It’s hard to say how a well-loved restaurant morphs into that rather more formidable prospect, an institution. Yet St John has apparently cracked it: at 25, it’s still “perhaps the most famous and influential restaurant in London”, according to Eater London’s editor Adam Coghlan. It’s an unusually reverential statement from a website with a joyfully iconoclastic approach to the city’s sacred culinary cows.
I remember the first time I walked down that long whitewashed corridor which must be among London’s least likely restaurant entrances – the building has housed a smokehouse for nearby Smithfield Market, the head office of Marxism Today, a squat and a bean sprout farm. St John had been open ten years, but to me, the concrete floor and spare menu felt new and daring, even scary. There were, according to founding partner and first manager Jon Spiteri, five rules at the start: no art, no music, no flowers, no service charge and no garnishes.
There was certainly a lot of offal, however, in keeping with a philosophy of “nose to tail” eating symbolised by its distinctive pig logo. Chef Fergus Henderson still seems genuinely excited by the possibilities offered by this “wonder beast”: the newly published Book of St John offers up recipes from tongue to trotter. Lee Tiernan, who spent ten and a half years in the kitchen before opening Black Axe Mangal, recalls being told off on his first day for throwing away pig skin that could have been used in a starter.
Such low-waste policies are common these days, but it’s hard to imagine how unusual they were in the mid-1990s, just as it was pretty unusual to open in Clerkenwell, an area so dark and deserted Henderson swears he once saw the northern lights while smoking outside. Unusual too, to boldly serve up a plate of whole carrots and aioli in an era where heavy sauces and tiny turned veg still reigned supreme: St John may not have been the first restaurant to eschew fussy cooking but there weren’t many rivals serving up big hunks of roasted bone marrow with a simple parsley salad.
Listening to Tiernan, Spiteri, baker Dan Lepard and pastry chef Ravneet Gill talk at an Eater event to celebrate the restaurant’s 25th birthday, it’s clear that the atmosphere was unusual on the other side of the pass too. Having amassed “enough horror stories to fill a book” in previous roles, Gill was “amazed” and inspired by the lack of harassment and aggression in the kitchen. Once on the verge of quitting the hospitality industry altogether, she went on to set up Counter Talk, a community platform promoting equality and mental well-being within it.
The St John team sit down and eat together twice a day, they say, and are encouraged to have a drink after service, often with the two remaining original partners, Henderson and Trevor Gulliver. Perhaps this familial warmth and informality is the place’s real legacy. Spiteri recalls a desire for the new restaurant to be like a classic French brasserie “where you might be sitting between a bejewelled duchess or a workman”, and though prices in the dining room are more suited to the former, the smart money eats at the bar, where, as Tiernan puts it, you can “have a Welsh rarebit and a pint of Guinness – and you won’t find a better restaurant experience than that”.
He’s right; in all the talk of St John as “iconic”, “seminal” and “legendary” it’s easy to miss the point. Quite simply, it’s a great place to have dinner.
Next week: John Burnside on nature
This article appears in the 13 Nov 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Britain was sold