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The BMW Square Meal Restaurant of the Year award is one of the most coveted in the hospitality industry. To win it, a restaurant needs to excel in several elements: food, wine, value, service and that undefinable quality that makes a place memorable. Of course, our sponsor for the past 15 years, BMW, sets the benchmark for this excellence with its reputation for quality, style, reliability and performance.
When Square Meal assesses restaurants, we use not only our expertise but also the invaluable opinions of our readers. We are hugely thankful to all of you who take the trouble to write reviews and comments, whether that is via our website, restaurant cards, our annual survey or by email.
This year’s shortlist is dominated by newcomers. This is a simple reflection of the current London scene: constantly innovating, it’s with new restaurants where so much of the excitement is concentrated.
In every sense, The Shard was the biggest thing in London during 2013, and the restaurants that opened within it created expectations as sky-high as the building itself. The jaw-dropping views from Aqua Shard (pictured right) have made it an immediate must-visit, but while its modern British food has been widely acclaimed, the easy-going, Euro-American cooking at Rainer Becker-helmed rival Oblix has been generally felt to have the edge.
Over at the Heron Tower, Sushisamba got the skyscraper ball rolling a year earlier and has gone from strength to strength. It is now regarded as one of London’s supreme good-times venues, combining top-notch Brazilian and Japanese cooking with great feel-good factor.
Asian food continues to be one of London diners’ favourite cuisines and few do it better than Hakkasan. We are impressed that Hakkasan Mayfair has managed to carve out an identity distinct from the Hanway Place original as somewhere that offers dazzlingly original cooking alongside sultry interiors and a wealthy international crowd.
When Gymkhana opened in the autumn, it was a reminder that upmarket Indian restaurants can combine first-rate cooking with high-octane atmosphere just as well as any modern Chinese or Japanese. Its refined, classic cuisine has been universally praised.
Gymkhana, however, was pipped to the post for our BMW Best New Restaurant award in autumn by Social Eating House, from the boundlessly energetic Jason Atherton. We loved Social Eating House for its arrestingly creative cooking and sexy Soho vibe.
Balthazar (pictured left), our other Best New Restaurant, from spring, created a media circus when it opened that went beyond the confines of the food and drink pages to become a news event in its own right. The hype has been largely justified and this slick American homage to the ultimate Parisian brasserie has one of the best atmospheres in town.
The last time we can remember a restaurant that caused such a stir was when Dinner by Heston Blumenthal opened. We hope that Balthazar can maintain the public’s interest in the same way. Chef Ashley Palmer-Watts has emerged from Heston’s shadow, and Dinner manages to be a serious – but approachable – gastronomic destination.
Another chef who has made herself distinctly heard above her master’s voice is Clare Smyth at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay. Smyth has set a benchmark for fine dining in London – and in many people’s opinion is cooking better than Ramsay ever did.
This is as strong a shortlist as we can remember and, clearly, it’s not easy to stand out from the crowd in this febrile market. But there was one restaurant that offered the complete package that any Restaurant of the Year must possess: The Five Fields.
Here is a restaurant that combines stand-out, adventurous food with personable, friendly service to deliver luxury without overblown formality – all at a fair price. It’s a restaurant that defiantly goes about its business in an old-fashioned way that, paradoxically, feels daringly avant-garde for being so unfashionable. There are acoustics that allow conversation. There are properly set tables. There is even a very welcoming receptionist who answers the phone.
The restaurant’s location on a pretty side street near Sloane Square combines a central London location with distinctly neighbourhood values. Sophisticated comfort and friendly service are at the heart of the operation; you are treated as a guest, not a number. But neither is it starchy or hushed – it is fun.
Chef and owner Taylor Bonnyman (pictured above with BMW's Paulo Alves and Square Meal editor Ben McCormack) has surrounded himself with a crack team of thoroughbreds: head chef Marguerite Keogh is ex-Marcus Wareing, pastry chef Chris Underwood worked for Tom Aikens, and manager Matthew Widdowson is an alumnus of Bluebird. There is a raw energy about the kitchen, which takes risks and embraces adventure without becoming far-fetched. The menu thrills with its weekly-changing offerings. Diners return because they don’t tire of what’s on offer.
Bonnyman said: ‘We’re absolutely thrilled. Winning this Square Meal award is easily our best achievement to date. We don’t want The Five Fields to be a flash in the pan. We want it to be a restaurant that is here years down the line, somewhere about which people will say: “I remember when I ate at The Five Fields when it was just a fledgling new opening.”’
We couldn’t agree more. The Five Fields has built its reputation on word-of-mouth recommendations from diners who have delivered sustained and unanimous applause. We are very happy to spread that word.
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