The age of starched white tablecloths, snooty waiters, stiffness and far-too-many tasting courses is dying a death and giving way to a more relaxed style of dining that is permeating the industry from fine dining to fast food.
This trend is by no means brand new, and has been slow-releasing for years – restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin wrote one of the first, compelling commentaries on the death of fine dining back in 2011 – providing an anecdote of a time-consumuing, extortionate and altogether uncomfortable Michelin-starred meal that felt much too familiar.
At a similar time, Aussie chef Cameron Emirali and his business partner Luke Wilson opened the now famous 10 Greek Street; one of the first in a wave cool, casual dining spots to hit Soho. Often with rebellious stripped-back interiors and heavily tattooed waiting staff, this was a definite u-turn from quality dining as we knew it.
Three years on, and due to the success of the first, Cameron and Luke have opened their second restaurant 8 Hoxton Square in super-trendy East London. Cameron describes his Hoxton restaurant as ‘a little more grown up.’ ‘Greek Street is a bit faster pace – it’s smaller, so we do more covers there, but it’s in-and-out, while here is a little bit more relaxed.’
And get this: they actually take bookings for both lunch and dinner. Banishing bookings is a typical trend for chic restaurants that fall into the casual-dining bracket – Russell Norman of the Polpo empire is its pioneer, and claims that this method encourages a younger, more relaxed and varied crowd to dine at his restaurants. But is this evolving?
The menu, which may be tweaked a few times daily, is on-trend simply stated and made up of unfussy dishes that automatically appeal – like their chargrilled prawns with broad beans, salsa verde, fennel and watercress, the sauces mopped up with a generous portion of their complimentary house breads.
With an extensive number of small plates served all day as well as attractive mains, starters and sides, the diner gets to determine how they eat – whether that’s embracing the casual-dining trend for sharing small plates or ordering a more traditional three courses each.
When asked why they decided to craft their food offering in this way, Cameron simply says ‘that’s just how my business partner and I like to eat.’ He continues, ‘that might also be my background. Living in Australia and training there, you can eat in really good places just in a pair of shorts and it not be weird.’
‘Feeling like you leave the restaurant without being ripped off is also hugely important to us.’ Cameron adds. I can see that. On my last visit, a friend and I ate starters and small plates and drank cocktails to our hearts’ content amounting to a £50 bill.
Across town in wealthiest Mayfair, another interpretation of this casual-dining trend has popped up. Its neighbours The Ritz, The Wolseley and, of course, older sister Murano, Angela Hartnett’s Café Murano on St James Street feels like a gateway to the world of casual dining for those who are used to counting Michelin stars, or a higher-end casual-dining destination for those already ingratiated in the market. Either way, it feels new new wave.
Like 8 Hoxton Square, Café Murano takes bookings; a more suited policy for their slightly older clientele – their regulars a mixed group of artists (from the nearby Royal Academy of Arts), aristocrats and financiers who, according to general manager Zoe Charlton-Brown, take pleasure in sharing the space with the younger crowd who flock there.
The menu of northern-Italian delights is not cheap but reasonably priced – especially their set menu that advertises 2 courses for £18 or 3 courses for £22 – and, much like 8 Hoxton Square and other popular casual-dining contenders, they focus each dish on three or four key ingredients – abolishing fuss and frills in favour of simple precision. Their gently chargrilled yellowfin tuna served with just bulgar wheat and succulent datterino sprinkled with sea-salt flakes is a perfect example.
According to Zoe, casual dining is about flexibility. ‘I went to a restaurant recently and I asked for salt and pepper and was basically sneered at, and at another place I went to I wanted a Diet Coke and was told they only serve sparkling water or apple juice. How ridiculous is that? Being able to have my main as a starter or my starter as a main, that’s casual dining to me.’
She says that part of the joy of working with Angela Hartnett or Café Murano’s head chef Sam Williams is that they understand this. ‘A big part of what we aim to be is what our customers want us to be.’ A new and welcome ideology.
The casual-dining revolution has come about in the wake of economic recession and a simultaneous obsession with food – seeing us eat out more but for less. And restaurants like 8 Hoxton Square and Café Murano prove that this trend is not just for kids, and that it’s here for keeps. There will always be a place for a special, celebratory meal but will it involve liquid nitrogen, crumbers and a heightened air of pretension? We think not.
A perfect finish: homemade salted-caramel, coffee and chocolate ice cream at Cafe Murano