Sat Bains. Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. The Waterside Inn. There have always been great, nay, world-class Michelin-starred restaurants outside of London. But for years the capital has dominated Britain’s culinary scene, an embarrassment of riches when it comes to excellent places to eat few if any other UK cities have been able to emulate.

And yet, for all the city’s breadth of innovation and perceived level of sophistication, beyond the M25 things have been shifting. Lift your eyes outside of the London bubble for a moment, and you’ll soon see, the city no longer holds the monopoly on good food.

Not that the lure of London isn’t compelling. For myself, living in Camberwell, writing about food, it was very easy to be caught up in micro-trends and the pursuit of what’s new and what’s next; to believe the city is the only, or at least, the best place for culinary creativity. It wasn’t until I physically shifted my perspective – moving hundreds of miles north to resettle in Edinburgh – that I recognised there’s so much more happening beyond London’s orbit than I had imagined.

Likewise, until he was approached to take on the space that would go on to become Holm in Somerset, Nicholas Balfe, chef director of Salon and Levan in Brixton and Larry’s in Peckham had never seriously thought he’d launch another restaurant, never mind one in the countryside.

‘We went to see it because we were desperate to escape London for a while at the end of lockdown, to be honest,’ he says. ‘It was a complete shell. But we sat in it, drank tea from flasks and ate sausages the owners had brought for us, and we knew we had to do it.’

It wasn’t just the fortuitous timing of an opportunity – living in London through the pandemic had, as for many people, focused his mind on the need for more space for his growing family.

We were desperate to escape London at the end of lockdown

‘I'm still involved with my restaurants in London, I still love being part of them, and I love the London dining scene,’ he says. ‘But as I’ve grown up, basically, what I'm looking for in my life personally is slightly different.’

It’s a similar story for Laura Christie, who together with Selin Kiazim runs Oklava. She took the opportunity of inheriting money to move her family to Cheshire, where last year she opened Linden Stores. But she sees her move as one with wider implications for the restaurant industry as a whole.

‘It’s important for hospitality that we don’t lose skills,’ she says. ‘One of the specific problems with hospitality in London is when people have kids, particularly women, because they just cannot manage childcare and the fact that the level of pay is not enough to make the right living space viable. In Audlem she’s close to a fast train to London if she needs it, but also to grandparents for childcare, and a more relaxed pace of working life.

It would be easy to point to Covid as the inciting incident for these big moves, but Stefan Chomka, editor of Big Hospitality and judge and presenter of the National Restaurant Awards, believes lots has been changing in the background for several years, creating an environment right for chefs to feel they can establish themselves successfully somewhere other than London.

‘There’s a whole generation of chefs who’ve been trained up at excellent restaurants, like L’Enclume or Sat Bains, who have never worked in London, have no interest in working in London and who are now setting up their own restaurants,’ he says. He points to Alex Bond at Alchemilla in Nottingham and Gareth Ward at Ynshir in North Wales as examples.

With notable talent outside of the capital, running their own restaurants – and successfully too, bagging Michelin stars and other accolades – there’s the idea that that could be possible for young chefs in London looking to strike out on their own as well. And practically, it’s easier than launching in London. Dean Parker opened Celentanos in Glasgow last year having worked alongside Robin Gill across all his restaurants for a decade.

There’s a whole generation of chefs who have never worked in London

‘I always wanted to have my own thing,’ he says. ‘But in London, the only way you can open a restaurant is if you’ve got serious backers behind you or to plug away in an ‘up-and-coming’ neighbourhood for a long time. We met like-minded people with a similar vision here in Glasgow, and when the opportunity came up we were pinching ourselves that we would be able to actually do it.’

In a similar way Tom Tsappis and Matilda Ruffle were able to make the leap from East Dulwich supper club to restaurant – by moving almost 500 miles north to Killiecrankie House, a restaurant with rooms on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park. ‘Scotland just offers more bang for your buck,’ says Ruffle. ‘I already had ties here. And also, I think what we’re trying to do is slightly different to what exists here already. It’s easier to stand out.’

That ability to stand out is a large part of the draw. For years the received wisdom was that to get noticed as a chef you had to do your time in London and rise through the ranks. ‘But social media has really enabled chefs to show people what they can do,’ says Chomka. ‘Now we can all see what’s going on in Lancashire, or Northumberland, places where you wouldn’t otherwise have known what was happening unless you were really tapped into that scene.’

In addition to that, Christie points to the number of chefs on television as playing a part in shifting the culture around eating out. ‘In London you don’t have lots of space so you socialise outside your flat in restaurants for example. That’s not true elsewhere,’ she says. ‘But food has become a form of entertainment thanks to programmes like The Great British Menu and that change isn’t exclusive to London.’

It would be unfair to say that there hasn’t been a desire for good restaurants and fine dining outside of London until recently – as Christie quips ‘it’s not all solely Wetherspoons beyond the M25’ – but perhaps there’s a renewed expectation that you’ll be able to eat well closer to home.

Luke French, chef and co-owner of Joro sees this as a moment of opportunity, both for chefs wanting to make their mark, and for the cultural life of Britain’s cities.
‘I’ve been in Sheffield for 12 years, and it’s a super low key city for restaurants,’ he says. ‘But there are so many vacant spaces here and so much potential. If more of us open and are successful, it can only bring more people to the city.’

What we’re trying to do is different to what exists here already. It’s easier to stand out

You only need look at the success of London chefs and restaurateurs who’ve opened in Cornwall – Tom Adams at Coombeshead Farm, David Gingell and Jeremie Cometto’s Fowey restaurants Fitzroy and North Street Kitchen, Rick and Katie Toogood’s Prawn on the Lawn, Craig Tregonning at Temple in Bude (building on the reputations of Rick Stein, Paul Ainsworth and Nathan Outlaw), and the list goes on – to see the impact critical mass can have in creating a food scene in a place.
Bruton in Somerset is another hub of restaurant activity - Balfe’s restaurant Holm is half an hour away, and Merlin Labron Johnson’s Osip joins Roth Bar and Grill and At The Chapel in forming a food lovers’ holiday circuit.

For Labron Johnson the appeal of moving out of London wasn’t so much to be part of a different ‘scene’ as it was about getting closer to the produce.
‘Being in the countryside has fundamentally changed the way I cook,’ he says. ‘Because in London restaurants all buy produce from the same suppliers, but here it’s much more exciting and unique because we can grow our own vegetables, there are three incredible dairies within walking distance of us, and we just cook with what’s available in this area.’

Access to produce, relationships with local farmers and fishermen, bakers and butchers, is a theme that comes up time and time again. As Julia Zardo Paterlini, Head Chef at Hearth at Heckfield Place explains: ‘The closer connection to the produce allows us to create a very close bond with growers, to really understand seasons, to watch produce grow and develop, have a say in how you want it, and understand the challenges that come with farming.’

She adds: ‘Ultimately I just appreciate and respect the produce so much more. The food makes sense because it goes along with its environment.’
Nevertheless, London hasn’t lost all its potency, and its influence is still shaping fine dining across the country. Former Spring chef Lloyd Morse and James Snowdon, previously of the Harwood Arms, opened The Palmerston in Edinburgh’s west end because, as Morse puts it, ‘what I love about London restaurants – casual dining with cracking wine – just didn’t really exist here.’

For him it echoed his move to London from Sydney around 12 years ago, where restaurants like Koya were introducing the city to a more relaxed style of fine dining already established in Australia. ‘London’s got such a concentration of restaurants, it makes sense that a boom will happen and then spread out.’
‘But where London can feel like a sprint,’ Snowdon adds, ‘Being in Edinburgh is more like a marathon – a longer game, slower paced and with a supportive community cheering you on. It’s a nice vibe.’

London’s largesse is the UK’s gain – for diners and for those working in hospitality too. Chefs can continue in their careers with a different quality of life, champion farmers and producers, shift the conversation about how we eat, and contribute to the life and regeneration of our cities. People living outside London no longer need to feel shortchanged by the dining options available to them. And for those living in London, there’s the delight of discovering that, if you do ever dare go beyond the North Circular – whether for a weekend or a lifetime – you’ll be able to eat, and eat well.