With almost three decades spent as a restaurant critic, it’s fair to say Nicholas Lander has seen plenty of restaurants come and go. Here, he talks to Victoria Stewart about the capital’s latest offerings and offers some sage advice for would-be restauranteurs.
When Nicholas Lander published his book The Art of the Restaurateur in 2012, the pioneering chef Ollie Dabbous had just opened his eponymous restaurant. It would be a few months before Deliveroo commenced its takeaway food domination, and three years before the wildly popular street food seller Bao would launch its first permanent site.
Over a breakfast of coconut bread and coffee at Caravan King’s Cross, Lander and I agree that the restaurant landscape has changed dramatically since 2012. There are now more restaurants than ever, pop-ups have become standard testing grounds for new concepts, and the evolution of blogging and social media mean everyone has become what Lander calls ‘a food expert’. Yet as longtime restaurant critic for FT Magazine and restaurant consultant for King’s Cross asset manager, Argent, he believes that the defining role of a restaurant — to restore people — is much the same as it has always been. Indeed, the idea of going somewhere to feel restored comes from the verb ‘restaurer’ and the soup that was fed to hungry travellers in the 18th century after long journeys by horse and buggy.
“I still think that’s what people need,” says Lander. “We’ve moved on from muddy roads and potholes, but there is still a need for everybody to be welcome. To be made to feel that for however long you’re in an establishment, the world is a safe place. I think you go to a restaurant to be amused, to be entertained, and to have responsibility taken away from you — you don’t get that when you’re entertaining at home!”
If restaurants have the potential to restore their visitors, I ask if the same can be said for an area like King’s Cross; has it changed for the better? Lander explains that he and his wife moved 18 months ago from Belsize Park because there were so many more young people in King’s Cross who were bringing an appealing energy with them to the neighbourhood. “…that’s the biggest difference; it’s UAL [University of the Arts London, located on Granary Square since 2011] that has brought a lot of that.”
While the redevelopment means that many of the old cafés and restaurants have fallen by the wayside, he thinks they, “have a lifespan of their own — and all those people who had cafés have retired,” which makes room for, “a balance” of new arrivals.
Of these, there is KERB, the brigade of brilliant street food trucks situated in Granary Square on weekdays, which Lander says “draws people up who might have got slightly bored of or can’t get into Caravan or Dishoom, and they know that they’re going to get well fed… I find that we can leave the short term innovation to KERB and then we can leave the longer term choices to the restaurateurs.”
When Lander began consulting for the King’s Cross area, his idea for dining in the neighbourhood, “was that we’d have certain needs to fill and we’d find the best candidates to do that. So we’d have Caravan for coffee, Vinoteca for wine, Dishoom for Indian food. That was the principle. And it has carried on — although of course it is different now.”
It is not only how dining has changed, but who has influence. “Years ago, when I was first asked for my opinion, it was listened to intently. Today, with so many different opinions, and so many ways of expressing them, mine is just one of many… it is because everyone eats, everyone is an expert!” Indeed, while Instagram is jammed with thousands of people endlessly declaring their obsession with the latest cheese toastie, Lander is no babbler, never once rushing an answer. Yet his passion for and knowledge of the industry is palpable. “It is an exciting time for restaurants and to be a restaurateur,” he says, “but you have to be born an optimist!” He would like those planning restaurants to appreciate, “that it will absorb a lot of time, cash, and brain power, negotiating and finalising the lease and getting to the stage of actually opening for business.”
Restaurants, he feels, are entering into a risky phase: “Firstly, there are just so many restaurants now. And I believe that so far we have only seen the tip of the iceberg of the consequences from Brexit, i.e. a weaker pound and [EU] staff going home. This will accelerate, sadly. I think Uber Eats and Deliveroo will also eat into a restaurant’s margins.”
That said, arguably starting any new business is somewhat of a gamble, but Lander points to two things to temper this, that budding restaurateurs should be aware of. The first is the rise of Dry January and the importance of having, “really good [alcohol] alternatives.” The second being that, “unless you’re prepared to accept vegetarianism stroke veganism is here to stay, you’re failing in your duty.”
There are further opportunities with crowdfunding which Lander calls, “a fantastic idea,” as, “it gives customers a share in the restaurant… if you can get two to three thousand people putting in ten pounds each, you’ve got your first six months taken care of.” But he thinks a “certain track record” is key. “I’d have found it more difficult to fund my second book [On The Menu, crowdfunded through Unbound] that way, had I not done the first one, and I think Barrafina [who on 14 June initiated a crowdfunding campaign for its upcoming King’s Cross site] would have had terrible trouble crowdfunding its first [place].”
Finally, does he think restaurateurs in 2018 prioritise their guests? To this he smiles, pauses, then asks if I’ve been to Hide, Ollie Dabbous’ new restaurant in Piccadilly. For Lander, it’s an example of a “beautiful” place where, “money has been spent on the right things,” including acoustic panels in the ceiling, cork on the walls and comfortable seats. “It’s owned by a billionaire who obviously has very good taste and knows what he wants — and what people need… He’s investing squillions but he’s investing it wisely.”
While the restaurant scene has changed radically with new trends each year, one thing remains: when it comes to restoring customers, comfy seats never go out of fashion.
This article first appeared in the summer 2018 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.