Kiln shot to fame when it was crowned the UK’s best restaurant at the National Restaurant Awards in 2018. It was an interesting choice and raised a few eyebrows at the time, seemingly coming out of nowhere. Perhaps this was because it does not seem to be extreme on any one metric – it is not the biggest, not the most expensive, doesn’t have a Michelin star; just a very good restaurant in London run by a team that seem to really care. But maybe that’s the point.

Kiln is the follow up restaurant from Ben Chapman, part of the team behind the Smoking Goat in Shoreditch. It is a small, casual dining room in Soho that, as evidenced above, has built a stellar reputation for its meticulously researched rural Thai food cooked over charcoal or authentically baked in clay pots.

Secret to success?

In response to being posed the question “what is the secret to your success?”, Ben answered “I suppose I try to make restaurants that don’t make sense and don’t make money. Not sure you can call that a secret, but it works for us.” This seems like a throwaway piece of self-deprecation but it does actually get to the heart of the issue; really good restaurants of this type are driven by people that care passionately about what they are creating and about the people they are serving. And if you really care and do it excellently, people will follow you.

There is a very clear sense of purpose that comes out of the enthusiasm Ben and his team have for the food they cook. The depth of research and commitment to using quality ingredients is undeniable. When asked which dish he was most proud of, Ben’s response was:

“Perhaps something like the herbal curry soup of pork. It’s our version of gaeng om, a rural, very Thai dish with fermented freshwater fish – the type you rarely see in restaurants. We only serve it when we have the fresh lemongrass tops that are grown for us by Sean O’Neill of The Modern Salad Grower in Cornwall. It shows how dedication on the quality of each and every ingredient makes a simple, humble dish extraordinary.”

Not overly designed

Considering that Kiln is a restaurant created by a former restaurant designer, you might be surprised at just how low key the design elements are here. The shopfront is quite recognisable for the oak framework contrasting with the graphite paint, but inside there are very few elements on show. This is not necessarily because they are not there, but when it is full (and it is always full) you mainly just see people. Half the ground floor is taken up with the open kitchen with bar stools clustered around it’s main counter . It feels cramped, but convivial as we wait our turn to sit at the altar and review the menu. The staff are relaxed but knowledgeable; menu recommendations come easily and service hums along with the confidence that only comes from a team that has done this many times before.

My favourite detail – the pile of vinyl and turntable wedged in one corner of the back counter. A timely reminder that solutions don’t need to be complicated. Just some human beings that have come together to cook great Thai food and enjoy themselves whilst doing it.

Experience Map

I am almost loathed to think about the experience map here, it feels like a very rational way to assess an intuitively excellent restaurant. It does highlight again though, you don’t need to do everything well in order to really excel. The right combination of focused attention can create a fantastic experience. There are many aspects of a customer’s experience that Kiln simply ignore, but this is outweighed by how naturally they excel on a number of very key areas.

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