Restaurant reviewers from national newspapers don’t seem to venture to Sutton very often but Matthew Norman of The Daily Telegraph made an exception recently to review Brasserie Vacherin at the top of the High Street near the station. He was very complimentary of the restaurant in his review which you can read here and rightly so. I’ve been a few times and very much enjoyed it on each visit.
However it was his review of Sutton which bookended his opinion of the brasserie that really hit home. A few quotes:
The location is deeply uninspiring, but the food at Brasserie Vacherin is vibrant and accomplished.
The barren desert amid which Brasserie Vacherin may be stumbled upon is an ugly street encircled by a brutal one-way system in the centre of Sutton, perched on the rim of London. After the slow and arduous process of parking above a nearby Morrisons, we entered it expecting a shabby imitation, and were startled to discover the real thing.
Location, location… no, it’s still not coming back. Even so, the point was made again by Vacherin’s emptiness on a Saturday lunchtime, when in most parts of the country it would have been rammed with shoppers seeking respite from the aridity beyond.
The only thing Brasserie Vacherin needs to fulfil its potential is to be airlifted to almost anywhere else.
That’s harsh. I’m not someone who runs my home town down. Sutton is a good place to live that’s why I’ve made it my home for 28 years. Restaurant reviewers get paid to raise hackles, be controversial and paint technicolor pictures. However his view from the outside, however Zone 1 it might be, bears further scrutiny. If we think that Sutton is the bees knees, an oasis offering the attractive appeal of a Surrey village like Abinger Hammer with the transport links of a city hub Clapham Junction, we won’t ever be able to create an ambitious vision for Sutton that allows it to compete and stand shoulder to shoulder with the soon-to-be retail king Croydon, the appeal of riverside Kingston and the unlimited choice of Central London, all of which are on our doorstep.
My view of Sutton was coloured by my first experience of the town centre. When I was about 17, my father moved from a Central London engineering company to a small international office located above what was then Tesco’s (now Asda). We were driving through Sutton to visit family in Croydon and he decided to show us his office. After three circuits of the one-way system in the car, we all decided that my aunt’s curry was too tempting an offer and gave it up as a bad job. A lot has changed since then, some for the better, some not. When I lived in a flat in Homefield Park, there were few good pubs and restaurants nearby. Now there is a better choice in pubs and restaurants whilst the retail offering is not as good, a decline hastened by Allders moving into the St Nicholas Centre before folding. Investment is coming into the town in the shape of Sutton Point and Sainsburys. However as much as the council’s Opportunity Sutton department likes to be directing operations they still seem to be a step or two behind developers. I can’t see a clear strategy for the town centre. Plans are considered on an ad hoc basis when they come up from developers rather than proactively seeking targeted change. There are too many of what Matthew Norman describes as “graveyard sites”, shops which seem to spend as much time boarded up as they do trading. Empty shops have a knock-on effect on their neighbours. Trade often relies on people passing and boarded up places encourages people to stay over the other side of the road.
Sutton council isn’t an estate agent. It can’t go around speculating on businesses itself but if councillors and officers had a crystal clear idea of what residents want from Sutton High Street, they can use their influence to attract the right companies and developers. They’re out there, just look at the amount of investment piling into Croydon and Tower Hamlets as two examples. We can do more to improve transport rather than just concentrate on the tram. It takes 12 minutes to get to the City from Croydon, that’s what Sutton has to compete with when vying for businesses who are looking to relocate. One way to improve our connections is to extend the London Overground from West Croydon to Sutton. That uses the existing track so is mainly a logistical exercise rather than a hugely expensive and disruptive construction project. The Overground would provide better connections to Canary Wharf and Stratford without having to change. It would also literally put Sutton on the map. The fact that Sutton would appear on the London Underground map for the first time would have a huge effect in itself in terms of making investors aware of the town as well as helping Sutton become an up and coming location.
First things first. Have a walk around Sutton town centre. Go and have an excellent lunch in Brasserie Vacherin and have a think about how you would like Sutton to look in 5 or 10 years time and let me know. Let’s be ambitious for the town that carries the borough’s name.