If, last year, I’d had to guess where the restaurant scene would thrive in 2022, the Canary Wharf district would have felt most improbable. Sure, this was once deemed London’s highest-earning postcode, but none of that was benefiting the restaurant world when the employees of its banks were working in pyjamas in Berkshire. And, pandemic aside, Canary Wharf has never been anyone’s idea of a charming dining destination, despite being in parts twinkly, luxurious and curiously Bladerunner-ish.
To see it become the focus of big players such as Hawksmoor, Caravan, Marugame Udon and a new hulking Market Halls says a lot about how confident investors are of a return to desks. The days of dressing gowns and Joe Wicks workouts were officially over when Hawksmoor unveiled its most ostentatious opening to date: a vast, shimmering restaurant in Wood Wharf.
Half steakhouse, half love boat, it floats on the water in the middle of 23 acres of residential and working space, currently heavily marketed as a place for Londoners to live, laugh, love and pedal their Pelotons in flats that cost £400k for a bijou one-bed. Caravan’s arrival suggests that there is an expectation that the wharf will no longer be a weekend ghost town, but instead a place to fritter your free time. The much-loved Patty & Bun, purveyors of the Ari Gold burger,will arrive in May, while the increasingly cherished Emilia’s Crafted Pasta has just opened, and Six By Nico, about which I have already made my feelings clear, is gearing up to serve its multi-course Ancient Rome-themed tasting menu from mid-March. While heating bills and staff shortages have made buying a cup of coffee before 11am in Soho a gargantuan feat, over in E14, the all-day brunch is thriving. And on a wet, windy Wednesday night in February, it’s a push to get a table for two at Hawksmoor Wood Wharf.
Perhaps what diners see in Hawksmoor is warm dependability. Yes, this new place may have the air of a New Orleans steam cruiser that has mated with an All Bar One, but it nevertheless offers the same high-quality porterhouse, T-bone and chateaubriand that have made diners open their wallets since 2006. Hawksmoor has danced a dainty jig over the past 16 years, expanding and becoming part of the food-scene furniture, while never quite straying to naffness. It remains to millions of people something of a treat – regardless that there are now branches in Edinburgh, Manchester and New York; that steak is as du jour to young people right now as Chico Time; and that the Angus Steakhouse in Covent Garden has been turned into a Mildred’s vegan restaurant.
Unsurprisingly, Hawksmoor at Canary Wharf does not parade its trays of raw meat around the tables for the diners to ooh and ahh at. Instead, there’s a more discreet offering of now-departed cow, as well as a good selection of oysters with scotch bonnet mignonette, and roast oysters with bone marrow. The smoked mackerel salad with horseradish and new potatoes is great, as is the ash-baked beetroot with pickled fennel.
A subtle repurposing of Hawksmoor seems to have gone on, almost undetected, over the past few years; with mains of charred romesco with hazelnuts, peanuts and sesame appearing on the menu, plus a very good charcoal-roasted halibut, which I’ve eaten on a couple of occasions with a side of very buttery mash and gravy, plus a lovable creamed spinach that wraps itself around your chest like a culinary cuddle.
A visit to Hawksmoor may not be the glittering, braggable occasion it was was 15 years ago, when you’d book months in advance for Sunday lunch and stagger out four hours later, packed tightly with prime rib. Yet there is still something reassuringly special about a secluded, flatteringly-lit table for two, a hunk of rare ribeye with anchovy hollandaise and some triple-fried chips, thenthe clotted cream and sticky toffee pudding sundae, which comes in a tall glass with two spoons, glistening with almost too much sauce and the suggestion that the Peloton torture can recommence tomorrow.
We fought our way inthrough crowds at 5.30pm and, as we paid up, they promptly turned our table. In a food landscape filled with uncertainty, where many small restaurateurs are too scared to turn on their lights, Hawksmoor Wood Wharf is operating on full tractor beam, channelling ebullient, 100-watt certainty. I don’t know where we’re all going, but in Canary Wharf, at least for now, the future’s so bright, I’ve got to wear shades.
Hawksmoor Wood Wharf, 1 Water Street, London E14, 020-3988 0510. Open lunch Tues-Sun, noon-2.30pm (4pm Sun); dinner Mon–Sat, 5-11pm. From about £50 a head a la carte; set lunch/early dinner £23 for two courses, £26 for three, all plus drinks and service