The City of London is getting rather good at panoramic dining. The City’s striking skyline, with its towering, gleaming skyscrapers, is home to an increasing number of high-level (literally) restaurants. “There’s definitely been an explosion of high-rise dining in the City with City Social, Sushisamba, Duck and Waffle and the restaurants opening in the Walkie Talkie,” says Ben McCormack, Editor of restaurant review website Square Meal, “The rise of high-rise dining has put the City, as in the Square Mile City, on the map as a dining destination.” The appeal of being able to gaze out at wonderful views as you dine is definitely something that diners enjoy McCormack feels. “In terms of interest there is a huge amount of excitement about this type of restaurant. One of the things you always look for in a restaurant is atmosphere and surroundings and I think, particularly when you walk into these places for the first time, they just have such a magic when you see London laid out below you. Whether it’s a sunny day and everything is bright and glistening or it’s in the evening and all the lights are glistening, it’s really such a wonderful background to having a meal.”
The Square Meal philosophy, explains McCormack, is to see London’s restaurants as “almost a part of the capital’s entertainment industry – opera, ballet, concerts, theatre and restaurants. One of the things that make living here so great and vibrant.” In that sense, high-level restaurants have a great deal to offer. What’s fun, he points out, is that “you get different perspectives from different restaurants. From Aquashard you get to see the City. When you go to Duck and Waffle, from there you can see the Shard, which, of course, you want to see. When you’re at City Social, which isn’t quite so high, you get a different perspective on things because you can pick out architectural details, see more what’s happening on the street.”
Simply having a splendid setting, however, is not enough these days to ensure a restaurant’s success. “Before if you had a nice location – maybe a riverside location or were a few floors off the ground – you could get away with not doing so much on the food front. Now there’s so much competition in these skyscraper restaurants that the food offering and service has to be up to the mark as well.” McCormack cites Jason Atherton’s City Social as a high-level restaurant which succeeds in its own terms. “Jason Atherton is such a great restaurant operator – that City Social could survive at street level. It’s a really bright and exciting restaurant, beautiful design, knock-out food – with the view, if you like, the cherry on the cake.”
Daniel Doherty, Executive Chef of the acclaimed 24-hour restaurant Duck and Waffle – strikingly located at the 40th floor at the top of the Heron Tower – is well aware that great views alone are not enough to make a restaurant succeed in today’s competitive London scene. “I think from the outside, a restaurant with a location like this is seen as an easy win. You’ve got the views, so at least people are going to enjoy those. My take on it – and the first thing I said to every single person we hired, whether a waiter, bartender or chef – was that the view is our biggest competition, we’re competing against it. Our biggest competition is not another restaurant, not the place next door, it’s the view.” For Doherty, the pressure is on to create stunning food which lives up to the striking surroundings. “When you visit Duck and Waffle, you get zipped up in a lift super, super-fast – you walk through a gorgeous bar, you walk into the restaurant which has a vibrant open kitchen. It’s really beautiful, you’ve got the view. By the time the diner is putting something in their mouth, the kitchen has to maintain that level of excitement,” he laughs.
From the start, Doherty had a clear vision of the sort of food he wanted to offer; “For me the core belief I had was I didn’t want the food to be too formal. I travel a lot and when I go to a skyscraper abroad, every time you go to a restaurant at the top of the building, it tends to be quite a formal environment. We wanted our restaurant to be fun and the food to reflect that.” Diners at Duck and Waffle can choose from comfort food creations with a twist, so dishes such as the eponymous ‘duck ‘n’ waffle’ (waffles with duck confit, a fried duck egg and spiced maple syrup ). Doherty cites his spicy ox cheek doughnut as an example of his approach to cooking “It reflects really well what we do. It might sound slightly odd – ultimately it’s just braised meat inside a fluffy vehicle. I wanted to do something like the Chinese char siu bao (barbecued pork dumpling) and thought let’s make the outside crispy, so we fried it. Then, I thought let’s make a doughnut instead. I do think I was the first person to make a savoury doughnut. We roll it in smoky paprika sugar and serve it with an apricot jam.” Less adventurous diners are also catered for, however, with classic dishes such as roast chicken with mushrooms and truffle, oysters and rib-eye steak also on offer. “The best way of summarising our food is often traditional, sometimes playful.” Such are the logistics of running a 24-hour restaurant, serving between 700 covers “on a quiet day” to 12-1300 covers on a “busy” one that Doherty admits he has become largely used to the view. “When something changes – a sunrise, a sunset, a helicopter comes buzzing past, you’re in a cloud and there’s no view – that’s when I think this is beautiful.”
Also in the Heron Building, on the 38th and 39th floor, is the glitzy Sushisamba, offering a cosmopolitan, globe-trotting menu . For Executive Chef Claudo Cardoso, as with Doherty, the food is a priority. “While the location is beautiful and impressive, the culinary philosophy of the restaurant is the heart of the brand,” he explains. “Our menus are inspired by the cuisines of Japan, Brazil and Peru – our goal is to present inventive cuisine, new and exciting dishes.” Cardoso is acutely aware that Sushisamba needs to cater for its City clientele with excellent service. “A large portion of our guests work in the business world and bring their clients to Sushisamba. They want to impress them and expect only the best experience, which translates into top-level service and cuisine.” While food and service are central to what Cardoso wants Sushisamba to offer, he himself relishes the location and the vistas. “I never tire of seeing the city from above. London is one of the most remarkable cities in the world and it’s always changing. I particularly enjoy the view in the morning and at the end of day. The intensity of light changes when the sun rises and sets, as does the vibe of the city.”
The appetite for opening high-level dining restaurants in the Square Mile shows no sign of abating. January 2015 saw the opening of Sky Garden (pictured above) at 20 Fenchurch Street, the building better-known to Londoners as “the Walkie Talkie’. Over floors 35, 26 and 37, Rhubarb have created three restaurants, with the added allure of London’s highest rooftop gardens as bait. “Fenchurch is all about seafood and fine food served in smart surroundings; Darwin is more casual with an all-day, all-ocassion brasserie offering and a bustling atmosphere; and Sky Pod is for light bites for breakfast and lunch together with seriously stylish cocktails,” explains PB Jacobse, Rhubarb’s Managing Director. “Where else in London can you enjoy all that and such a view? The challenge for us was creating a concept in the sky that offers something for everyone. I am incredibly proud of what our team has achieved.”
Ben McCormack is a fan of the thrill offered by the new skyscraper restaurants, both in terms of great views and great cuisine. “If you want a wow factor, to be able to go and eat waffles at Duck and Waffle while you watch the sun rise over London at 4am on a summer’s morning – that’s almost a bucket list wish.” A seasoned observer of London’s dining scene, he is also looking forward to what’s to come this year. “I think 2015 is going to be very exciting for the City with the Broadgate redevelopment, with Yauatcha opening there. There some great quality restaurant operators who now see The City as a valid destination where they need to have a presence.” The rise (pardon the pun) of skyscraper dining allows the general public to experience these huge buildings in a new way. “You see them going up for such a long time,” points out McCormack, “that they become embedded in your consciousness. You want to go into them. They have definitely become more accessible.”