‘You’ve never seen fine dining like this’ promises the signage outside Only Food and Courses’ debut site at Pop Brixton in south London. No kidding. After all, how many other fine dining restaurants in the capital serve Babycham on the drink’s menu? Our guess is not many.
Then there’s the restaurant’s shipping container setting. While not entirely unheard of – Irish chef Adrian Martin’s tasting menu-only restaurant Wildflower operates out of one within Camden’s Buck Street eco market – it’s not exactly the most conventional surroundings in which to serve high-end fare.
But, then again, Only Food and Courses, which takes its cues from the British culinary trends of the 80s and 90s, is far from a conventional fine dining restaurant.
The name, as many will no doubt guess, is a pun on John Sullivan’s beloved BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses. This is absolutely not a novelty restaurant, though. The walls aren’t adorned with tacky memorabilia; the menu doesn’t have catchphrases like ‘lovely jubbly’ written all over it; and the dishes aren’t served by staff dressed as Del Boy and Rodney.
"Brixton has an open-minded attitude to new, innovative food concepts like ours; and is a great incubator from which we can develop the business”
“I’m glad we didn’t choose to open in Peckham,” says a smiling Robbie Lorraine, Only Food and Courses’ chef and founder, referring to the TV show’s setting. “I love the area, but it would have been too predictable. People would have just dismissed us off the bat as being gimmicky, and I wanted to avoid that.
“Brixton felt like a perfect place to launch, particularly in Pop Brixton. It has an open-minded attitude to new, innovative food concepts like ours; and is a great incubator from which we can develop the business.”
A recent review by Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner substantiates his claims, with Rayner describing it as a restaurant that “deserves to be taken seriously”.
Creating the concept
Lorraine never intended Only Food and Courses to become a restaurant. He’d established the brand as a supper club in Kent; operating regular pop ups that served tasting menus of around seven and eight courses.
“Originally, I was really looking for a way to just get my name out there. I’d moved to Kent from London and wanted to get involved in the food scene.”
The concept, and the name, came out of a conversation with a friend. “We were just spitballing ideas,” he continues. “The food of the 80s and 90s defined my upbringing. It’s such an influential era for me, and I wanted to take those traditional dishes and flavours, and rework them into something more contemporary.
“Somehow that discussion led to a chat about Only Fools and Horses. It’s a show that’s always had a special resonance for me because my gran used to always have it on when I was a kid. Obviously, it was very funny, but beyond the jokes those ideas of putting in the hard graft and getting something out of it really meant something. As did that sense of community the show promoted.
“So, I began think about how I could incorporate that into the food and the concept. And the name grew out of that.”
A cheeky twist
Only Food and Courses is billed as ‘a brilliantly cheeky twist on classic British food’, which is so earnestly grating that it’s likely to both irritate and infuriate those unfamiliar with the concept. Thankfully the setting is enough to alleviate any cynicism.
“It can’t be taken too seriously, we’re cooking in a shipping container in Brixton,” says Lorraine, chuckling. “I’ve always been confident about what I cook and have spent a lot of time honing my skills. I want to offer food that doesn’t put on airs and graces but takes pride in its heritage and can make people smile.”
The offer is split between a regularly changing evening tasting menu of six courses, and a daytime à la carte menu of larger, signature plates. It’s a very personal set of dishes, with Lorraine often drawing nostalgically from his own childhood memories.
Lobster doughnuts are inspired by weekend visits to the seaside with his gran that were replete with the smells of fried dough being prepared by a beachfront vendor; while the duck eclairs – choux pastry buns split and filled with duck confit, glazed with a duck jus and topped with edible flowers – are a throwback to Sunday afternoon teas prepared by his mum.
"I want to offer food that doesn’t put on airs and graces but takes pride in its heritage and can make people smile”
Elsewhere, the breakfast café staple of ham, egg and chips – a favourite of Lorraine’s grandfather – is given a makeover that combines a generous slice of ham hock terrine with chickpea chips and cured egg yolk. It’s a dish that has a comforting familiarity to it yet manages to feel completely unique.
“That one I developed during lockdown, but some of these dishes I’ve been working on for close to a decade,” says Lorraine. “A lot of it is ideas I first explored when I did the pop ups. I’m constantly trying to improve on what I’ve done before and engineer the food to be the best it can be.”
There’s plenty of technique on display, as well as a couple of gentle nods to the restaurant’s namesake. A prawn cocktail sees crevettes served alongside pickled cucumber ribbons and charred lettuce, dotted with balsamic pearls, and topped with an aerated Marie Rose sauce that’s been infused with the leftover shell of the lobster used for the doughnuts; while duck à l'orange – a Del Boy favourite – features marmalade-glazed duck breast with confit duck leg tortellini, orange braised chicory and pickled red cabbage.
Prices are at the lower end of the fine dining spectrum (but high for a shipping container venue) with dishes ranging from £12 to £14 and the six-course tasting menu coming in at £65. Wines are also unlikely to trouble the wallets of its target customers with none breaking the £36 mark.
Breaking down barriers
While much of his career to date has been spent working in event catering and director’s dining, Lorraine started out working in the kitchens of small, independent restaurants. The first of those - a family-owned Italian called Castillo that he used to pull shifts in after school – had a particular impact.
“It really gave me a feel for the type of place I’d like to have myself one day,” he says. “Eating out should always be about comfort, and this place instilled this in me very early on.”
"I don’t want people to always think they can’t get access to high-end cuisine just because they don’t look or dress a certain way”
Making the concept inviting and accessible has been key. “Just because it’s fine dining per se, it’s not about having table clothes or serving food on fine china.
“I found high-end restaurants intimidating when I first began going to them. They were always smart places where wearing a dinner jacket was a requisite of entry. It was so out of my comfort zone; and I wanted to break those barriers down. I don’t want people to always think they can’t get access to high-end cuisine just because they don’t look or dress a certain way.”
To that end, the interior eschews the conventionally ornate look often associated with fine dining. Instead, the 28-cover space is modelled on Britain's greasy spoon cafes, with white tiling, plastic tables and nailed down benches. A lively playlist of 80s and 90s anthems plays over the speakers.
At the back is the open kitchen, so small that Lorraine operates it solo. “I can’t open the oven and dishwasher at the same time,” he says, with a grin. “It’s not a restrictive space, though. I’ve jammed in as much kit as I can and made sure there’s a systematic process behind where everything is kept. Having a Thermomix is like having a little sous chef in the corner, but it would be nice to have someone else to work with and talk to in there.”
Plans for the future
Initially, Lorraine was offered the unit in Pop Brixton that has previously proved to be a successful incubator for Indian small plates restaurant Kricket, and modern-British concept Smoke & Salt. But instead, he chose to take the container adjacent to it.
“I didn’t want to go into that specific space. I’d rather create my own story rather than hang on the coattails of others, and I worried that if we had taken that one then people would want to try and compare us.”
While the concepts are different, Lorraine’s aim is to follow a similar trajectory as those two brands, both of which now operate bricks and mortar sites in the capital. “My hope is that in the next six months we’ll be able to launch a permanent location for Only Food and Courses. If the pandemic hadn’t hit, I think we’d be there already.”
Lorraine is currently looking at sites in south London, with Brixton and Peckham both areas of interest. “I want to find somewhere small, between 30 and 50 covers, and then build towards getting something bigger,” he explains. “Our positioning is good right now, and with rents going down it’s a good time to be looking.”
"We we want to take it as far as we can”
Beyond the restaurant, plans are also being drawn up to develop an event catering arm for the business, as well as further pop ups. “I don’t want it to be a one-dimensional brand where it’s just restaurants,” he adds.
“The events business is active, but it’s limited more to consultancy at the moment as we only have a very small team. But I want to grow that.
“We’re also planning some pop ups for the future, both in London and possibly around Kent and Essex too, so we can continue to build on what we’ve established so far. I don’t know how far we’ll go, but we want to take it as far as we can.”
This time next year…