” and relished the opportunity to do something produce-focused and deceptively complex in an airy, unique space.
“I think landlords – or in our case, auction houses – are leveraging their assets to bring in people who wouldn’t normally be attracted to the area,” notes Morgenthau. “It’s certainly working for us. And, I think, just as you can now have a fairly formal, fine-dining experience in Dalston, you can come here and have – if not exactly something informal – then something that’s passionate and dynamic and comes from the personalities of the people looking after you. And, of course, eating out is such a hobby now that people don’t mind travelling to places.”
This brings us to one of the other primary reasons for this sudden shift in Mayfair’s culinary atmosphere. London is an ever-trickier-to-define jumble of micro-neighbourhoods – shifting from Chinese hot pot to Parisian grand cafes and alternative Japanese izakayas within a few steps – where psychological borders do not exist in the same way. Put simply: the new breed of intensely knowledgeable, digitally savvy diners has no qualms about traipsing to St James’s, Seven Sisters or Stockwell to get the good stuff (read: a perfectly composed photo of an Instagram-famous dish, captured like a rare Pokémon).
George Barson of Kitty Fisher’s
Comfort food-inclined modern British fare on Shepherd Market
What Devon-born foraging fan George Barson worked under Nuno Mendes before landing this head chef spot. Cooking on a wood grill, he focuses on flavour and seasonality over showy techniques. Befitting of its namesake, an 18th-century courtesan, there’s a louche air about the intimate, oak-panelled interiors – look out for starry clientele like Kate Moss and Nigella Lawson on the dusty-pink banquettes.
Eat this The crispy, chunky potato side and next-level Welsh rarebit. To follow: honey ice cream served on a puddle of intense blackberry sauce.
What they say “The homegrown equivalent of a Parisian bistro – and every bit as enduringly appealing,” Ben McCormack, The Telegraph.
He says “Simple British flavours are at the heart of what I do.”
And this adventurousness encourages those doing the feeding to be more swashbuckling, too; whether it’s through Lucknow 49 founder Dhruv Mittal’s keenly priced Awadhi staples, Scully genius Ramael Scully’s library of unsual preserves, or Mo Diner, a wholly unlikely mash-up of fry-cook Americana and Mediterranean flavours, from Momo impresario Mourad Mazouz. Regarded from a certain angle, Mayfair’s restaurant renaissance looks less like a perplexing aberration and more like a broader symptom of a dining culture producing exciting answers to tough, existential questions; it’s a sign of brimming ambition and evenly dispersed pockets of interest, roped through the city like fat on a well-marbled piece of steak. More than anything, the boundary-breaking energy crackling through the London hospitality sector suggests a general rejection of the old rules. Because, truly, if august, monocled Mayfair can become cool then, frankly, anything is possible.
Chris Leach of 10 Heddon St
The former Pitt Cue shapeshifter oversees Mayfair’s coolest pasta pop-up
What It’s not a pop-up but a “restaurant residency”, apparently. Whatever. Known for his immensely good pasta at Sager + Wilde in Hackney, Leach has now taken over a space on Heddon Street alongside Smokestak founder David Carter to create a temporary-or-not, Brit-accented, pasta-butchery concept just off Regent Street. Flour power at its mightiest.
Eat this Closely followed by the well-spiced garganelli ragu, the tonnarelli brown-crab cacio e pepe is the ridiculously good stand-out pasta here.
What they said Not yet reviewed.
He says “We don’t fit the bill of Mayfair but, then again, I don’t think we really want to.”