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For 56 years it’s been a symbol of the finest of fine dining, serving luxurious soufflé suissesse to hungry elites and earning three Michelin stars. According to the Telegraph’s restaurant critic William Sitwell, it is “one of the greatest legacies of British gastronomy”. But in January, Le Gavroche will close for good.
A symbolic end to French dining in the UK? Far from it. In fact, it’s entering something of a golden age. Since the pandemic, London’s biggest openings have had a decidedly Gallic air. In August 2023, 64 Goodge Street opened to considerable fanfare, offering “French cooking from an outsider’s perspective”. In Spitalfields, the similarly named 65a serves onion soup and moules-frites.
Cadet, Planque and the recently opened Bistro Freddie promise modern French-inflected grub and natural wines, while Bébé Bob and Story Cellar flog rotisserie chicken. The Midland Grand Dining Room and Café Lapérouse offer luxe French fare, with L’Atelier Joël Robuchon reopening this year after a four-year absence. In Bristol, meanwhile, Littlefrench adheres to admirably Continental opening times, serving modern French dishes between 12pm and 2.45pm and 5pm-9pm.
Nowhere has thrived more than Bouchon Racine. Opening in November 2022, Henry Harris’s restaurant shouldn’t have been a success: minimal marketing, an offal-heavy menu, occupying a room above a nondescript pub in Farringdon. It was a smash hit, its tables as sought after as Glastonbury tickets. At the Food & Travel Awards last month it wasn’t a West African, Mexican or Sri Lankan spot that won newcomer of the year. Bouchon Racine, serving an age-old cuisine, pipped everyone else to win the gong.
Inspired by bouchons, traditional Lyonnaise restaurants, it offers hearty food – classics like rabbit in mustard sauce alongside more challenging offal dishes including tete de veau and brain. It’s unpretentious. Want a pint of Kronenbourg? You can have a pint of Kronenbourg.
George Pell, founder of French-inspired The Suffolk in the seaside town of Aldeburgh, is effusive about it. “The first time I went I was like, imagine how ****ed off people spending millions of quid on places no one goes to in Mayfair are, when he [Henry Harris] opens on the first floor of a pretty dingy pub and all of a sudden it’s the best restaurant in London.”
A history of haute cuisine
A few years back, at the peak of Ottolenghi and sharing plates, it would have been hard to imagine Bouchon Racine’s achievement but, in 2023, French restaurants are more popular than ever.
French cuisine has been the height of chic in the UK pretty much since the Normans invaded, with their boeuf and Cistercian monks making quality cheese. Elizabeth Carter, editor of The Good Food Guide, remembers a time when the guide’s entries were pretty much “all French”.
But for a while, French was far from cool. Italian cuisine, lighter and fresher, usurped it in the early 1990s, and soon fusion, south-east Asian, Japanese and Middle Eastern restaurants were far trendier. Rumours of the decline of Parisian restaurants didn’t help its reputation. In 2019, a YouGov poll placed French food below Italian, Chinese, Japanese and Thai in global tastes, while countries like the US and Denmark routinely had more restaurants in World’s 50 Best lists than France. French became synonymous with Michelin stuffiness. Worse, it was boring.
As a child Henry Harris, Bouchon Racine’s founder, regularly holidayed in France and his father owned a French restaurant in Brighton. Training as a chef in the 1980s, high-end cuisine was mostly French. When he opened his first (very French) restaurant, Racine, in Knightsbridge in 2002, it quickly became a favourite. After closing it in 2015, he finally opened a new spot after Covid, and there was no doubting it would be French.
There had already been signs that French food was back. Carter sees it as a slow burn ready to explode at any minute. Restaurants like Frenchie in Covent Garden, which opened in 2016, showed how a modern French bistro could flourish but, since the pandemic, a trickle has turned into a tsunami. “It’s really gaining momentum,” says Carter. “People want delicious food but not to be challenged. They don’t want tasting menus, they want choice, delicious food. And French food is utterly delicious.”
This year The Good Food Guide named Les 2 Garçons in Crouch End, north London, as the best local restaurant in the capital. Opened in 2021 by chef Robert Reid and maître d’ Jean-Cristophe Slowik, both of whom have a long history in French restaurants, it has been perennially packed since, even moving to a larger site. It is decidedly old-school: perfect snails, steak tartare, the best tarte tatin I’ve had. “I think in these times of hardship, accessible, unpretentious dining with quality food has become popular,” says Reid when asked why his restaurant has struck a chord.
That same year one of London’s long-standing favourites, L’Escargot, opened an offshoot, L’Escargot sur-Mer, in Aldeburgh. Intended as a summer pop-up while staycations were all the rage, a permanent spot was soon necessary. Pell, a director at L’Escargot, soon relaunched as The Suffolk. L’Escargot is a classic take on French cuisine, whereas The Suffolk is modern: fish grilled over charcoal, sometimes with a champagne sauce or beurre blanc.
“Classic French food but with east Suffolk produce,” says Pell, who was inspired by francophile London wine bars like Planque and Cadet. “There’s a really exciting gear shift into quality cooking but less stiff service,” he says. “Super elegant, chic, but quite sexy and cool and current.”
From the 1990s, the bistronomy scene in Paris offered a more imaginative, less staid version of the French bistro. Global influences trickled in – soy sauce! ginger! – and were paired with an interest in natural wines, a restaurant formula that will be recognisable to anyone who’s visited a trendy urban neighbourhood in the UK recently.
Yet avowedly French restaurants are thriving too, and not just in Britain. In New York, La Marchande, a new French brasserie, graces The Wall Street Hotel, while the miniscule Le French Diner is arguably the hottest ticket in town. Washington DC and the Bay Area have both seen surges in French restaurants.
The future is French
On this side of the Atlantic there’s no signs of slowing down. In January, Claude Bosi, who already runs Bibendum, Socca and Brooklands in London, is opening his own bouchon, Josephine in Fulham, perhaps inspired by Bouchon Racine.
Soon after, Bavette will open in Horsforth, Leeds. Run by chef Sandy Jarvis, who worked for Harris at the original Racine, and Clément Cousin, who grew up on a family vineyard in the Loire Valley, Bavette will serve classically inspired bistro fare: think paté en croute, shellfish bisque and côte de boeuf. Jarvis was directly inspired by Harris – “he has been a bigger part of [the French restaurant revival] than anyone else”.
French food never really left. Grand restaurants like L’Escargot, The Ritz, even Brasserie Zédel, are still firm favourites. Chez Bruce in Wandsworth is regularly cited as one of London’s best restaurants. Côte still exists.
Yet fashions are cyclical. Harris remembers the opening Racine in 2002 heralding a rebirth of French food. Subsequent restaurants like Terroirs, now closed, were hugely popular. “Pretty much every country has amazing food, but I think I’ve helped remind people [French] is one of the world’s great cuisines. I know opening [the original] Racine really put French cooking back in people’s minds.” Two decades on, Harris has done it again.
5 French restaurants to book
Chez Jules, Edinburgh
Almost unbelievably affordable (a three-course lunch costs just £12.90), Chez Jules has bags of Gallic charm and a menu featuring all the classics.
What to order: French onion soup, coq au vin, mousse au chocolat
Stretford Canteen, Manchester
Linked to the much-missed Beaujolais in central Manchester, Stretford Canteen is an unfussy bistro offering a convivial atmosphere, plenty of wine and classic dishes.
What to order: The menu changes, but the short ribs with pommes dauphinoise if they’re on.
According to food writer Ben McCormack, Pompette (also run by a Racine alumnus) is “the best thing to happen to Oxford’s food scene since Frank Cooper added Seville oranges to marmalade”.
What to order: Poulet frites (on Wednesday evenings only)
Folkestone Wine Company, Folkestone
“Like the French bistros you look for in Paris but never find,” says Elizabeth Carter of this Folkestone favourite, which opened in 2017.
What to order: The menu changes, but hake with bouillabaisse sauce and aioli if it’s on.
Carter is also a fan of Ophelia’s modern take on the French bistro, which opened this year. “It’s a first-rate French bistro, but it’s modern. There’s a tomato and roast garlic sourdough tartine, and a beautiful roast chicken with loads of chips and two fine sauces. Bearnaise because of France, and gravy because of Newcastle.”
What to order: Lyonnaise potato pithivier with girolle mushrooms and beurre blanc.