20 Years of Square Meal

20 years 12 - guide_rb_10_copy.jpgOn the occasion of Square Meal’s 20th birthday, we chart some of the highs and lows, headlines and scandals that have defined the London restaurant scene over the past two decades

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  • Spiky-haired Gary Rhodes takes over the kitchen at The Greenhouse, Mayfair and sets about dusting off Britain’s food heritage. Years later, in 2008, he struts his stuff on Strictly Come Dancing.
  • The first Square Meal guide launches, covering just London’s Square Mile. It’s a swift hit.
  • Caprice Holdings purchases and re-launches The Ivy in Covent Garden. By the time the group opens its next restaurant, J Sheekey in 1998, The Ivy’s popularity with A-listers has ushered in an era of celebrity dining.


  • Sir Terence Conran (above) opens Butlers Wharf and Le Pont de la Tour, signalling the start of a prolific chain of high-profile restaurants with distinctive, personalised branding.
  • Philip Howard and Nigel Platts-Martin open The Square in St James’s. With the launch of Chez Bruce in 1995, followed by The Glasshouse in Kew, La Trompette and, most recently, The Ledbury, Platts-Martin’s empire includes some of London’s most diner-friendly serious restaurants.
  • David Eyre and Mike Belben’s The Eagle opens in Farringdon, kick-starting the gastropub movement and putting lamb shanks on every foodie’s shopping list.

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  • Alan Yau opens the first Wagamama on Streatham Street, behind the British Museum. He is destined to become a major figure on the London scene, moving from budget eateries to Michelin-starred dining with the launch of Chinese high-flyers Hakkasan (2001) and Yauatcha (2004).
  • Marco Pierre White closes Harvey’s in Wandsworth and moves to his eponymous restaurant at Forte’s Hyde Park Hotel.
  • Black Wednesday sees the pound crash out of the ERM.

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  • Conran Holdings launches glamorous Quaglino’s in St James’s. The group’s iconic ashtrays soon become a must-have accessory, with Quag’s at one point losing 1,000 a month to light-fingered guests.
  • Little-known former footballer Gordon Ramsay takes on his first head-chef role at Chelsea restaurant Aubergine. There are soon huge waiting lists for tables at peak times.


  • Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver open St John in a former smokehouse in Clerkenwell, introducing Londoners to ‘nose-to-tail-eating’ and fuelling the British food revival.
  • Tony Blair and Gordon Brown take a table for two at Granita in Islington and decide the future leadership of the Labour Party.

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  • Aged 33, Marco Pierre White becomes the youngest chef in the world and the first Britain to win three Michelin stars at his eponymous restaurant. A year later he moves to the Oak Room at Le Meridien Piccadilly, before officially ‘retiring’ from the stoves in 1999.
  • Kiwi chef Peter Gordon gets London hooked on fusion food at Notting Hill’s Sugar Club. The cuisine becomes a huge fad in the late 1990s, but falls out of fashion just as swiftly as it rose.
  • Heston Blumenthal opens his first restaurant, a classic French brasserie called The Fat Duck, housed in a former pub in Bray, Berkshire.


  • Despite teething problems with service and booking, the Oxo Tower opens on the South Bank and woos guests with its stunning views.
  • Cool Britannia is in full swing as Newsweek votes London the ‘coolest city on the planet’, an opinion that is subsequently echoed across the world’s press.

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  • Tony Blair entertains Bill and Hillary Clinton for dinner at Le Pont de la Tour.
  • Square Meal launches its quarterly magazine.
  • Damien Hirst helps open The Pharmacy in Notting Hill. The name turns out to be in breach of the Medicines Act 1968, which restricts the use of the term ‘pharmacy’. After several reincarnations it closes in 2003, with Hirst pocketing £11m from the sale of artwork he had loaned the restaurant.


  • Gordon Ramsay throws AA Gill and dining companion Joan Collins out of his restaurant Aubergine over personal remarks made in a Sunday Times review. Ramsay parts company with Aubergine later the same year to open his flagship destination on Royal Hospital Road.
  • The BBC introduces us all to Jamie Oliver with the first series of The Naked Chef, after discovering the fresh-faced mockney lad in a series about the River Café. Over the next decade, foodie TV programmes proliferate and chefs become celebs.


  • Previously most celebrated for its black cod in miso, Japanese star Nobu briefly becomes better known for its broom cupboard after Boris Becker sires an illegitimate daughter in its dark recesses

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  • Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay open Pétrus on St James’s Street, which becomes the inaugural BMW Square Meal Restaurant of the Year in 2000.


  • The launch of squaremeal.co.uk is an instant hit, with the Daily Mail putting it on its list of the top 100 websites in the world. One industry commentator goes on to declare that it is one of just four sites making up his online survival kit, the others being Google, Streetmap and Wikipedia.

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  • Gordon Ramsay gains three Michelin stars at his eponymous Chelsea restaurant. In the same year, Tamarind and Zaika become the first Indian restaurants to receive Michelin gongs.
  • Six City bankers spend £44,000 on wine during a meal at Pétrus, including a £12,300 bottle of 1947 Château Pétrus. Five out of the six are subsequently sacked.


  • Pierre Gagnaire opens his art-themed pleasure dome Sketch in Mayfair, paving the way for an invasion of big-name French chefs. Since then, Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Hélène Darroze have all set up shop in the capital.
  • Jamie Oliver opens the Fifteen Foundation and its Shoreditch eatery, putting his house up as collateral for the training project. His TV series following the project’s inaugural year introduces us
  • to a rather different Oliver from the stage-managed pukka chef.

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  • Three years after leaving Pied à Terre, and following an alleged ‘branding’ of a trainee chef with a hot knife, Tom Aikens opens his eponymous Chelsea restaurant to wide acclaim, although he continues to attract headlines by confronting a customer who he alleged had stolen a silver spoon.
  • Chris Corbin and Jeremy King turn a former Piccadilly bank and car showroom into The Wolseley, and it soon becomes one of the hottest restaurants in town, numbering Kate Moss, Hugh Grant and Sir Elton John among its regulars.

20 years fat2 - fat_duck.jpg2004 

  • Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck becomes one of Michelin’s hottest properties as it rises to three-star status and gains the top accolade from the famous red guide. In the wake of its stellar reputation, so-called ‘molecular gastronomy’ becomes flavour du jour in the capital.


  • American food bible Gourmet magazine declares London the culinary capital of the world.

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  • Traces of radiation are found in Piccadilly sushi restaurant Itsu as police investigate the poisoning of Russian ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko.
  • Eco-friendly restaurant Acorn House opens in King’s Cross, raising awareness of the green movement among restaurateurs and chefs. Organic, seasonal and sustainable ingredients are flagged up on menus, and ‘provenance’ becomes the new mantra.


  • The Narrow, in east London’s Limehouse, becomes Gordon Ramsay’s first gastropub, marking a period of swift growth in the ambitious chef’s globally expanding empire. Over the next two years, Ramsay oversees new openings in Paris, New York, Los Angeles and Prague.
  • The smoking ban breathes fresh air into pubs and restaurants across the capital. Smokers are seen huddling on pavements, and spruced-up alfresco spaces become a feature.


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  • The collapse of US bank Lehman Brothers helps drag Britain into a global recession, sparking an aggressive deals-led response from London restaurants trying to weather the storm.
  • Marcus Wareing and Gordon Ramsay have a very public falling-out, and the Pétrus chef quits to open his own restaurant in The Berkeley Hotel – though GR Holdings keeps its mitts on the Pétrus moniker (for future use).


  • Pop-up eateries gain capital-wide popularity with the launch of The Double Club (above) in Islington and Pierre Koffmann’s hit atop Selfridges. Other novel recession-beaters range from supper clubs to unlicensed restaurants in people’s homes.
  • The downturn continues. Gordon Ramsay is forced to sell some of his overseas assets and finds himself in trouble with the taxman, Antony Worrall Thompson shuts down much of his restaurant empire, and Tom Aikens just manages to survive despite leaving suppliers high and dry.

Editorial feature from Square Meal Guide 2010

On the occasion of Square Meal’s 20th birthday, we chart some of the highs and lows, headlines and scandals that have defined the London restaurant scene over the past two decades