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Frieze London 2022

Jonathan Nunn Dines in London’s Timewarps

From Oslo Court to Sweetings, the food writer celebrates the restaurants that take us to another age

BY Jonathan Nunn in Frieze London & Frieze Masters , Frieze Week Magazine | 10 OCT 22

All restaurants are, of course, portals into other places, other worlds. But in London today, a whole industry has built up around the promise of frictionlessly entering these other worlds at will. We walk into a restaurant like we’d put on a VR headset, expecting to be beamed into Bangkok, to Paris, to Rome, to Taipei – perhaps even to a city that we have never imagined. I can think of two such venues which have opened this year. One is a big-name restaurant which copies – trinket by trinket, menu item by menu item – the vibe of a Florentine trattoria so slavishly, so indebted to the original, that you could swear it was Florence! The other, a restaurant which is part of a street food market, is swaddled in mottled blue, decorative bowls, chintz and strip lighting, all to recreate the feeling of being in Thailand. More or less ridiculous in their effect, these kind of restaurants offers, in the words food writer James Hansen, ‘A reminder of a place you have never been’. Restaurant as teleporter. Restaurant as set design. Visiting these restaurants can be like watching an interminable series of Marvel films, with nominally different characters, but all relying on the same special effects, the same tropes, the same basic plots.

Illustration by Zena Kay
Hunan restaurant. Illustration: Zena Kay

However, there’s also another kind of restaurant, one that feels like a portal not (just) through space, but through time. I believe every worthwhile establishment in the city can be placed in this category. I write about these restaurants in the anthology I recently edited, London Feeds Itself (2022), and they are a genuinely diverse bunch. Some are what you might call ‘diaspora restaurants’, serving a specific community in a specific area of the city. They freeze cuisine in time. In the same way that Los Angeles’s Koreatown is an accurate representation of 1960s Seoul, these London eateries offer time capsules, formed by 1970s East-African Gujaratis, 1950s Jamaicans, post-partition Punjabis and Pakistanis. Others are what you might call ‘caffs’. Greasy spoons, pie-and-mash shops, cabbies’ shelters: places to go back to a London that once was – before foodie-ism, before burrata and smudged desserts – where food was an everyday ritual, spiritual as well as physical. Before taking the lid off a meat pie soaked in electric-green parsley liquor, people like my dad will still close their eyes, like they’re praying.

Somewhere in this taxonomy is what might be termed the ‘old-school’ restaurant. Though in many ways the polar opposite of Lebanese bakeries on industrial estates, I’m just as obsessed with this type of place. I love peering into Wiltons, famously the favourite restaurant of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and wondering if the food has changed at all since the time that she wasn’t dead. A wealthy and generous benefactor recently took me to The Ritz, where I found myself seduced, against my will, by the pomp and circumstance, the opulence, the richness in every sense, the increasingly rare experience of being in a high-end restaurant that without its own fermentation lab. If the revolution comes, I would happily be guillotined if the last thing I ate were The Ritz’s tableside crêpes Suzette.

Oslo restaurant by Zena Kay
Oslo Court. Illustration: Zena Kay

Most of all, I love Oslo Court, an absurd cream puff of a restaurant in St. John’s Wood. Not far from Regent’s Park, it’s on the ground floor of an International Style housing block built in1937, but its food is firmly of the 1980s, when a pair of Spanish chef brothers took over the running from a Yugoslav-Welsh couple. It is perhaps London’s most reviewed eatery, written up by pretty much every major critic, because doing so allows the writer to meditate on such grand things as ‘the meaning of the restaurant’ and the nature of this unchanging institution in a city that does nothing but change. ‘Why do people come here?’, they wonder, tasting the food which ranges from mediocre to un-fuck-up-able (there’s only so much you can do to Steak Diane). Ultimately, they reflect that restaurants are actually not about food at all, but a comforting fantasy: that the draw is a place where things are precisely as you remember them, where grapefruit segments are on the menu, where legendary septuagenarian waiter Neil Heshmat recommends the best dessert on his trolley, which he’s saved just for you. Oslo Court could be London’s best restaurant, but only if you’re in on the joke.

Fantasy also animates many of the Cantonese restaurants that are remnants from the golden age of Chinatowns in London. They are the last genre of restaurants which, as a group, still use theatrical flourishes to establish a thread of time back to another era: ironed tablecloths, folded napkins, lazy Susans, menus longer than a confession, the mandatory serving of orange segments. Hunan in Pimlico shares some of these theatrics, but sits gastronomically outside the mainstream. A completely sui-generis restaurant when chef Y.S. Peng opened it in 1982, 40 years later, its dishes look very much like a tasting menu. While most tasting menus exist to serve the ego of the chef, at Hunan it feels like an act of generosity, that the kitchen has listened to likes and dislikes over the years, and based the whole menu around the diner in a series of single bites. Not everything always works at Hunan, but that is also part of its charm; if you don’t like one dish, another quickly arrives to take its place, an unstoppable rhythm of Morse code dots and dashes. By being unlike any other restaurant, it gets to the heart of the very reason why we fall in love with any restaurant.

Illustration by Zena Kay
Sweetings restaurant. Illustration: Zena Kay

Recently, I took a working-man’s lunch at Sweetings, a sliver of a seafood restaurant in the City that feels like being in the cabin of an old ship. People have eaten in this room for 130 years, and it’s palpable. A signet ‘S’ is carved into the chairs; a map of the Thames from the 1600s and pictures of gamebirds line the walls; metal tankards are filled with frothy cocktails of Black Velvet (Guinness and champagne), their spume flowing over and above the rim.

I don’t know why it has taken so long for me to go here – perhaps the fear that it would be too old school, too much of a throwback to a time when London didn’t know how to cook. 

I needn’t have worried: the two sliced of floppy, buttered brown bread, served gratis, mean an order of whitebait is necessary to make some impromptu fish sandwiches. A tureen of what I assume is infinite tartare sauce cuts through it all. Then a huge, seething fish pie – white fish, salmon, smoked fish, classic – a side portion of spinach, lightly buttered, served on a segmented metal plate that reminds me of Indian thalis served in London suburbs. I wonder if I need dessert and am won over by the words ‘steamed syrup sponge’ which comes with a choice of custard, cream or ice cream. (I choose cream, but I am tempted to order all three.) It arrives looking perfect: a baby’s head of soft sponge and sickly sweet sticky syrup, christened at the table with cream. There isn’t a person who attended school in London for whom this pudding wouldn’t transport them instantly back to their childhood.

Next to me, an American is eating his meal. It’s clear he hasn’t been to Sweetings before, but he knows exactly what to order because he’s planned it from the guidebooks: a Welsh rarebit, skate and black butter, a tankard of Black Velvet. He talks to the waitress about the emptiness of the restaurant. It’s normally busier, she says, but the Queen has just died. One version of London is passing out of memory, another beginning. He looks down to his paper A-Z (I didn’t realize they still existed), and starts planning his next move. In our own ways, it strikes me, we are both looking for a London that is only partly still there.

Main image: Oslo Court. Illustration: Zena Kay