London's Restaurants Have Caught Up With The World's Best Dining Destinations
You can't make jokes about British food anymore. With the exception of New York, no other city can offer as exciting or as diverse dining options as London. Today, it's just as easy to find world-class French or Italian restaurants in London as it is to locate sophisticated Indian, Japanese or Chinese dining spots. The food in many of these places is as good, or even better, than in Paris, Milan, Delhi, Tokyo or Hong Kong. This year, the French selected an Englishman to head their prestigious culinary bible, the Michelin Guide. This only underscores how serious the Brits now take their food.
Moreover, there is nothing quite like the understated ambience and service of a restaurant in London. Call it British demeanor or English reserve, the best restaurants in London have a subtle air. Customers are treated like royalty but without the unnecessary hovering service. The two or three hours spent in the right place can make you feel as if you are part of the British aristocracy.
That said, London is also extremely trendy, and the wave of glitzy dining destinations, in which it's more important who is in the dining room than what comes out of the kitchen, continues to grow. Many diners in London, particularly from the suburbs, are not really interested in food, service or wine when they visit a restaurant. They see lunch or dinner in a popular place as an opportunity to stare at, or even rub shoulders with, their favorite television personality or sports star. For those interested in gastronomic pleasures, the chance of experiencing an enjoyable meal in such trend-setting restaurants is little to none, with Nobu being one of the few exceptions.
Another source of annoyance when eating out in London is that while spending a lot of money may get you exceptional food, it doesn't guarantee professional service or quality wine. This year, I have eaten in a number of top-rated restaurants in London, including La Tante Claire and Petrus, and I was surprised how little you get after spending hundreds of dollars on a meal. It's not a question of the quantity of food, of course. The food in such gastronomic temples is exquisite and chefs such as Pierre Koffman of La Tante Claire are without par when it comes to their talents in the kitchen. However, it's the slow service, outrageously expensive wines, and overtly pretentious ambience that make you feel as if you are being fleeced. Some chefs apparently need to spend more time in their dining rooms instead of in their kitchens.
Still, the best restaurants in London, including Gordon Ramsay, Pied à Terre, The Square, and Le Gavroche, can easily compete with the best in the world, and in some ways they are better if you appreciate their low-key British sophistication. The first three produce cutting-edge pan-European cuisine, which even some of the most avant-garde food temples in Paris or near Barcelona would be proud to send out of their kitchens. Le Gavroche maintains classic, well-prepared French food that is hard to find today, even in France. It's a working museum of French gastronomy without the dust and pomposity of such well-known places as Paul Bocuse and similarly three-starred restaurants in France.
I lived in London for almost 12 years before moving to Italy about three years ago. Yet, I still spend one to two months a year in the city, and I eat out a lot. I follow a few rules to enhance the experience. First and foremost is I reserve a table well in advance. They are always hard to book in the top restaurants in London. I tend to book late in the evening, say 9 p.m., so I will not be rushed or asked to vacate the table for another customer. Moreover, it's easier to enjoy a cigar at the end of the meal when only a few people are left in the restaurant. For popular dining spots, I often find it's better to reserve a table for lunch, since tables are more readily available then and menus are often less expensive. Finally, if you have a change of plans or you're running late, always call the restaurant to let them know. There's nothing worse to a restaurateur than a no-show.
Here is a list of some of my favorite dining spots in central London. All the restaurants take major credit cards. Expect to spend between $55 and $100 per person without wine for dinner, slightly less for lunch. Service is usually included in the bill.
81 Fulham Road, South Kensington, SW3 6RD
Lunch and dinner, daily
A fixture in the London restaurant scene for more than 14 years, Bibendum is still one of the city's best places to eat. It's not so much because of its hearty, down-to-earth food, which is very good but no longer de rigueur for high-end cuisine in the city. It's more the combination of beautvful dÈcor, attentive service and satisfying food, not to mention one of the best wine lists and humidors in London.
Bibendum is the brainchild of design guru Terence Conran, who is a cigar aficionado. His Art Deco Michelin garage-cum-restaurant was his first serious venture in upmarket eateries in the city, leading him to create a number of other restaurants, including Quaglino's, Mezzo and Bluebird. Bibendum remains his most beautiful restaurant.
Located on the second floor of Conran's flagship home-furnishing store, Bibendum is bright and airy with a partially domed roof and pretty stained glass windows, which appropriately show the Michelin tire man in various poses brandishing a lit cigar.
The lunch menu is smaller and a better value than dinner, although it's a set three-course menu. A starter of grilled, spicy red peppers stuffed with spinach is strongly flavored and satisfying as is a main course of grilled Sea Bream on a bed of pea risotto. One of the best dishes is the deep-fried Plaice and French fries, which is probably the best fish-and-chips in town. With more than 900 wines on the list (many at good prices) and three humidors, even the most discerning cigar aficionado or wine connoisseur will be happy here.
5a Burlington Gardens, Mayfair, W1X 1LE
Lunch and dinner, Monday to Saturday
This stylish Mayfair eatery was the darling of the art gallery and auction set in the 1980s, but lost its glitter, becoming dusty and tired by the late '90s. This spring, restaurateur and Saudi royal Hani Farsi, who also owns the nearby restaurant Che, båught the establishment, polished its interior and installed London's top Italian chef, Giorgio Locatelli, formerly of Zafferano in London.
The result is a flashy Milanese bar/restaurant with sophisticated yet simple northern Italian cuisine, professional service and a good selection of wines. Recent starters included a delicious spring salad of crispy greens and fresh peas as well as a plate of marinated octopus with new potatoes. Main courses included a deep-fried breaded veal chop and grilled tuna with a tomato and arugula salad. The wine list is good but limited. Try one of the top Veneto wines such as a Gini Soave or an Allegrini Palazzo della Torre.
Cecconi's is not going to win any stars or food awards yet but it's certainly well on its way. The restaurant is already packed with chic Bond Street shoppers and merchants as well as surrounding art cognoscenti. Plus, there's a great selection of cigars.
23 St. James's Street, St. James's, SW1A 1HE
Lunch, Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
People are not quite sure what Che is about. Some think it's a Cuban restaurant. Others believe it's a museum or meeting point to honor the deceased revolutionary. However, once inside they quickly realize that Che is one of London's most bustling, chic bars as well as a good restaurant and superb cigar lounge. It's all the doing of Che's owner, Hani Farsi, who has a passion for restaurants as well as fine wines and rare cigars.
The dining room, located on the first floor of the Economist building, is modern, bright and airy. The room features a nice selection of pop art from such painters as Roy Lichtenstein. The food is good but nothing exciting, sort of upmarket club food or New York bar and grill fare. I usually start a meal with a simple Caesar salad, which is always creamy, piquant and crunchy. The warm smoked salmon with horseradish and potato blinis and a chive dressing is equally delicious.