Not a week goes by without one of Soho’s tacky, cookie-cutter concept-theme restaurants closing. Most are instantly forgotten and replaced by new plastic, trendy, derivatives run by accountants with a death wish. Others, whose owners must enjoy being ravaged by landlords, reopen on an adjoining street. People who eat in these places are suckers, seemingly unaware (or not caring) that the extreme rents make decent-value-for-money food economically impossible.
One of a tiny handful of exceptions was Life Café, which will close its doors before the weekend is over. It was one of the few Soho places to have actual character: a sort of 60s-70s, beanbags, solid-wood, menu-on-blackboard, eco-yoga thing, over three floors including a rooftop. It was the only place with a recognizable owner everyone could put a name to – Lamma hippy-businessman Bobsy. The food clearly came first. Not contrived, food-as-punishment vegetarian, but very tasty and enjoyable fare that happened not to include (or need) meat or processed ingredients.
The Standard reports that Life’s closure is due to high rents. The current boss Moosa Alissa produces some corporate PR-speak about how the restaurant business requires ‘continuous growth in scale and revenue’ for survival, which is not realistically possible and explains the constant churn of outlets in Soho. Maybe a tawdry Korean-tourist-friendly Caliburger (‘branches in Dubai, Saudi, Kuwait’) will move into the space. They could use the slogan, ‘A taste of the after Life’.
In a wistful obituary for his creation, Bobsy recalls pioneering gluten-free and quinoa in Hong Kong. We now know, of course, that avoidance of gluten is a silly fad, and that quinoa is basically barley for people with a massive grudge against poor Bolivians. Yet while high rents may be forcing restaurants out of business, parts of Hong Kong are being invaded by sterile and unappetizing-looking organic health food stores (including the Just Green chain, co-run by ‘continuous growth’ Moosa).
One of the unexpected side-effects of gentrification in Hong Kong Island seems to be this explosion of inane food fads. Alongside Coke and lime soda, little Thai places have for decades sold coconuts, from which you drink with a straw if you like that slightly gloopy soapy taste. Now, all of a sudden over the last year, we have been swamped with pricy Coconut Water in dazzling cans and cartons, promising no end of miraculous benefits. Which are, of course, baloney.
A quick stroll around Western reveals dozens of new natural healthy faddy stores springing up out of nowhere, offering bizarre teas, obscure seeds, outlandish oils, a peculiar thing about apple vinegar, and – courtesy of wise men from the Himalayas – kombucha. And who needs coconut water when you can have…
…birch tree sap? Because leaving the stuff inside birch trees where it belongs doesn’t create a big enough carbon footprint, presumably. (Shouldn’t the slogan have a comma? ‘Drink pure birch tree, sap’.)
And then we’ve got the noble and ancient Inca civilization’s great gift to mankind’s nutritional needs, the potato. I mean…
…yes, our friend quinoa. This is special, stupendously expensive, hand-crafted, artisanal quinoa. And when not appropriating Peruvian culture and heritage with misspelling and cardboard cutouts of llamas (as not found on Lamma), they also sell maca powder, because – how on earth did we ever get by before that came along?
Nonsensical pseudo-science food fashions aside, don’t forget: high-rents, mark-ups, value for money… The way things are going, these places will be driving all the real-estate agencies and expat housewives’ nail-pampering salons off the streets within a year, and all the Caliburgers.