It's a blustery weeknight in London, but 33, a new eatery in a fashionable bit of the West End, is packed. Food murals--giant versions of 17th century still lifes--adorn the yellow walls, a reminder that 33's owner, Derek Johns, once headed up Old Master paintings at Sotheby's. He's relishing his new role, air-kissing guests he knows and fussing over those he doesn't. It's a chic crowd, including the odd celebrity. Johns glides over to Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood, who has just polished off a dish of caviar ($54) and is starting his entree: lamb fillet with peppermint and zucchini crust ($30). "Yeah, the food in Britain is definitely better than it used to be," says Wood. "Now you can get good caviar everywhere."
Wood's definition of good food is not everyone's. Still, who doesn't agree that Britain's grub is better--a lot better? One Euro-joke says that hell is a place where all the cooks are British. Today, an emerging generation of British chefs, many trained by European masters, is ending that reputation.
While Wood tucks into his lamb, I eat roasted sea bass covered with potato scales on a bed of "mushy" peas. It epitomizes Modern British cookery--an absence of cream, but a comforting hint of nursery food. "It's really just fish and chips," says 33's chef, Sean Davis.
"FIRST LOVE." Not to me. This is nothing like the deep-fried fish with heavy batter, soaked in vinegar and wrapped in newspaper, from my childhood. Back then, spaghetti came in tins, and we thought al dente was a Chicago gangster.
Johns, too, was raised on a school diet of overcooked meat and veg. Then he discovered the tome that shook Britain: A Book of Mediterranean Food by Elizabeth David, extolling fresh ingredients, lightly cooked. "It was like first love. I couldn't believe it," says Johns, now 49. That book, plus an influx of European chefs, triggered Britain's foodie revolution. "The French stormed in and showed us that there was life after bangers, baked beans, and mash," says restaurant consultant Philip Bailey.
33 does not yet have a Michelin star, but 18 other London restaurants do. Three have three stars, giving London more than any other European city except Paris, which has five. Twenty years ago, there were no three-star restaurants in London; 10 years ago, there was just one. "British chefs have developed confidence," says the chief inspector of the Michelin Hotel & Restaurant Guide to Great Britain & Ireland. "They no longer slavishly copy the French."
These days, London is gripped by restaurant fever, with new venues opening as fast as mussels in boiling water. Forget intimate candlelit dinners: 33 is theater--"not a place to bring one's mistress," says Johns.
On a weekday afternoon, my taxi speeds through London. I've come from lunch at Kartouche, a Modern British restaurant, where I dined on succulent seared scallops with satay sauce on a "tropical" noodle salad ($10, starter portion). "The term Modern British gives one an excuse to cook anything," said David Phelps, Kartouche's 30-year-old managing director.
Kartouche is a favorite grazing place for the jeunesse doree of Chelsea, Fulham, and Knightsbridge, and is said to be where Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan wooed Sir James Goldsmith's daughter Jemima. Regulars include actor Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley, now dining separately, confides Phelps.
STAR CHEF. Next stop is the elegant Hyde Park Hotel, home of The Restaurant Marco Pierre White. Known simply as The Restaurant, it's run by White, 33, the first British-born chef to rate three stars. His menu includes Dover sole with caviar, beignet of oysters, and croquante of fennel with veloute of champagne--all for $142, including first course and dessert. A visiting American fund manager recently told me that meal was the best he ever ate in London. His bill for eight: nearly $2,000. But one can get a prix fixe lunch for $46.
It's mid-afternoon following a busy lunch, and I find the 6-foot-4-inch Marco Pierre White sprawled on an elegant sofa, wearing Timberland boots and starched white overalls. As we talk, I'm aware of the legendary temper of this Scots-Italian. Rumor tells of his spats with actor Michael Caine and the chef at Aubergine, a restaurant that books four weeks in advance. "Arrogance made me successful," he says. I ask about his plans for a 220-seat restaurant in the Criterion room in Piccadilly, a mosaic-encrusted hall that has been an eating landmark for generations. "It's the most beautiful dining room in England," he says. "And what," I ask, "of Sir Terence Conran and Mezzo," referring to a key rival's latest fashionable eatery? White's answer is laced with more expletives than there are truffles in foie gras.
I grab a cab for my final stop, in Soho, London's adult entertainment district. These days, media types congregate at its hip cafes. Style guru Sir Terence Conran, 64, meets me at Mezzo, which he opened last September. His rumpled linen suit contrasts with the sleek lines and early ocean-liner feel of the restaurant. The 700-seat Mezzo, Europe's largest restaurant, employs 100 chefs and nearly 200 waiters. Sir Terence preaches democratic dining, serving what he calls "robust" food. I feel pretty robust myself after grilled poussin with crisp pancetta and thyme and mashed potatoes.
BETTER THAN PARIS? I ask Sir Terence about The Restaurant. He's circumspect: "I admire Marco's food, but it's for the elitist few. Our food is gutsy. It's for the duchess and her chauffeur." Any duchesses been in lately with their chauffeurs? "No, but Sir Evelyn de Rothschild and his wife were here recently, and I happen to know that a couple of young waiters were eating here that night, too."
Conran, founder and former chairman of Habitat Group, a chain of home-furnishings stores, is London's new restaurant king. His six eateries brought in nearly $40 million last year, he says. Next up: a 350-seater in the old Blue Road garage on the King's Road.
Robert Edge, London-based managing director of CIBC Wood Gundy Corp., a Canadian energy company, says London is now a more exciting place to dine than Paris. "British chefs have taken the bit between their teeth," he says. "In Paris, they have become set in their ways." Oliver Peyton, owner of the Atlantic Bar & Grill, a subterranean Art Deco eatery frequented by Madonna, plans to open a Modern British restaurant in Paris. The French, he says, can learn something from him.