From chowing on a Dead Hippie in Brighton’s premier burger joint, to getting lost in a Hong Kong hawker site, we’re devouring ‘fast casual’ dining the world over – whether we know it or not. Gareth May tucks into the global food trend that’s found its way to Cornish shores.
Pulled up a pew and slurped down a bowl of glistening, unctuous orange ramen in London’s Bone Daddies? Wandered down Satay Street in Singapore for its namesake grilled chicken skewer? Or visited Croqueteria at Time Out Market Lisboa and feasted on a cone of cuttlefish-with-ink breaded flavour bombs? Guess what? You’ve experienced fast casual dining. The food for the fibre-optic world, this century’s culinary touchstone – as at home in buzzy 80-cover restaurants as off-piste food truck lots – is sweeping across the globe.
Fast casual (or quick-and-casual) is a concept that sits between fast food and casual dining. In 2014, The New York Times described fast casual simply as “a subset of fast food … with fewer frozen and highly processed ingredients, more-comfortable seats, and (sometimes) healthier food.” But what does it taste like, smell like, and how is it served?
The scene has boomed in recent years, with restaurants drawing on the soul of street food and fast food chain convenience to foster creative dining experiences that are wok-quick, Michelin Star-stylish and devilishly delicious. In the UK, from Wahaca (est. 2007) to Leon (est. 2004) and back again, restaurants with relaxed environments but something interesting to say with their ingredients have been doing well for over a decade, joined more recently by quirky food vans, pop-ups and food halls bringing approachable, health-conscious, tasty and interesting snacks to the masses.
“It’s the democratisation of fine dining. You get to experience excellent and affordable food from top chefs, in a casual-communal space that is beautifully designed,” says Didier Souillat, CEO of Time Out Market, one of the core destinations of this second wave of fast casual, with must-visit hotspots in cities all over the world, from Lisbon, New York and Miami to London (coming spring 2021). These are the dining destinations where memories are made, and shared, and tagged, and listed as ‘must-visit’ in the annals of Eater, Thrillist.com, and the now defunct Lucky Peach zine. This is fast casual. It’s everywhere and everything.
Eclectic as it comes, it’s far easier to say what fast casual is instead of where it came from. Traits include virtuous speed and convenience, high quality produce and guaranteed flavour, a cool urban atmosphere and Instagram-able plates. Borderless, boundless and defying clarification it may be, but it shares the same freewheeling fusions of Asian hawker sites where international cuisines like Indian, Korean and Vietnamese come together in a circus of flavours. It’s also heavily influenced by America’s iconic tip-fuelled, super-friendly service, while discarding the ostentation and stuffiness of the haute cuisine.
“It’s food that’s exciting and a little bit challenging,” says Neil Haydock, Watergate Bay Hotel’s executive chef. “Not just something that feeds and fuels.”
It’s food that’s exciting and a little bit challenging... Not just something that feeds and fuels.
Neil has long been a fan of the concept of fast casual – the atmosphere it creates and the food experiments and flavours it enables him and his team to play with. Ask him about his favourite hotspots and he’ll wax lyrical on the dishes he’s eaten as enthusiastically as a surfer recounting different breaks on their travels. “I’m classically trained and that’s a great grounding, but the French way is stuck in its ways, formulaic and traditional. Food has changed,” he says.
Now younger, self-educated chefs who don’t have these traditional ties are taking over – those more likely to go gagafor a flat plancha than a sous vide, with experiences and cooking scars from kitchens far and wide. People like David Chang, chef and founder of Momofuku, the father of the fast casual scene in the US; and Roy Choi, Korean-American creator of the Korean-Mexican taco truck Kogi and star of the Netflix series The Chef Show – two of Haydock’s cooking heroes. “These guys morphed Asian and South American street food with Western tastes. Ten years on it’s become something even more tangible.”
If the white tablecloth, penguin waiter venues still cater for a certain kind of eater, a fast casual invasion traffics a different kind of ritual. One-time hangouts for the in-the-know, hipster-ish and hungover, these arenas of foodie heaven have become the stuff of modern pilgrimages. Hashtag factories with queues as thick as flash mobs. Churches where the sumptuous spirit of street food leaves influencers and tourists reeling from a blitz of flavours and youth-fuelled vibes.
Pip Lacey is one of the chefs who has benefited from a change in demand. She sensed the air in the kitchen was shifting, gave up her role of head chef at Michelin-starred Murano in Mayfair and opened up Hicce in London’s new uber-trendy chow-capital, King’s Cross Coal Drops Yard. Pronounced ‘ee-che,’ the wide, airy, industrial space with exposed retractor fans and orb pendant light fittings – Guardian food critic Grace Dent compared the restaurant to “a capacious, repurposed Manhattan loft” – serves wood-fired dishes, speckled with curing and pickling, and ingredients that include hispi cabbage, shimeji mushrooms and shiso leaves. Not that the customers are fazed; they’ve seen it all before.
“Sometimes people ask, What cuisine are you? Italian? French?’ And I say, ‘It doesn’t have to be anything.’ That partly comes from my travelling and all my experiences in different countries [Pip nearly became a pro snowboarder], but because of multimedia influences, our customers are that much more open to new tastes and world foods,” she explains. “The standard and the quality is all still there [as it was at Murano], but it’s in a different setting. There’s no stiff atmosphere. I wanted somewhere that if I wasn’t working, I’d like to go to. It’s accessible. Everyone is welcome, regardless of age or bank balance.”
This latter point is something Neil believes too. “We don’t want an exclusive space. If you want to come in wearing board shorts, you can,” he says. It’s a relaxed vibe that slows the pacing of a meal too. Gone are the days of starter, main course, dessert; small sharing plates are where it’s at now. “People are curious. Order six small dishes and take a few spoonfuls of each. That’s the best way to eat,” he continues. “That’s why street food halls work so well. People want to wander around, have some oysters, soak up the atmosphere, grab a drink, then have some tacos. They want choice. And restaurants are trying to tap into that too. Somewhere you can eat around the world in one place.”
Po’ boys (a traditional sandwich from Louisiana) and Philly Cheesesteak on the menu in the Living Space. Chicken liver parfait with a waffle and ‘KFC rabbit’ (“an elevated, more sustainable replacement for fried chicken with a celeriac remoulade, instead of coleslaw”) at Zacry’s. Corn on the cob covered in nduja butter with a crunch and a kick that rolls on and on. The influence is loud and clear. “I want my flavours to be big and punchy, every single dish to go wow,” says Neil. Quick fix, gloriously inventive, accessible dishes to share amongst would-be gourmands. This is fast casual.
A cornerstone of London’s global foodie scene, MEATliquor was an early adopter of the fast casual ethos. It started life as a food truck in Peckham, but after the theft of the MEATwagon in late 2010, a summer residency as a speakeasy eatery above a pub in New Cross became a word-of-mouth sensation resulting in a permanent bricks-and-mortar site in Hoxton Square. Today, the 11-restaurant UK-wide empire stretches from Brighton to Manchester, with patrons kneeling at its graffitied, ruby red-lit altar for a communion of burgers and beer.
And while it’s easy to get floored by the menu design channelling frontier ‘wanted’ posters, tattooed ‘burgerette’ wait staff, and high school canteen trays – all the “little ingredients that make people think of America”, according to co-founder Scott Collins – there’s more here than wings, rings, and ‘tails. This is messy, bib-wearing fare, served with a forest of serviettes to mop up the juices. But as much as MEATliquor’s menu was inspired by a handful of US road trips, the adored patties are the product of German techniques (homeland of the humble hamburger) and an unadulterated love of British beef. MEATliquor is more than a sophisticated rip-off of the American diner.
“Some of us may have romantic memories of a brilliant dive bar in New York, and eating the best burger ever – but that’s probably down to jetlag and a hangover,” says Scott. “We wanted to draw on that memory and pay homage to it, with better quality, faster food. An ‘American-ist’ experience. That’s what people wanted at the time and that’s what people want now.”
While nouvelle cuisine is having a comeback in the column inches of New York food reviews and raw veganism is surging on social media, fast casual remains the global grub – and the hottest ticket on UK shores. Click through the pages of online eat-sites and the scene is sizzling. Visit Wahaca in Bristol for a taste of Mexico and to take in the murals by local street artist Will Barras; drop by Red Panda on Gandy Street in Exeter for authentic Asian street food; tuck into an MC Elvis burger made from Cornish beef at The Meat Counter in Falmouth – each one a little bit of escapism on a plate.
London is soon to get its own Time Out Market, too. Following the openings of food halls in Chicago, Montréal and Dubai in 2019 and 2020, spring 2021 will see a London Waterloo site offering 500 seats across 32,500 square feet, channelling the cultural hub of the surrounding South Bank neighbourhood.
“What connects all Time Out Markets is a carefully curated mix of top culinary and cultural talent, capturing the soul of each city,” says Didier. “The execution of each market is completely local. We choose the types of food that are hallmarks of the area, we handpick outstanding chefs and artists, and even the design is a reflection of the city.
“They’re all unique places but they all have outstanding food and a relaxed atmosphere in common. They’re designed for people to come together around communal tables, to eat, drink, and talk.” What more could you want? These are accelerated times – and thanks to fast casual, our appetite is keeping up.
Pig and Khao, New York
On the Lower East Side, a fusion of US, Thailand and the Philippines, hailed as casually hip” by the New Yorker. Turns heads with a menu including entire pig’s head, braised, chopped, and served on an iron platter, with raw egg.
Saltie Girl, Boston
A narrow barred, tinned seafood haven in New England, serving fried lobster and waffles, snow crab rolls and warm sticky rice, and salmon brushed with teriyaki and blasted with a blowtorch.
Fuku, Los Angeles
David Chang’s casual fried chicken restaurant in SocialEats food hall in Santa Monica is Asian-American comfort food personified, and this year’s dining darling for the Hollywood elite.