A feature for G2
At 11.30pm, the elevator for Duck & Waffle in the City of London has the hot, beery stench of an underventilated nightclub. I already feel jetlagged from heading out for dinner so late, and when it whooshes me up the Heron Tower’s 40 floors in under 30 seconds it gives me an extra headrush. It is a bit like being drunk, which seems rather appropriate for late-night eating.
In New York, Paris and many east Asian cities, 24-hour restaurants have become part of the eating habits of the population. Not in Britain, which is strange when licensing laws theoretically permit round-the-clock opening and many people work shifts through the night. “It may be because of our historically rigid licensing laws,” says Jonathan Downey, a bar and restaurant owner who has held two 24-hour licences. “At Milk & Honey our kitchen is open until 2am and we probably sell five plates of food during the last hour.”
Which is probably why many late-night British restaurants are aimed at drunk people. Buddies in Brighton has featured on Channel 5′s sociological study Brighton Beach Patrol, and with its fry-ups with lager, pizza and burgers, caters to a distinctly vomity clientele.
London’s oldest all-night restaurant, and the only one with a 24-hour booze licence, is Vingt-Quatre on the Fulham Road. “We have security,” says its managing director Simon Prideaux, “who make the call on whether someone has drunk too much.” At 11pm, VQ’s menu contracts to a few soaky classics: omelette, bangers and mash, a full English. The place has lasted since 1995 by harnessing one of the great truths of eating out: the squiffy don’t crave culinary invention.
“To eat at four o’clock in the morning,” says Jay Rayner, the Observer’s restaurant critic, “things are either going to be really bad or so good that it doesn’t matter where you are. You have to wonder how much value is being placed on the quality of the food.”