What can restaurants learn from street food?

Recently, street food collective Kerb announced their first new, permanent, indoor premises right in the middle of London. Meanwhile, Market Halls ­– a flourishing concept by Simon Anderson that does what it says on the tin – is expected to further expand in 2019. It seems the line between street food and restaurants is blurring, as much in the sense of the format as the attitudes towards the food itself.

Perhaps, then, there’re a few things restaurateurs could be taking on board. As the street food phenomenon continues its march, it remains a great way to reach out to younger generations. Less enamoured (and less financially flush) towards regular dining, millennials are more likely to gravitate towards the experiential – something that offers a social, almost party-like dynamic rather than top-of-the-line service; emphasis on quality and traceability of food rather than on its presentation; and the freedom to graze rather than to gorge.

Somewhat contrary to the traditional restaurant model for sure. And I think there’s some underlying irreverence towards its usual principles. It could be well-placed – since street food seriously kicked off in Britain around 2010, it has slowly crept up with its neighbouring countries on the continent. If Britain is not widely known for its dominance in the street food arena, it soon will be – having tried street food from all over Europe, from Germany to Latvia to Spain to France, it’s clear even the French and Italians are yet to fully grasp the wide and encompassing aspects of street food by the horns. Though other parts of Europe have older traditions concerning food served on the street, like the Germans and their bratwurst; the Italians and their pizza, Britain’s innovation and lack of compromise on quality puts them firmly ahead.

Want a more concrete example? Look to who’s winning European Street Food Awards. In both the two outings it has embarked on – last year’s edition involving 17 traders from 13 European countries ­– Britain has come out on top. And not for doing anything too complicated. In some instances, quite the opposite, in fact – Leeds trader doh’hut serve doughnuts with the option of extras like Party Rings or Oreo biscuit toppings, and a crème pat or jam filling. But it was their naked doughnuts – made by hand with Shipton Mill flour and proved multiple times over two days – which stole the show. As much as some want to create anew, there’s something to be said for picking something simple and doing it well.

street food

The thing is now, in street food you can’t get away with a bad, or even mediocre, burger. Not like you can in most restaurants. So people often turn to other things. As a result, dude food has declined in prevalence. Often at markets, there’s barely a pizza or burger in sight. You may find beef shin calzones; jackfruit and shiitake mushroom rotis; live hand-raised pies; beer-battered pork with black pepper and Khrenovina; pike burger with dill and pickled fennel; Açaí bowls with summer berries, physalis, coconut, cacao nibs, chia, and goji berries. Suddenly people want to try Georgian, Swedish, Austrian, Iraqi, Brazilian. Even Welsh.

Street food markets are, in that sense, a reliable source of inspiration. They’re also making their way across the UK. Towns and cities, otherwise lacking in a notable food or restaurant culture, are turning on to the idea of good, but accessible, food. Bustler in Derby, for instance, are doing great things, pulling in traders locally and from the Midlands to a city where its inhabitants haven’t had anything like it before. Markets like Bustler are nurturing new appetites for creative and interesting dishes, providing fertile ground for a solid food culture, and the potential for new restaurants to work off it.

The fact traders happily cross counties – and, sometimes countries – to cater at various different markets like this says a lot too. Whether intentional or not, they become hugely important in representing their local or regional food stories. Provenance is big, and they rely on food as an expression of where they’re from. It’s a communicator of culture as much as it is pleasurable sustenance – when ParmStar came to London, no where else in the capital could you find decent chicken parmo. When Ireland’s Broughgammon farm came to Birmingham, Brummies got a solid idea of the importance of Irish produce. Perhaps the same is true of restaurants, particularly those who receive a lot of non-local custom.

So many restaurants fail to realise that, especially when it’s to do with the language on their menu, street food is more than just a label. It carries with it so many responsibilities and promises restaurants can’t, or often neglect to, fulfil. To some, it’s like a religion – you can’t just pick it up like a box of Lego and take out the bits you want. A worthy inspiration for wider food culture, it would be a shame for one to look at it any differently.

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