I don’t know if anyone has written with scholarly exactitude about the changes I am about to report, but broadly speaking, they describe a real phenomenon. Three decades ago, in the 1980s, if you wanted a sit-down meal of acceptable quality in London, your main cultural choices were Chinese, Indian, French or Italian. For takeaways, you had burgers, kebabs, and fish and chips. All these categories are still thriving, and most have notably improved. But what has happened since has been nothing short of a localised cultural (and commercial) revolution. The range of cuisines from every corner of the world across the whole of London, and at almost all price points and levels of quality, has grown to an extraordinary size. An unscientific approach (dividing the number from this page’s urban area figure with these results) will tell us that today there are 17,343 “restaurants” in London. Meaning a mere 564 inhabitants per restaurant - many more if you include tourists. By comparison, New York has 761, Paris 803, and Madrid 909. Tokyo of course, famous for its insatiable gluttony, has a paltry 256 people per restaurant. How this is economically sustainable is a mystery. But this superficial method shows that London now has food everywhere.
I am certain that in 1985, the number of Londoners per restaurant, however defined, would be much higher than today. You could trace the growth of every kind of cuisine, from Polish to Portuguese, Brazilian to Belgian, Swedish to Sri Lankan, Nepalese to Nigerian, Japanese to Jamaican, and you would find increases in number as well as quality. Now all major world cuisines are represented, as well as almost all minor ones, and there are markets and shops selling every ingredient necessary, except perhaps guinea pigs for the delicious Andean traditional meal of cuy.
Now the cultural phenomenon I want to talk about relates to Spanish food. In the 1980s, and possibly even into the 1990s, the very concept would have brought to mind vague ideas of “tapas”, inspired by low-cost sun-and-sangría-drenched seaside holidays or possibly, at a stretch, a tortilla. For those of us who loved and appreciated the diversity and quality of food from Spain, it was very frustrating to see how other European countries, such as Italy and France, had exported their food culture so effectively, that people even cooked basic dishes at home, such as spaghetti, or bought croissants from a local deli to enjoy for breakfast.
But things have changed beyond recognition. The so-called “small plates” revolution is either the result of, or the cause of, a major upheaval in the Spanish food scene in the capital. There are now dozens of Spanish or Spanish-inspired places to eat in London, and the quality is higher than ever.
This has, in turn, led to a much greater understanding of the diversity, richness and versatility of wines from Spain. All the good places serve wines from less well-known denominations as well as the traditionally recognised ones. Some regions and varieties have now entered the vernacular, such as albariño (practically unknown a decade ago), or Priorat. This is a refreshing change from the dark days of the 1980s and the positively barren days of the 1970s.
To give credit to two prehistorical pioneers, Casa Don Carlos in Brighton (no website) and Restaurant Galicia in Portobello Road (also, predictably, no website), are both excellent establishments within their own category: basic, simple, unpretentious restaurants, with the requisite red or blue gingham-checked tablecloths and such staple classics as pulpo a feira, pollo al ajillo and albóndigas. These august establishments have been around since the 1980s and have survived more than two decades of indifference to Spanish food, and now they are surviving a stratospheric rise in quality and level of dining experience which is blossoming all around them. They refuse to compromise on their style, faithful to their origins, and robustly faithful to their affordable prices.
So where should one go for outstanding Spanish food in London? Arguably the most impressive experience is to be had at Cambio de Tercio, led by the genial Abel Lusa, who has an empire of Spanish-themed establishments in West London. Cambio de Tercio is far and away the most sophisticated and humorous Spanish restaurant in the capital, possibly in the United Kingdom. I have it on good authority that Michelin inspectors have offered Abel a star in the past on condition he put in white tablecloths and remove the music - an offer he has rejected on the grounds that his restaurant is full every night and that’s how the customers like it. The wine list is tremendous, ranging from basic table wines to Spain’s most coveted and expensive cult wines, from practically every denomination.
Another major pioneer is Moro, in Exmouth Market, established in 1997 by Sam & Sam Clark, inspired not just by Spain but also North Africa and Turkey - a kind of tribute to the Mediterranean. Next door they also run a more informal place, Morito. On the more prosaic end of the scale, there is Barrafina, inspired directly by the legendary Cal Pep in Barcelona, and by any standard a fantastic eating experience. The Brindisa company, which has done so much to bring fine Spanish ingredients to London, also runs four splendid and hugely popular tapas restaurants - very much a sign of the explosion of tapas in the city.
The celebrated food writer and chef José Pizarro also has a great walk-in tapas bar and a more formal one on the same street in Bermondsey. In Soho, spurred perhaps by the success of Barrafina, there are a few splendid little ones: Barrica, Copita, and Salt Yard, for example. This last one is part of a successful group of similarly-themed establishments: Ember Yard, Dehesa and Opera Tavern. Further out, there is Boqueria, Angels & Gypsies, and the Ibérica group.
And the wines? It’s fair to say that with this explosion of restaurants, there’s an explosion of flavours, and wines to go with them. Gone are the days of Marqués de Cáceres being the most adventurous wine on the menu. A glance at the wine lists from these exciting new eateries will show a resurgence of sherry as a wine that complements salty and oily foods beautifully, and wines from lesser-known regions such as Yecla, Calatayud, Bullas, Mallorca and the Canary Islands. Regions such as Rueda, Jumilla and Rías Baixas are now present in almost every Spanish wine list, alongside the classics such as Rioja and Ribera del Duero. And customers are becoming interested in varieties as well, with the growing presence of rarer grapes such as Listán Negro, Mencía and Treixadura.
Thirty years ago this was inconceivable. Twenty years ago only hispanophiles knew about these wines and foods. Ten years ago the scene began to emerge. Now, it’s possible for anyone in London to enjoy a slice of Spain on a plate and in the glass.