How London fell for American cuisine

FIVE years ago, McDonalds was the best-known export of US cuisine in London. Yes, there have been other venues dedicated to that fine nation’s culinary tradition, such as Joe Allen and the Chicago Rib Shack, which have both been around since the 1970s. But mostly it’s been burgers and bad steaks, confined to slightly grotty restaurants in the West End.

Things have changed. American food has become hip and in demand, served in style to fun-loving, well-heeled crowds around town. We can’t get enough of it – in the last six months alone, three swanky Yankee restaurants opened in London. There was the newly revamped Planet Hollywood, the bourbon-oriented Blues Kitchen in Camden, and Circus, the new opening that best shows how trendy American-style eating has become. It’s a high-gloss, hidden-away space near Covent Garden where acrobats perform midway through dinner and beautiful blonde waitresses serve devastatingly good martinis.

Owner Adam Davis, an Englishman educated in the US, says Circus is inspired by the excellent, multi-cultural food found in cities such as Austin, Texas, around California and of course, New York. The menu has everything from herrings to ribs to superb, chilli-marinated steak and hush puppies (corn fritters). “I think there’s been a stereotype in the UK about American food – that it is greasy and cheap – which has been wrong. That’s changing now, and we’re trying to show how brilliant and varied it is. There are few restrictions with American food – it’s not fussy and people like that.”

People also like the focus on meat, big portions and affordable prices. After a time of such financial uncertainty, foams are less appealing than timeless, tasty classics like gumbo and steak. Sarah Handy, a manager at Chicago Rib Shack, says: “People are drawn by the filling, tasty and affordable nature of American food. It’s a flavourful cuisine because of all the marinades and spices – barbecue, creole, cajun and so on. And American restaurants tend to have a good atmosphere, they’re not so formal, so make for a nice place to take clients for a relaxed lunch. At night, there’s also a more fun-loving vibe, and the bar menus tend to be good. We have a whole range of American beers that go way beyond Budweiser, and we’ve got bourbons. It’s fun.”

Liam Spratt, a manager at The Blues Kitchen, also says people don’t want fuss, they want fun. “It’s great party food, and its all about getting stuck in,” he says. “You don’t have to worry too much about presentation. It’s about tucking into a jumbalaya, a gumbo, ribs. It’s solid, hearty, timeless, simply spiced and good value.” God bless America.

A beloved fixture in Knightsbridge, the Rib?Shack (pictured left) has a loyal following of regulars, some of whom have been customers since it opened in the 1970s. After a refurb, the Shack reopened newer and better, but still with all the original signage and memorabilia. The Rib Shack – as the name would imply – is famous for its baby back ribs first and formemost, but also for its onion loaf (battered onion rings pulverised into a ridiculously tasty form) and a dish composed of the inside of potato skins that have been spiced and fried – it doesn’t get more sinful, or more delicious, than this, and its the only place in town to find either the skins or the loaf. 145 Knightsbridge, SW1X 7PA, tel: 0871 962 0652.

This great huge entertainment complex is not for those after sophisticated entertainment – but then, why would you want pretensions of grandeur when you just fancy knocking back well-priced, sweet and delicious cocktails and mega steaks? This is the home of large: from the “appetizer platters” to the burgers to the fajitas (think mountainous globs of guacamole, sour cream, rice and chicken – heaven) to the towering salads and cheesecake. Screens blaring out music videos of the hits make for a certain distraction between bites – handy if your companion’s boring you. 57 Haymarket. SW1Y 4QX, tel: 020 7287 100.

It’s not a particularly glamorous restaurant but it takes its mission seriously: to serve upmarket modern American cuisine, sourced impeccably and with clean, strong flavours. The emphasis is less on fusion than on high quality and sophisticated plates. All beef is USDA certified, bred, grain-fed and aged from four to six weeks in Nebraska. And, keeping pieces of simply roasted fish and meat company are Yankee favourites such as sweet yams, shoestring fries and garlic mash. As is par for the course, the bar menu is strong, with some of the best whisky cocktails in town. And don’t miss the suitably tempting Porn Star Martini, with vanilla vodka, homemade vanilla sugar, passion fruit puree and a shot of champagne. America Square, 14 Crosswall, EC3N 2JY. Tel: 020 7481 8422.

Covent Garden’s super-glossy, brand spanking new tribute to American cool (pictured below) celebrates everything from the Jewish-inspired but subversively non-kosher (pulled pork with potato latkes), to the more South American (churrasco – sirloin with garlic, herbs, chilli and garlic) to the Asian (vegetables parcels with coconut dip). The completely delicious corn hush puppies keep the menu real, and entertainment is provided via fire-juggling dancers, soulful singers and acrobats who use a long table in the centre of the restaurant as their stage. Wash all this down with a cocktail or five– the Bloody Mary here is a show-stopper – and satisfy your sweet tooth with peanut butter brownie and cheesecake. 27–29 Endell Street, WC2H 9BA, tel: 020 7420 9300.

A welcome newcomer to Camden High Street, this bourbon-oriented restaurant is a full celebration of the southern US – with blues, milkshakes and enormous mounds of food at reasonable prices. The seafood gumbo is a heap of mussels, fish and flavour – and clocks in at around £10. The ribs are the size of an arm, and the corn bread fritters are just the ticket to go with your bourbon. The American vibe is entrenched with nightly performances of blues and soul music, and the cocktail menu – with its large volume of Tennessee whiskeys – is a very American affair. As are the very naughty array of desserts. 111-113 Camden High Street, NW1 7JN, tel: 020 7387 5277.