The northern food scene has proved more resilient throughout the pandemic than London’s, contributing to a dominance of the industry awards for the country’s best venues, restaurateurs have said.
Four out of five of the UK’s best restaurants are in northern England, according to the National Restaurant Awards, and the region has 16 in the top 40 – double the number in 2019, the last time the poll was held.
Thom Hetherington, the chief executive of Northern Restaurant and Bar and a judge for the awards, said the achievement was “frankly astounding” in a scene traditionally so dominated by London and during a brutal year for hospitality.
The region has been hard hit by the pandemic, with higher Covid infection rates and hospitality businesses hobbled by harsher restrictions through the controversial tier system. Despite this, said Hetherington, “most restaurateurs I speak to think that the north of England has been much more resilient than the south in terms of the restaurant sector. I think that’s because particularly in London, the market was so underpinned by corporates, particularly if you’re out towards the City or Canary Wharf, and international travel.”
Michael Wignall, who took over the Angel in 2018 with his wife, Johanna, said being crowned number two in the country was “a bit surreal, but amazing,” after entering the list at 54 in 2019.
The chef-patron said they had been able to exploit the “positives” of lockdown thanks to their size and location. When restaurants were closed they ran a national takeaway business that found new customers “from the top of Scotland to Cornwall”, many of whom were now booking holidays at the pub, which has 15 bedrooms and has benefited from the influx of staycationers to the Yorkshire Dales. The building is so big that the 2-metre social distancing rule was barely an issue when it reopened and they were still able to serve more than 50 covers.
Wignall, who has won a Michelin star in every kitchen he has run, including at the Angel in 2019, said that when he moved away from his home town of Preston, he never imagined moving back up north, thinking there was “no call for it”. He said, however, that the high-quality northern foodie scene had been growing for some time, thanks in part to the high-quality produce available.
“It’s the culmination of a long-term trend of ambitious, creative chef-patrons who want to deliver something to their own vision,” Hetherington said, and they had more freedom to set up a restaurant in north of England because it is “fundamentally more affordable”. A renewed focus on work-life balance, access to green spaces and roomier homes had been accelerated by the pandemic and had hastened the trend, he said.
Aimee Turford, a co-owner of the Moorcock Inn at Sowerby Bridge, another Yorkshire-based pub and now officially the 14th best restaurant in the UK, agrees. When she and the chef Alisdair Brooke-Taylor were researching sites, they had to factor in the availability of independent pubs, and costs – having no investors ruled out London and much of the south-east – but they were “struck by the amount of ridiculously good options for great produce where you can have proper relationships with your suppliers”. She has “two ladies for meat”, both in Yorkshire, and one will call and say: “I have a cow, would you like her?”
Wignall and Turford also credited “loyal followings” for their ability to weather the pandemic. “The community rallied around us, which had a lot to do with our survival,” Turford said.
Hetherington said restaurateurs were attracted to the north’s suppliers, which were “second to none”, with a rise in small farmers who work hand in hand with chefs, such as Cinderwood in Cheshire. Founded by its head grower, Michael Fitzsimmons, and the chef Joseph Otway on a principle of minimising the journey from farm to table, it supplies restaurants such as Mana, Manchester’s single recipient of a Michelin star, which was 11th on the restaurant awards list.
Fitzsimmons, a Liverpudlian, said he was excited about the progressive ideas in the northern food scene, and he hoped strong relationships between growers and chefs would be a powerful force for change, resulting in less waste. Many restaurants that Cinderwood supplies have fluid or “chalkboard menus”, which change depending on what crops are ready to be picked and delivered the next day.
Is the drizzly climate a help or a hindrance? Fitzsimmons said growers needed to work with the environment they have.
“So what people are eating in Cornwall in April and May shouldn’t be what we’re eating up here. But that doesn’t mean we have to eat like paupers, with loads of swedes and cabbage. There’s kind of a joy, I think, in being restricted,” he said.