Something of a food fight kicked off earlier this year, when respected Times critic, Giles Coren, lambasted Britain’s dining options outside of London. “Honestly, if I’m going out of London to eat, it’s more productive to leave the country,” he said, calling Birmingham “just a bit rubbish”.
We all know about the great scene in London, but is Coren hitting the right note on the cities outside the capital? With over 14 times more Michelin stars in London than anywhere else, you’d certainly be forgiven for thinking he had a point. Yet there are others who present an alternative view. For one, Rough Guides – the renowned travel guide publication – praised Birmingham’s restaurant scene when ranking it among the world’s top 10 cities last year.
Let’s take a look at the cities with the most Michelin stars in Britain 2016 to examine the London scene and see whether there is culinary life outside the capital.
1) London – 80 Stars (+8 from last year)
Around 30 years ago, London’s reputation for food was laughable. Co-owner of the city’s fashionable L’Etranger restaurant, Ibi Issolah, told me that, when he arrived there in 1986, the dining choices were paltry.
“To have a cappuccino or espresso I could only go to one bar, called The Capri, by Leicester Square. If you went to any other English place and asked for a cappuccino, they would give you coffee with double cream.
“If I wanted a sandwich, it was jam or tuna. I couldn’t eat it – I had to go to the Italian place. So for London, from there to here, it is quite a transformation.”
The transformation Issolah speaks of is backed up by some of the world’s greatest chefs. Joël Robuchon, the chef who has amassed the most Michelin stars on the planet, told the Standard that “London is very possibly the gastronomic capital of the world… the epicentre is not Paris, but London.”
Following Robuchon’s comments, the man with the second highest number of stars, Alain Ducasse, backed up his great peer. “London is the most important city in the world for restaurants,” he told the Telegraph.
Nowadays punters in London can try the best of just about every cuisine imaginable, from classic dining at the British outposts of both Robuchon and Ducasse’s restaurants, to Heston’s historical British cuisine at Dinner or even Indian fare at Rasoi or Gymkhana.
2) Birmingham – 5 Stars (+1)
One of the city’s Michelin star restauranteurs, Glynn Purnell, of Purnell’s, says the dining scene in Birmingham is thriving. “Not great in the same context as London, Paris, New York or Tokyo, but great for Birmingham.” Purnell took Coren’s “pathetic” criticism particularly badly. “I wouldn’t want him to come anywhere near my restaurant.”
While Birmingham looks to stake its claim as Britain’s second foodie city, it does have rivals. Manchester is a traditional challenger in the second city stakes in England, but even Marketing Manchester’s spokesman, Jonathan Gough, admitted to the BBC that they’ve got some catching up to do with their West Midlands rival in this respect.
While Manchester doesn’t currently boast any Michelin stars, however, it looks likely that this will soon change. There was widespread disbelief last year when Simon Rogan saw his new London restaurant, Fera, gain a star, but his Manchester location, The French, did not.
Rogan told the Manchester Evening News that he thought The French was “nailed on to get the star”, while he “didn’t expect to get it for Fera”. It’s thought that both restaurants might stand a chance of acclaim in the next guide.
3) Edinburgh – 4 Stars
Scotland has long been known as a home of fantastic produce. Its dining scene, however, has only begun to take off over the past decade or two. Once known as the land of haggis and stovies, now there’s a very real foodie culture – the heart of which lies in Edinburgh.
The port area of Leith alone includes two of the city’s starred restaurants – eponymous locations from Martin Wishart and Tom Kitchin (The Kitchin). Both chefs are Edinburgh locals who are delighted to see the city’s food scene thriving. “It’s funny to think Leith is where Irvine Welsh set his novel Trainspotting,” Kitchin told The Telegraph – hinting at the turnaround the area has seen.
“It used to frustrate me that local fishermen would bring in amazing lobsters and langoustines and it all went for export, but everyone’s woken up to the availability of wonderful produce now”.
4=) Bristol – 3 Stars
Bristol is nowadays well known as one of the main foodie challengers to London in Britain. Celebrity chef Mitch Tonks, known for his restaurants in the south-west, says the entire region is one of good food. “I call it Britain’s seafood coast, as it is home to the best seafood in the world,” he wrote in The Guardian.
Tonks picks out Bristol’s “great food scene” as a highlight, with “the best Chinese restaurant outside London” [The Mayflower], joining Michelin star restaurants wilks, Pony & Trap and Casamia.
The story of the latter starred destination is a particularly charming one. Two brothers, who developed a fond love of food when working in their parents’ Bristol restaurant as teenagers, flew the nest to set up their own place in nearby Cheltenham. Despite their parents’ best wishes, the small restaurant isn’t quite the success it was thought to be and the brothers come back home.
Not to be deterred, their parents put them in charge of their restaurant’s kitchen and, before long, Peter and Jonray Sanchez-Iglesias’s youthful verve had gained the place a Michelin star.
4=) Bath – 3 Stars
Bristol’s nearby neighbour, Bath, also plays host to three Michelin stars. None of the restaurants are located in the main city centre, and indeed all three are set within luxury hotel grounds. The Bath Priory, overseen by Michael Caines MBE – the man who fronts Gidsleigh Park, is just a couple of kilometres outside the centre, while The Park and Bybrook are some distance farther away.
Head Chef at Bybrook is Richard Davies, formerly of London’s three star Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. He and the team have held their star for six years.
What about the rest?
One omission from the list – because it’s not technically a city – is the Oxfordshire town of Bray-on-Thames, which has the same number of three star restaurants as London. Heston’s The Fat Duck – thought by some to be the best restaurant in the world, though currently on a sojourn in Melbourne, and the famous Waterside Inn account for six of the eight stars found here.
4=) Cambridge – 3
8=) Nottingham – 2
8=) St Helier – 2
9=) Newcastle – 1 (+1)
9=) Leeds – 1 (+1)
9=) Chester – 1
9=) Winchester – 1
Note that there are 72 restaurants with one or more Michelin stars in Britain that aren’t located within a city.