I spent the last couple of weeks in London and Paris with my girlfriend. I’d been to both cities plenty of times before, so instead of trying to see all of the major museums and tourist sites, we adopted a new approach to the trip: “Eat our way through Paris. Drink our way through London.”
It was an obvious choice: Paris is known as one of the culinary capitals of the world, and London is perhaps best known for its pubs. But a few days after leaving Paris, we stopped at Borough Market on London’s South Bank, and I ordered a roast pork sandwich from one of the booths.
“Holy shit,” I said. “This is the best thing I’ve had all trip.”
As the week continued, I realized virtually all of my meals in London were better than all of my meals in Paris. And not just on this trip: I have yet to have a meal in Paris that I’ve been truly wowed by. Ever. Sure, the coffee’s great. But for Christ’s sake, a croque monsieur is just grilled ham and cheese. My mom made that shit for me when I was five if she was in a rush.
London, on the other hand, has long been declared a culinary wasteland. Images of gloppy mounds of starchy potatoes and overcooked meat smothered in gravy — which they often more accurately just call ‘brown sauce’ — are what travelers usually think of when they think of London. Often, you’ll hear the cliche, “You can find good food in London, but you can’t find good British food.”
There are a few reasons this is unfair. First of all, what is and isn’t British food is changing over time. As much as the Brits often hate to admit having a foreign influence, they were once the rulers of half the planet, and cultural exchange goes both ways. Tikka masala, a standard Indian staple here in the United States, was actually probably invented in Britain. And coronation chicken, a curried dish created for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, tastes more ‘Indian’ than it does ‘British.’
So you don’t get to say, “There’s great Indian food in London,” but not count it towards London itself. If you do, you can’t count any dishes with a foreign influence towards other great international cities like New York. What’s New York cuisine without pizza? (Pizza, incidentally, is one thing London is flatly not able to do well. As one New Jerseyan said to me in London, “I love the food here, but I cannot get a good fuckin’ slice of pie.”)
Second, a lot of the people saying London’s food sucks are getting that food in a pub. London is chock-full of pubs, and while the trend of gastropubs is on the rise, they’re not typically known for their food. And while all food should to some extent count towards a city’s score, I think pub food should get a little less weight. Here in DC I usually know what the quality of food is going to be when I order in the bar: It’s just there to soak up the alcohol.
Paris, on the other hand, has gotten lazy. Don’t get me wrong — Paris is way ahead of most cities on the strength of its wine, cheese, and bread alone. But it’s kinda coasting otherwise. I felt the same way about Parisian food as I felt about a lot of the art in its many museums. I know I’m supposed to like this, but really, I’m just bored.
My girlfriend and I hopped from cafe to restaurant, cafe to restaurant, and we just couldn’t find a particularly good meal. Maybe I’ve just been unlucky every time I’ve been to Paris. Maybe I’ve been in the wrong neighborhoods. Maybe I’ve lacked a proper tour guide. But even following the suggestions of Parisians has led to just okay food.
And while as of last August London had a total of 69 Michelin stars to Paris’s 101 — a restaurant with 3 Michelin stars is considered among the best in the world, and Michelin-rated restaurants are usually very expensive — I would argue that high cuisine does not a good food city make. Because eating is universal. If the poor and middle classes can’t eat there, what’s the point?
On top of this, it’s usually the poor who are preparing our food. In America, as is often pointed out by Anthony Bourdain, many of our best line cooks are poor immigrants who couldn’t afford the dish they’re making for others. As such, I give stronger weight to delicious food from a pushcart or a dive joint, simply because the standard is so much higher for haute cuisine.
I’m not alone in thinking this. One of the world’s best chefs, Joel Robuchon — a Frenchman, nonetheless! — has argued that London rather than Paris should be considered the culinary capital of the world.
“Why?” Robuchon said in an interview with the London Evening Standard, “Because it’s only in London that you find every conceivable style of cooking. When it comes to what’s new in cooking, to innovative cuisine, it’s all happening in London.”
So, by the power vested in me by Matador Network, I’m calling it: London has better food than Paris.