Reckon that British restaurants were bad until recently? That London is at the center of a culinary revolution like the Britpop musical wave of the ’90s?
Simon Hopkinson isn’t so sure.
“There are certainly more restaurants,” the chef says. He’s been a food-world hero for decades but was little known outside it until he became an unlikely TV favorite with “The Good Cook” in 2011 and more recently “Simon Hopkinson Cooks.”
“In the ’70s and early ’80s, I remember some extraordinary places outside London where individuals -- you might say gifted amateurs -- produced beautiful food,” Hopkinson, 59, says in an interview at Bibendum. It’s the restaurant he opened in November 1987 with the designer Terence Conran and publisher Paul Hamlyn.
“You go back to the George Perry-Smith days, Joyce Molyneux,” he says with reference to pioneering British chefs. “They were extraordinary. And I’m not sure we’ll ever see that again. And also the demise of the grand hotel dining room. Now, the only place would be the Goring maybe. I used to love the old Connaught, for instance. But fashions change.”
Hopkinson quit Bibendum in 1995 and is currently working with his successor -- Matthew Harris -- to revamp the ground-floor oyster bar. There will be new chairs and menus, with hot dishes and all-day dining. Upstairs at the restaurant, some dishes -- including snails and steak au poivre -- have survived since the start. Harris, sitting beside Hopkinson, says that while the menu has evolved, it’s not fundamentally different.
(Matthew’s brother Henry owns Racine. He formerly worked with Matthew at Hopkinson’s former restaurant Hilaire, on the Old Brompton Road, and then at Bibendum.)
Was Bibendum ahead of its time?
“We were doing very French bourgeois sort of food,” Hopkinson says. “It was a big menu: roast chicken and roast racks of lambs. No one else was doing that. Well, the Connaught would have been and the old Savoy Grill and that sort of thing: saddle of lamb on the trolley, sorely missed. People don’t know how to carve any more. That’s a sweeping statement but the saddle of lamb at the Savoy Grill was one of the best things in the world. It was beautiful.”
These days, Hopkinson likes to eat at Le Cafe Anglais, the restaurant of his chef friend, Rowley Leigh, and Bibendum. He also favors Otto’s, a French establishment across the road from where he records voiceovers for his television shows.
He’s softly spoken and comes alive when he gets onto food. He lovingly describes the curry on the new menu.
“Our curry has got apricots in it, dried apricots,” he says. “It’s spicy, though, and it uses a very good spice mix called nihari, which is hottish but it’s not blow-your-head-off and it is aniseedy, which is quite unusual.”
The revamped Bibendum Oyster Bar officially opens on Nov. 4 at Bibendum, 81 Fulham Road, London, SW3 6RD. Information: http://www.bibendum.co.uk/ or +44-20-7581-5817
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. He is U.K. and Ireland chairman of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Mark Beech on arts, Zinta Lundborg’s interviews and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.