The restaurant scene in London is vibrant and varied. As a city it probably ranks alongside New York in its ability to offer an opportunity to inhabitants and visitors alike to eat their way around the globe or to put it another way, to enjoy the culinary alphabet from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

That these two cities offer such a diversity of nationalities is not surprising: America’s success has been based on an ability to draw talent from a melting pot with numerous waves of immigrants arriving regularly in New York. London too has been the arrival point of many refugees, often fleeing religious persecution from the less liberal areas of Russia and Europe. The original wave of Huguenots didn’t do much for cuisine but left their names on many of the street signs in the East End. Those same streets were then populated by Sephardic and Hasidic Jews who certainly made a mark on the culinary heritage of London. England’s favourite dish is fish and chips – a product of the Jewish habit of frying fish! Strangely, this has made far more of a mark on the country than many of the other standout elements of Jewish cooking, although they have established far deeper roots in New York.

Today, the East End is home to the Bangladeshi community whose curries form such an important part of a night out. Once again a new dimension to culture and food is solely down to the arrival of new people bringing their culinary tradition with them. I’ve provided a little history because that describes the traditional route to people’s stomachs. Other dishes came to countries on the back of military incursions: Pizza was discovered by American soldiers in Italy and Kedgeree was enjoyed by the vast body of bureaucrats supporting the English colonial influence of India.

However, the emergence of Spanish cuisine in London has enjoyed none of these strands and is perhaps all the more impressive for that. Although plenty of tourists visit Spain, particularly the South and many even buy property, they appear to expect Spain to provide the home cooking that they enjoyed in the UK (and the Germans are just as bad), rather than returning home with the zeal to cook a newly discovered dish or to seek out the kind of regional cooking within London or say, Manchester.

There has been minimal migration from Spain to the UK; certainly no similar influx to that of Bangladesh or other Commonwealth countries. However, having a large enough presence to create a community does not guarantee the establishment of a cuisine, as exemplified by the subdued emergence of cooking from any country in Africa. So what inspired the arrival of Spain in London and more importantly its continued presence at the top?

For me the breakthrough year came in 2003 with the arrival of the restaurants Brindisa and Finos. There were no compromises in quality or dumbed-down dishes for returning tourists. Wine lists contained exciting items such as Sherry (and not just one), Orujo and wines from hitherto unknown areas such as Rias Baixas or Jumilla. Brindisa had already established itself as a company providing excellent Spanish provisions to the trade but opening a restaurant showed the consumer how delicious simple foods could be when treated properly.

In this regard, Spanish cuisine is similar to Italian in that the use of a few excellent ingredients makes for a tasty dish and in fact inspires the consumer to even try and recreate it, rather than getting bogged down in the technical swamp that many French dishes drown in. At that time, I was involved with the delicious top-notch sherries from Hidalgo, notably La Gitana, and was lucky that these were the choices of both Brindisa and Finos. It enabled me to become closer to the restaurants and witness the arrival of the second Spanish Armada, this time successful and able to establish a presence in the city which was not to be reversed.

The excellent Cambio de Tercio finally had some support in waving the Spanish flag, not to mention some healthy competition. Apart from highlighting what could be done with good olive oil, morcilla, giant prawns and charred red peppers, in addition to established products like chorizo, Spanish cooks were working at the behest of English owners, such as Monika Linton at Brindisa and the Hart Brothers of Finos and subsequently Barrafina. Of course José Pizarro and Nieves Barragán Mohacho not only graced those establishments but went on to further glory with their own restaurants: José Pizarro’s and Sabor. Tim Luther of the Copita group and Simon Mullins of Salt Yard, then Dehesa and Opera Tavern were also part of the quality-orientated wave that dared to offer something more adventurous than Paella. Newer arrivals such as Lurra and Donostia continue the good work.

Note how these pioneers have kept their groups small, opening new ones when their older restaurants and standards were established. It’s the opposite of what happens to chains that start small and over-expand too quickly. The other result of hasty or over ambitious expansion is a diminution of quality. Inevitably quality comes second to price and the flare or individuality suffers too. Along with the success of the ‘flag wavers’ came the pale imitations, quick to seek a profit from the efforts of others. However, it’s heartening to know that after a decade of serving under-seasoned, middle-of the road fodder that probably still counts as a proper Spanish meal in a grey international city like Dusseldorf, the chains appear to have vanished, along with the boring wine they served. The honourable exception here is Ibérica and although some will feel that their food is not earth-shattering, it is genuine and the wine list has some really interesting offerings such as Mauro. Even this group is no larger than four or five.

In essence, Spain does not enjoy a large presence in London but it largely appears to be doing the right things. Of 1,500 restaurants listed in the Harden’s guide, 50 are Spanish. Its emergence didn’t address a gaping hole in the market or a trend yet the habit of serving decent, tasty and well-prepared food from good quality ingredients made Spanish cooking respected. Aside from the food, it became much easier to find wines other than Rioja or well established brands like González Byass and Torres. No criticism there but variety is the spice of life. Wines by the glass increased as did the range of areas represented. Not only could one enjoy a modest sized lunch or dinner, they could try new wines by the ‘copa’ which allowed them to move beyond the old favourites. Two completely different markets arose: one was the on-trade which highlighted the new and allowed sherry to thrive, and the second was the off-trade where the old order still remained in charge. The second category is a closer reflection of Spanish wine exports but most of the growth of areas such as Rueda, Sherry or the Rías Baixas can be attributed to their on-trade presence.

Cuisines come and go: the 1970s and 1980s were all French but finding good French cooking now in London is not easy or commonplace. Today’s culinary heroes are not French. That mantle belongs to Spain and Ferran Adrià’s accomplishments have had as much to do in making Spanish cooking get noticed and respected, as any of the heroes I’ve mentioned in this article. Spain became sexy and fashionable and although I know that Sam and Eddie Hart were more inspired by Cal Pep in Barcelona than any three-Michelin-star establishment, the association with quality (or even fame) could only help the cause. And the brothers in turn established new standards for others to follow.