Over the last couple of weeks, while taking my family to as many restaurants as possible (more on that in last week’s column), I’ve been thinking a lot about what the London dining scene looks like. I think it can be so easy to group many modern, much-loved, Euro-centric restaurants into their own individual categories, but I would argue that the small plates wine bar has a view on most of them thanks to its prolific and speedy domination of dining out in London.
Where, and how, did this kind of dining take off? Why did it capture the London diner’s consciousness so entirely? I suppose we have Paris to largely thank. The natural leaning, sparse, hole-in-the-wall Cave du Vins were taking off there pretty thoroughly when Eric Narioo opened Terroirs in central London in 2008. Supposedly pulling influence from its predecessors across the pond, Terroirs was a defining moment for London dining when it opened. There may have been places doing it before this (‘it’ being a bar that focused on natural wine paired with small, sharing-style plates of food), but Terroirs put this style of drinking and dining and casual conviviality on the map.
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Just a few years later saw the opening of Sager + Wilde in 2012, an enduring destination that has continued to define London’s wine bar scene with its two East London locations. It is seemingly impossible to talk about natural wine in London without mentioning Michael Sager in the same breath. His reach not only includes the two wine bars themselves, but also an import business and guidance over other restaurants’ wine lists. The year before saw 40 Maltby Street open its doors, creating a wine bar and restaurant that consistently tops must-visit lists to this day, and quietly influencing the dining scene in more ways than most are aware. Not long after this came P.Franco, the first restaurant in the Noble Fine Liquor group, following the success of the eponymous Broadway Market wine shop which opened in 2012.
These early adopters paved the way for a style of dining that is awash throughout London. In a great article earlier this year, Imogen West-Knights dissected the concept of the small plate and asked the question: is it going out of fashion? The answer she reached wasn’t definitive, but it skewed yes. After a fortnight of trying to summarise the London dining scene for my family as succinctly and entirely as possible I would counteranswer: No.
It’s so delicious I don’t even feel incensed at sharing one bulbous piece of pasta between multiple people; these are small plates after all, and ordering your own raviolo is decidedly antisocial
Take, for example, Leroy. A recent meal there was nothing short of a joy. Rising out of the ashes of its Michelin-starred predecessor, Ellory (yes, really) in 2018, Leroy had a slightly more laid back approach. It calls itself a wine bar. It has a concise, seasonal menu of (you guessed it) small plates designed to be shared. You could just as easily come here and drink five glasses of wine and eat two plates of food as you could drink two glasses of wine and eat five plates of food. But I do believe doing the former would be an almighty shame when what is coming out of the kitchen is so good. Delicately spiced devilled eggs whet the palate wonderfully, and give a definitive hint of what’s to come: delicious, simple food done well. Vesuvio tomatoes arrive in a pool of grassy olive oil, accompanied by black olives, broad beans, gloriously creamy feta and buckwheat kernels. See: simple (but not really, because it takes a certain kind of skill to combine ingredients in such an impressive manner).
Then there’s juicy slices of peach nestled among a pile of mozzarella and draped with a luminous sheet of prosciutto. It’s the kind of plate of food you’d think ‘I can arrange this at home’ and yet, despite many efforts, never quite get right. Things kick up a notch with the gnudi (light, pillowy, and perfectly balanced with a roasted tomato sauce) and the chicken raviolo (essentially one enormous ravioli), which comes with a beautifully balanced sauce, topped with sweetcorn and girolles. It is the epitome of early autumn. You definitely couldn’t make it at home. It’s so delicious I don’t even feel incensed at sharing one bulbous piece of pasta between multiple people; these are small plates after all, and ordering your own raviolo is decidedly antisocial. I left this meal so full I had to walk home to give my digestive system a head start, making it something of a middle finger to those who claim a small plates meal is never enough to fill you up (see: me 80% of the time).
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Elsewhere in the Noble Fine Liquor group you have Bright, which launched onto the restaurant scene in 2018 to great fanfare that hasn’t ever really quieted down. Again, these ‘small plates’ are really quite large – like a plate of two crispy sardines which is more than enough for five of us to nibble on (incidentally, a terrible number of people to come to a sharing-style restaurant with, I’d say four is optimal). Or the spaghetti al tonno which arrived looking deceptively small and ended up being surprisingly easy to share. We had 9 plates between five of us (less than if we’d had a starter and main each) and departed wonderfully satiated.
There’s Top Cuvee, where the Highbury outpost holds a little stronger to the restaurant side of the wine bar theme, where as their Bethnal Green Cave Cuvee leans firmly into the wines-accompanied-by-some-casual-nibbles-that-might-equate-to-a-full-meal-if-you-try-very-hard stereotype. Brawn, which finely straddles the restaurant/small plates wine bar line, leaning vaguely into the former purely for the fact you could come and have your own starter, main and dessert if you so desired. The sadly recently closed Laughing Heart on Hackney Road had a large part to play on the rise and rise of the small plates wine bar, and Quality Wines, the 2018 addition to its neighbour, Quality Chop House, acts as a wine shop in the day and serves up Nick Brahmam’s incredible food in the evening. It is a consistent London favourite, with a loyal following that shows no sign of ebbing (despite the fact you’ll have to share your food with your dining companions and there is no main course in sight).
And yet, the small plates wine bar continues to find its detractors. I think this is a two-pronged issue. Firstly, some people simply want their dinner and bugger off anyone else who hopes to get a fork in edgeways. Fair enough – I can respect it. But secondly, and arguably more prominently, is the fact that many of these establishments have their heads so far up their own rears that they can’t see the light of day. Their small plates are small. Their food is underwhelming. The reception is frosty and, unless you look like you’ve strolled off the rack at Arket, they don’t seem to really want you there. It’s a shame, really, when within this definitive yet broad category, there are some restaurants (sorry, bars) serving up some genuinely great food with some thoughtful and unique wines in a wonderfully relaxed environment. It is here, where I believe the niche finds itself best served. The small plate is dead, long live the small plate.