Mediocre restaurants
Image: Shutterstock/Jamie Inglis

Why London needs its mediocre restaurants

We make a case for the capital’s more mundane eateries


Il Cucciolo Restaurant in Soho contains almost all of the things I love in an unflashy, utterly reliable central London eatery: a diverse clientele ranging from diminutive, vaguely glamorous septuagenarian Soho lifers, to wide-eyed tourists and sullen couples staring at their phones over bowls of steaming pasta. It has starched white tablecloths and well-worn hardback menus. 

When it comes to food, my tastes are almost comically easy to satisfy. This isn’t a source of shame and, I’m happy to say, never will be.

This simplicity is nicely distilled when it comes to eating out in central London. Good company, unfussy surroundings and basic edibility are my key criteria, in that order of importance. When I think about happiness – true, muted, everyday happiness – my mind conjures up a series of images. Dauntingly overheaped plates of blood-red, tomatoey penne. Artery-nuking cheesy garlic bread. Post-solo-cinema-trip bowls of steaming, exquisitely average Chinatown noodles and broth. The good stuff, done to the ideal pitch of comforting predictability.

When it comes to food, my tastes are almost comically easy to satisfy

But this dependable everyday eating is getting harder to come by than it used to be. It’s no secret that the last few years have witnessed various nasty crises for the restaurant business in London and the rest of the UK. The bad-news carousel of lockdowns and absurdist energy bills, spiralling rents and chronic staff shortages. One doesn’t have to look far to find a news story, or just a friend, bemoaning the latest closures in the capital and its particularly hard-hit centre. It can sometimes feel like no one is safe: from beloved delis (I find it tough to believe in a city that lets the beautiful Soho institution I Camisa & Son almost go to the wall), to forgettable short-lived chains.

Still, change has a way of happening whether we like it or not. I wanted to gauge the health of another kind of central London mainstay: the reassuringly average, unflashy independent that often seems to have been in-situ for longer than anyone can remember. How are they fairing in such straitened times? And what, if anything, does that resilience say about the state of hospitality in the very heart of the capital? 

The commitment to mundanity

My journey began on a dirty grey afternoon in late 2022. M&M’s World looked at its most psychedelically imposing and the rain was falling hard as I snaked my way through wave after wave of pre-Christmas tourists and shoppers in Leicester Square. I’d come to central London to make a list of places that fit the resolutely average framework. Independent spots of wildly varying quality I’d frequented in times of pressing need, that sparked memories of acutely necessary post-work, pre-pints midweek fuel stops and melancholic lunches for one. I wanted more than anything to know how they were getting on in this radically uncertain world. 

My first stop was Cafeteria on Charing Cross Road, an espresso bar a few doors down from Foyles. In my imagination, it has been there with its Italian flag signage since the dawn of time, or at least since Ken Livingstone’s first stint as London mayor. There is nothing flashy about its food or Google reviews, where it holds a 1.3 star average (‘Cons: terrible pizza. Pros: makes for a good story, you can tell your friends you found genuinely the worst pizza in London’). The cramped interior hummed with a few slightly shell-shocked tourists as I ordered a coffee and thought about initiating small talk with the smiling woman behind the counter, though the opportune moment didn’t arrive.

When did your rent come up for renewal? What sort of landlord do you have? 

I returned in early 2023, with my resolve duly refreshed. The woman at the counter was all smiles, until I explained what I was writing. ‘That would need to go past the boss’, who apparently wasn’t around and hadn’t put a timetable on his return. The same reaction occurred wherever I went over the following days and weeks. The ‘boss’ would have to give the okay, and the boss was never around, at least when I came knocking. It didn’t matter that I stressed I wasn’t there to take the piss: that I genuinely wanted to highlight their restaurant’s place in the fragile central London eating ecosystem.  

At Primitivo, the vast and chronically exasperated-looking 24-hour Italian on the fringes of Leicester Square, I was told to come back after 4pm the following day, if I wanted to meet the man in charge of the deserted restaurant and several others of its kind. No, it wouldn’t be possible to speak with anyone else. As the rejections multiplied, I began to reconsider my mission. Standards felt like they’d slipped from unfussy and unpretentious to the merely bad. It was time to aim higher. 

The joy of ‘exceptionally all right’ pizza

Old Compton Street is home to two of the most reliable Italian restaurants in Soho. To my mind, perhaps two of the most reliable restaurants in London. La Porchetta Pollo Bar – with its glorious Comic Sans signage – at number 20, and Il Cucciolo Restaurant, a few doors down. When I think of the former, it’s a blur of perfect sepia. The last time I sat in was Halloween 2021, not so far off the most miserable pandemic months that eating out didn’t still feel like a novelty. I’d come with my friend Grant, straight from a mid-afternoon screening of ‘Psycho’ at the Prince Charles cinema. Groups of men in ill-fitting costumes had drifted past the window that day, as we sunk ice-cold pints of Moretti and demolished our pizzas, merrily chatting rubbish about our weeks and the campy classic we’d just watched.

When I returned at the start of 2023, business was just picking up for the day, in an unexpected early-week post-lunch flurry. I made my way a few doors down to Il Cucciolo, the cheerful family-run Italian which has stood on the same spot for the past eight years, give or take, according to its avuncular boss Paulo. Before that, it was in Denman Street for a few years. Before that, well, that’s a long time ago indeed, said the Parma native. ‘I’ve been in London much longer. Maybe 30 years,’ he explained with a laugh. Business was good for the start of the year. Sure, it could be a grind but they had their regulars and kept the kitchen and staff a family affair. ‘It wouldn’t,’ he said, ‘be so easy otherwise.’ 

A man authoritatively ordered a prawn cocktail menu-unseen

I scanned the thick black menu, from sheer enjoyment rather than necessity. There it was, spread out before me on the page. All the components of the perfect central London comfort lunch. An idea, a place, an experience to cast even the bleakest winter weekday into cosy, unobtrusive light. As I placed my order, I started to think about luck and my apparent abundance of it. How else to consider life, when you get to inhale a very large, exceptionally all-right pizza funghi and call it work? It was hard to imagine anywhere else I’d rather have spent a January midweek lunch hour. Everything from the rapidfire service, to the middle-aged man who authoritatively ordered a prawn cocktail menu-unseen, was as it should have been: a perfectly weighted combination of the reassuring and undemanding.  

Do you feel lucky?

In early February, I caught up with Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, one of the biggest industry bodies in the country. Of course, she knew precisely the kind of central London mainstays I was interested in. She explained that their continued survival wasn’t just to do with individual quality or reliability. Was it a lottery, then? ‘I don’t think it is, necessarily,’ she said, ‘but there is a sense of luck.’ 

Nicholls told me that two similar restaurants might be located on the same street, with wildly differing results. It all depended on the answers to a few grindingly specific questions: ‘When did your rent come up for renewal? What sort of landlord do you have? Are they helpful? Benign? When did your energy bill come up for renewal? That is the biggest factor about which survive and which don’t, in these turbulent times.’

It would be difficult to find any relatively well-adjusted person who would want to see these restaurants vanish en masse into the annals of London culinary folklore. At least, no one I know, or anyone I spoke with, would desire any greater uniformity in Soho and the rest of Zone 1. Surely, even the best cities require a bit of contrast to keep things interesting: the unambiguously good, the straight-up bad and, yes, the reassuringly middling.

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