Support your neighbourhood restaurants
We read a lot about chain restaurants going bust, says Katy Salter, but what of the great local places whose struggles never make the news? It’s time to use them or lose them.
How’s your high street? Mine’s looking a bit rough. In the past year we’ve lost an Italian restaurant, a brunch place, a pottery café and a burgers-and-cocktails spot. All were independents. All are now closed down and boarded up. It’s making the main road look a bit like the opening scene of a zombie apocalypse movie. It’s a similar story in cities, towns and villages across the country. Neighbourhood restaurants need our support. But that’s only half the story: we need them, too.
These restaurants are the soul of a community. They may get our custom, but we get so much more in return. A good neighbourhood restaurant is the place “where everybody knows your name”, as the song goes. Where else can you drop in for spaghetti and a glass of chianti at 8pm on a wet Wednesday when you’re too tired to cook? Where can you always tuck into your favourite lamb rogan josh, because they never change the menu (and frankly you wouldn’t want them to)? A good local restaurant offers comfort and familiarity.
The brunch place I mentioned was a cycle café that closed nearly a year ago. I’m still upset. I mourn their sweet potato fries and their salted caramel flapjacks (never did get the recipe). But more than that, I miss somewhere that was part of our family life. We went every weekend when my son was a baby. He loved the place, with its bunting and fairy lights, bucket of colouring-in books and vintage bikes hanging from the ceiling.
You don’t foster that kind of affection for a Prezzo. Chain restaurants are in the news. There’s lots of coverage of the woes befalling some of the big groups, who’ve shut branches across the country. It’s a big problem, but chains still have advantages that neighbourhood restaurants don’t. Local independents don’t have the marketing budgets, the name recognition or purchasing power of the big guns. When your local Thai shuts down, it doesn’t make the headlines, even if they did the best tom yum soup this side of Bangkok.
Meanwhile, high-end dining is going from strength to strength. There’s no shortage of new openings, especially in cities such as London. If it’s new, sexy and Instagrammable, then it’s doing well: for now. Poor old neighbourhood restaurants get lost in the blizzards of hype. They’re not flashy enough for social media blitzes, aggressive PR-ing, Michelin stars or reviews in the Sunday papers. They’re just quietly and reliably doing their thing. It’s easy to take them for granted, even though local restaurants fulfil a role in our lives that identikit chains and fancy-places-you-only-visit-once don’t.
Neighbourhood restaurants come in all shapes and sizes. If you live in the country, maybe your local is a gastropub. In a town? It could be a bistro or a wood-fired pizza place. If you’re in a foodie city like Manchester, Glasgow or Bristol, perhaps your neighbourhood bistro is a bit ‘small plates and natural wines’. (In which case: can I visit?) These restaurants help give our communities character, and if we don’t support them we’ll miss them when they’re gone. Trust me: I’m still suffering from salted caramel flapjack withdrawal.