How good are London's restaurants? About five years ago, the prevailing wisdom was that they were very good indeed. For a while, it was almost impossible to pick up a newspaper without coming across some article describing London as the "restaurant capital of the world". Today, while we no longer feel compelled to proclaim our gastronomic superiority quite so loudly, we still take it for granted that London's restaurants are at least as good as those of other major cities. A few weeks ago, in the Evening Standard, the former Times restaurant critic Jonathan Meades (who usually has nothing complimentary to say about contemporary British cooking) casually asserted that London's food is better than New York's.
But is it true? Are London's restaurants really better than those of New York, not to mention those of Paris, Sydney and Rome? I very much doubt it. I have lived in London for the past four years and, for the most part, I have not been particularly impressed. Admittedly, for much of that time I have been an impoverished freelance writer, so my opportunities for fine dining have been limited. But paradoxically, I consider that this places me in a better position to judge the quality of London's restaurants than those with access to more ample funds. The true test of a city's cuisine is surely not how good its most expensive (and therefore most exclusive) restaurants are, but what it offers to the majority, such as myself, who cannot regularly afford to spend £50 on a meal.
Judged from this perspective, London is a lousy place to eat. There is simply a dearth of good-quality, modestly priced restaurants. Go to the supposedly buzzing parts of town - Soho, for instance - and try finding a decent meal for less than £20. You will find it very hard indeed. You could try one of the cheap Italian restaurants that flank Greek Street and Frith Street. But having made this mistake a few times, I know never to do so again. Chinatown is another option, but finding a good meal there is surprisingly hard: for every well-cooked chow mein you come across, you will have to endure a lot of MSG-smothered gloop.
Your best bet would be to opt for the better-quality chain restaurants: Pizza Express, Wagamama or Wok Wok. At all three, you will be able to enjoy a decent, reasonably priced meal, but this is hardly a ringing endorsement of London's claim to be a culinary epicentre.
Even at the more expensive end of the spectrum, it's not as if the city is overendowed with fabulous eateries. There are a lot of restaurants in the Conran mould: big, noisy and, on the face of it, sophisticated, but where the food is formulaic and unimaginative. If you have an expense account, perhaps this doesn't matter very much. But if culinary satisfaction is what you care most about, you will be disappointed.
London does only three things really well. First, it has some excellent haute cuisine establishments (though not as many as Paris). These include Gordon Ramsay, Pied a Terre and Petrus. Then there is the group of restaurants that can be loosely described as the offspring of the River Cafe. They embody the homely style of cooking pioneered by Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, characterised by an emphasis on high-quality ingredients, simple cooking methods and straightforward presentation. Restaurants in this group (besides the River Cafe) include Moro, St John and Club Gascon: all are excellent, but none is cheap. Finally, and best of all, are the city's ethnic restaurants. By these I don't mean the ones in the well-known ethnic enclaves near the centre, such as Chinatown and Brick Lane (which in any case cater mainly to tourists and non-residents), but the places dotted around the more far-flung parts of town, and which in most cases are known only to local residents.
Close to where I was living last year, in Tufnell Park, there was an excellent Ethiopian restaurant called Lalibela. For me, the knowledge that such places exist is one of the things that makes living in London bearable. The only trouble is, there are not that many of them.