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As a lover of fine food in all its complexities, I get giddy at the prospect of experiencing top quality food. Having a girlfriend with a birthday on Valentine’s day might mean that you have to pull out all the stops to really impress, but it also has the added benefit of giving me a reason to save up and take her somewhere I secretly want to go myself (selfish, I know). Just looking at the smorgasbord of fine dining establishments in London, I might have taken her to a swanky, highly regarded, silver service restaurant somewhere like Mayfair, but I didn’t for a number of reasons. Firstly, I can’t afford it, and I don’t want to take out a pay-day loan to pay for it. Secondly, as a young, sprightly and fun loving couple; hushed dining rooms, over attentive waiters, pristine table settings and Bach playing in the background just isn’t for us. I’d rather not eat at the type of restaurant where the waiter looks at you like you’ve just drop-kicked their grandmother when you order the second cheapest bottle on the wine list (for fear of being asked to leave if you ordered the cheapest). Like a growing number of the UK public, I craved a spectacular dining experience with great value and superb food, but without the airs and graces of the classic fine dining experience.

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I represent the reflection of a growing consumer trend for eschewing the classically stiff personality of outfits serving up high quality and innovative food, and searching out informal indulgence in the food industry. By informal indulgence, I don’t mean sitting in your pants on the sofa eating a KFC family bucket to yourself, but enjoying the pleasure of the masterful manipulation of food in a far more relaxed setting where diners feel comfortable and at ease. Like any industry that is financially driven, the market is reacting to consumer needs, but the snobbery of fine dining and great food has also been eroded by a significant rise in the standards of food at the lower ends of the market, such as casual dining and fast food. Even in retail, the rising quality of premium food offerings can be seen to feed consumer desire for delicious food whilst relaxing at home, with the premium brands growing 4 x the market rate. The emergence of innovative street food vendors and pop up restaurants has helped democratise great food as well.  By rejecting the formal restaurant model, it allows the chef more freedom to experiment with the food, décor, drinks and the entire ambience. By making the production of food far more transparent, it also changes the dynamic so that producers of the food are far more connected and involved with the consumer.

Whilst the top end of the restaurant industry often has a trickle-down effect in terms of ingredients, methods and flavour combinations, it is clear that in regards to certain aspects of the dining experience, the reverse is happening. A renaissance of pubs offering superb quality food has first and foremost been led by Tom Kerridge at the Hand and Flowers, where traditional pub grub has been elevated to two-Michelin star level. Tom Kitchin has followed suit with the Scran and Scallie in Edinburgh, but even purveyors of some of London’s finest restaurants, such as Gordon Ramsey and Marcus Wareing have loosened their ties to provide more informal offerings. Places like Lyles, and Barnyard have open kitchens and intentionally unintimidating spaces where you are just as likely to pop in for a coffee as you are for elegantly crafted food. So this is exactly the type of restaurant I sought out, and it just so happened that the perfect place had opened just round the corner.

The Manor in Clapham offered up just about everything I could have asked for. We were greeted warmly on entry, and throughout our meal the friendly, but not overbearing waitresses seemed more enthusiastic about the sensational food than I was. The rustic wooden décor of the place perfectly matched the vibrant and bustling atmosphere of the whole restaurant, as Ska and Rocksteady played in background giving the place a warm rhythm. As the food began to arrive, our consummate ease within the dining setting was joined by some of the most delicious bread I’ve ever tasted, served with light as air whipped chicken skin butter. Served in a heated hessian sack, the inventive and natural presentation of the dishes helped define the meal, as pebbles, rustic stone bowls and aged wooden boards where used to serve the seasonal fayre. The food had all the hallmarks of modern cookery, with charring, smoking, fermenting and clearly a wide array of advanced gastronomical techniques at play. Creamy cod cheeks and seaweed were a real taste of the sea, and an Ox cheek that was still as pink as can be somehow defied physics by falling apart at the lightest of touches. However, it was the cauliflower with medjool dates, cacao and yoghurt which was my personal favourite, somehow sweet and meaty at the same time. The dessert bar represented a focal point for the restaurant, where diners could sit and watch as behind clouds of nitrogen, dishes like our rhubarb and hazelnut granola were concocted as if they were chemists in a lab. But for all this intricacy and theatre, it all felt very natural as the superb food meshed seamlessly with the warm surroundings and wonderful company to create a delightfully immersive dining experience.

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Without breaking the bank, or needing to suit up I left feeling pretty pleased with my choice of restaurant, as we both felt we’d had ourselves a high class eating experience to savour. The restaurant landscape is clearly undergoing a period of significant change, with a renaissance of pubs, the strong emergence of new fast food, and a plethora of street food markets nationwide. These concepts enable consumers to enjoy premium food in an informal setting, but as the gap has increasingly closed in quality on the top end of the market, some things remain a constant across the food industry. Consumers demand value for money, consistency and quality above all else, but the perception that innovation and progressive gastronomy are the vanguard of stuffy fine dining restaurants is quickly changing. Price may be the deterrent for many, but there needn’t be any other obstacles in the way of sampling great food, and places like The Manor are proof that informality is the future.

Author – Jack Cliffe – Marketing and NPD Assistant 

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