I want a bite in central London

Why do kosher restaurants fail in the centre of town?

May 30, 2019 13:05

In 2011, both Edinburgh and London Zoo had the opportunity to obtain a rare loan from China; a pair of pandas, named Tián Tián (Sweetie) and Yáng Guāng (Sunshine). In the end, the decision was made to loan the rare bears to the zoo in Scotland, where they have lived ever since, eating bamboo and failing to have babies.

I bring this up because, in the following six years, a one-liner achieved notoriety north of Carlisle; “Scotland has more pandas than Tory MPs” [two versus one]. Only after the 2017 general election, when the Conservatives won a further twelve seats, did that statement become obsolete.

Unfortunately, as of three weeks ago, the following could be said of our capital; “Central London has the same number of pandas as it does kosher restaurants.” With Reubens, of blessed memory, having now sadly closed after 46 years, there is not a single kosher eatery in either the city or the West End. Zero. Efes. Gornisht.

It is a regular source of incredulity to Jews from elsewhere in the world that a metropolis like London, which does, after all, have an illustrious Jewish community, should have such a scarcity of kosher options in town. New Yorkers and Parisians, for instance, simply cannot understand it. Last week, I found myself having to explain to an American in central London that yes, if he wanted to find a kosher restaurant he would have to take a 45 minute journey via either taxi or tube just to reach the nearest one (Tish in Belsize Park). No, buddy, I wasn’t joking.

Of course, any straightforward comparison between the three cities in this regard is very unfair. New York has three million Jews in the tri-state area (London has less than 200,000). The Jewish population of Paris is larger than London’s, and the French capital is a city where people generally live far more centrally (unlike London, with its vast outer suburbs), meaning central kosher options are far more likely. But despite all this, the idea that there is truly not enough of a market to sustain a couple of kosher eateries in the heart of London seems astounding.

Various attempts to establish kosher beachheads in the centre have tried and failed. There was Six Thirteen in Wimpole Street, which went under after a few years. And then we had the bizarre spectacle of Bevis Marks, a restaurant originally based in the shul of the same name, vacating the premises and opening up again around the corner, while a different kosher restaurant (1701) opened in the original space inside the synagogue. I only dined at 1701 once, and at least two different parties walked in during that time, labouring under the misapprehension that they had found the other establishment. This was not a recipe for success.

The dearth of eating places in the centre seems particularly odd, given that kosher restaurants are now being opened in areas where there have never been any before. In the last couple of years, the aforementioned Tish has opened in Belsize Park and Delicatessen arrived in Hampstead. Zest has thrived at JW3, and made an attempt at a lunchtime pop-up restaurant last summer at Bevis Marks.

So what exactly is the issue? Is it the exorbitant rents of central London? Is it the extra cost of kosher certification and the fact that these places lose Friday night and Saturday trading? Is it the fact that many finer dining places make their margin off of alcohol sales and Jews tend to imbibe less on average than non-Jews? Or is it that there truly are just not enough people, workers and tourists in central London who keep kosher, and no way of creating a kosher place which also appeals to those, Jews and non-Jews, who eat non-kosher?

I ask because in many ways it seems as if the availability of kosher food in Britain has never been better. The annual Kosher Food and Wine experience in London is one of the hottest tickets in town for religious gastronomes. Kosher caterers appear to be flourishing, with new and exciting options appearing every year. When I was a child there were a few small kosher supermarkets — now there are twice as many, and some of the original ones have trebled in size. Attempts to bring additional products to the kosher market have been exemplary.

If anyone is thinking of ending the kosher restaurant drought in London, please let me know when you’re opening. I’ll be there — and I’ll bring friends, Jewish and non-Jewish.

Just maybe try to open these places sometime before London Zoo finally gets some pandas of its own.

May 30, 2019 13:05

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