Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling had the right idea. Almost. In Pete and Dud’s immortal sketch, Sir Arthur explains precisely how the idea came to him for the Frog & Peach. “I suddenly thought, as I was scrubbing my back with a loofah, I thought, ‘Where can a young couple who are having an evening out, not too much money, and they want to have a decent meal, you know a decent frog and a nice bit of peach, where can they go? Where can they go and get it?’ And answer came there none. So I had this idea of starting a restaurant specialising in these frogs’ legs and peaches, and on this premise I built this restaurant.”
The menu has, he admits, “been a terrible hindrance to us, building up a business… It’s the most appalling thing. There’s so little to choose from. You start with — what’s that?” Dud reads from the Frog & Peach’s menu: “Spawn cocktail.”
“Spawn cocktail,” says Sir Arthur, feelingly. “Probably the most revolting dish that’s known to man. Then there’s only two other dishes, really. There’s frog à la pêche, which is frog done in Cointreau, with a peach stuffed in its mouth. And then of course there’s pêche à la frog, which is really not much to write home about. A waiter comes to your table, he’s got this huge peach which is covered in boiling liqueur, you see, and then he slices it open to reveal about 2,000 little black tadpoles. It’s one of the most disgusting sights I’ve ever seen. It turns me over to think of it, poor little creatures… Squiggle, squiggle they go.”
The Frog & Peach hadn’t been a great success, Sir Arthur conceded, blaming the fact that driven by his belief that “in Britain people were crying out for a restaurant without a parking problem”, he had situated it in Dartmoor (sometimes he says it’s the Yorkshire moors). “There’s no parking problem here, situated, as we are, in the middle of a bog in the heart of Dartmoor. No difficulty parking — some difficulty extricating your car.”
He should have opened in Soho, of course, Greek Street would have been perfect. Or perhaps the problem was that he was just fractionally ahead of his time?
When single-issue, Hobson’s choice, super-niche restaurants first started opening up across London a few years ago — Dirty Burger, Chicken Shop, Arancini Brothers, Bone Daddies, Bubble Dogs, Flat Iron, Burger & Lobster, all that — lots of food writers and bloggers thought it was just a passing trend, imported from New York, and it wouldn’t stay the course.
They couldn’t have been more wrong. This summer sees an astonishing wave of mono-dish restaurants launching all across town. Sometimes in the past, reviewing restaurants, it’s been difficult to find any worthwhile openings to report, the choice being between an unpromising gastropub in Muswell Hill or a sandwich bar with unfulfilled pretensions in Columbia Road. But this summer there’s a kind of supernova of novel offerings.
You thought London had so many restaurants now of every conceivable kind that there were simply no more niches left for anyone to occupy? No problem. You just excavate a new one and off you go.
Having done so well with Chicken Shop (now in Holborn, Tooting and Whitechapel, as well as Kentish Town) and Dirty Burger (Kentish Town, Shoreditch, Vauxhall and Whitechapel), Soho House has had a good hard think and come up with a new one:Egg Break (eggbreak.com), which opened last week in Notting Hill, majoring on eggs, particularly egg buns, including bacon and egg buns, brisket and egg buns, chicken and egg buns, pork belly and egg buns, and folded egg with sweetcorn salsa buns. You get the idea? Eggzackly.
One of the main attractions of super-niche restaurants is that once you’ve walked through the door, the agony of choice is much abated. Research from Columbia and Stanford universities has suggested that giving consumers too many options often means they fail to make a decision at all. No such problems here. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? It doesn’t bloody matter.
Soho House is also trying a perilous melding of concepts, a Chicken and Egg Shop in Balham. Can the Gateway to the South cope with such complications? The new WingsEggs(wingseggs.com) in North End Road at least helpfully reduces the part of the bird on offer, doing chicken wings 13 ways, including the Fulham Jerk, the After Nine (chocolate-smothered), the Cheese Bullet (stuffed) and the Chick and Chic (mango-littered).
Bored with lobsters? That’s a shame, when Smack Lobster(smacklobster.com) has just opened its second branch on Dean Street, offering Lobster Roll, Lobster Avocado, Lobster Cous Cous, Lobster Sushi Rice, and Lobster Rainbow.
But relief is at hand. London is about to be hit by a tsunami of crabs. There’s the Crab Tavern (crabtavern.co.uk) in Broadgate Circle, offering the Crab Caesar Sub, Singapore Crab, the Soft Shell Crab Burger, the Crab Tavern Platter and the West Coast Bucket Boil. To be fair, there are other choices, even a treacherous Lobster BLT, but you get the message.
Then there’s balls. Balls & Company (ballsandcompany.london) in Greek Street, from an Aussie Masterchef contestant, offers balls all ways, wagyu balls, pork balls, chicken balls, quinoa balls, salmon balls, and, for dessert, choux balls. I say nothing.
And plenty of dogs. Top Dog (top-dog.com) in Frith Street, from the people behind Boujis, offers the Sloppy Dog, the Lettuce Dog, the Chicago Dog, the Soho Dog, and, thoughtfully, the Corn ’n’ Guac Tofu Dog. And there’s a whole pack more dogs on the way.
Over at Harrods, they now boast a monomaniac truffle restaurant, Tartufi & Friends (harrods.com), where the fungus is stuffed in everything from a croissant to pâté de foie gras to a hamburger (the Tartufi & Friends hamburger comes in two sizes, at £35 and £75), even the cocktails (fancy a truffle martini or margarita? You must be mad.)
BUT there are humbler obsessives too. Let’s not forget theCereal Killer Cafe (cerealkillercafe.co.uk), now in Camden Lock as well as Brick Lane. Or the cheese toasties specialist, The Melt Room (meltroom.com) in Noel Street in Soho, offering the full range from the Nutella & Mascarpone Melt at £3.50 all the way up to the Pulled Pork Shoulder at £7, although they may yet be outdone in humility by Pickle & Toast (pickleandtoast.com) arriving soon in Wardour Street, offering — can you guess? — bread, cheddar and pickles.
On it goes. Les Souffles (lessouffles.com) in swish Beauchamp Place promises only souffles. Bone Tea (bone-tea.com) has opened a broth bar in Westbourne Park, exclusively selling what the restaurant guide Hardens calls “slightly poshed up stock” (beef, pork, chicken or mushroom, with meat marmalade or bone tea glazed chicken wings on the side). Or you can take it home by the litre, should you be so minded.
What’s happening? There have of course always been single-dish restaurants. What else is a pizzeria, a fish ’n’ chip shop, a steakhouse? You can’t beat an oyster bar. In Japan, where the aesthetic is simple perfection of one thing alone, they have always had speciality restaurants, for sushi, tempura, unagi, soba and so forth.
But these one-trick ponies are a different phenomenon. They are a product of the superheated ebullience of London’s restaurant scene, in which, as shops selling goods disappear from the streets, the one thing you cannot so well access remotely, feeding your face, takes their place, over and over again, and bloggers race each other to every new concept, wedge themselves into every new nook and cranny as soon as it’s opened.
Single-item restaurants are cheaper and more efficient to launch, as young Ollie Norman, who has just launched Pilau(pilaurestaurant.com) in Berwick Street understands. They also often follow on naturally from street food stalls, offering just the one dish — “People think they like to choose but actually they like to be chosen for,” he told the Standard. (But then I have heard that some people rather like being in prison because it relieves them of the burden of choice too.)
On the downside, how many repeat visitors will there be to these one-dish palazzi? Won’t they just go to the next one next time? And some restaurateurs seriously fear that turning out just one dish over and over, however perfected, will produce a generation of otherwise de-skilled chefs, unused to the usual range of cooking.
It could only happen in a great, frantically productive city, such excavation of new niches, such creation of new compartmentalisations, every day. London’s “arts of hedonism are reaching unprecedented levels” observed Rowan Moore in his challenging essay on the city’s economy, London: The City That Ate Itself. What looks like a simplification is in fact a sign of superfetation.
And it’s not going to stop any time soon. Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling had an idea for another restaurant, “somewhere a young couple who are out for the evening, you see, who’ve got about 85 guineas to spend, could have a really decent meal”. It was to be called The Vole & Pea. “I was thinking largely simple English roast vole, you know, and a decent British pea. Get the two together and I think you’re on pretty good ground”, he told Dud. He just needs to look for backing sharpish, before some other bright young spark gets in there first.