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.
For a main course, meat is always a good choice, despite the confusion over the various diseases affecting livestock in the United Kingdom. The lamb with caponata and new potatoes is earthy and flavorful. Ask the sommelier to select one of the top red Rhônes on Che's extensive wine list, including the superb single-vineyard Côte Rôties from Guigal. There are plenty of other interesting wines from Bordeaux, Burgundy and the United States.
Desserts are very English and delicious. The sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream is unctuous. However, I find it's usually better to save the calories and pass on dessert by going downstairs to the back-room cigar lounge at the bar and fire up a smoke with a glass of vintage Port. Farsi has dozens of cigars available. Many of the old cigars, including Cuban Davidoffs and pre-Castro cigars, come from his personal collection. There's no better place in London than Che for a cigar smoker to finish the night.
43 Upper Brook Street, Mayfair, W1K 7QR
Lunch and dinner, Monday to Friday
Some people might find Le Gavroche a bit passé with its opulent velvety decor, army of waiters in black jackets and excellent tableside service. But I can't think of a better way to be pampered in a London restaurant. The retro luxury of the place can't be beat.
MaÓtre d' Silvano Giraldin has been making sure every client at Le Gavroche is treated with the utmost care and courtesy for more than three decades. Sommelier Thierry Thomasin maintains what may be the best wine list in London, perhaps in England, with all the top names, from Lafite to Domaine Romanée Conti, plus numerous bargains from the south of France and the rest of the world. Don't be afraid to be adventurous and try something different, such as a reasonably priced Cabernet Franc from the Loire Valley, a Chardonnay from New Zealand or a Syrah from the Langeudoc.
In the kitchen, the emphasis is on traditional dishes that rely on French ingredients, from foie gras to frog's legs. Chef and owner Michel Roux has fine-tuned the food, yet it remains rich and hearty. A starter of snails and frogs legs cooked in a small ceramic pot in the oven with herbs and ham is earthy and decadent, with just the right amount of seasoning. A main course of perfectly roasted rack of lamb is equally flavorful yet light and refined. Save room for the dessert trolley, which is packed with ice creams, sorbets and pastries. Or ask to see the extensive humidor and retire to the lounge area for a great smoke and a glass of vintage Armagnac or Cognac.
Gordon Ramsay Restaurant
68 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea, SW3 4HP
Lunch and dinner, Monday to Friday
Gordon Ramsay's restaurant, which is a short taxi ride from Knightsbridge, is the hardest table to book in London. With his establishment receiving three stars from the Michelin Guide this year, the 35-year-old chef is the gastronomic superstar of the moment, with local media fighting to get him into their pages or on television. It's not just hype. The man can cook. He makes some of the most refined, modern cuisine I have had in recent years. His pan-European style takes some of the best ideas from home as well as from France, Italy and Spain.
A starter of slowly braised pork belly with spices served on a bed of small white beans with tiny poached langoustines on the side in a light cream sauce is reminiscent of some dishes I've had in top restaurants in the south of France as well as in Spain. Yet, Ramsay does it in a refined way, with the bold oily, spicy and decadent pork beautifully playing off the delicate flavors of the crustaceans.
A main course of flavorful chicken breast poached and then grilled and served on braised Savoy cabbage with carmelized shallots, small pieces of asparagus and a thyme, black truffle jus is delicate yet still delivers plenty of earthy flavors. A super sticky apple tart for dessert is grown-up nursery food.
Ramsay's multidimensional cuisine is well showcased in the sophisticated yet relaxed atmosphere of his small restaurant, where you are just as likely to sit next to a pin-striped-suited businessman as a turtle-neck-wearing hipster. Service is very French and a bit stuffy with the exception of English wine waiter Ronan Sayburn. The Burgundy selection is the best part of his solid wine list, although there's also some interesting choices from the United States and southern France. He also has a good selection of cigars, which customers are asked to smoke in the small waiting-area-cum-bar. This fall, Ramsay will be in charge of the dining room of London's best hotel, Claridge's, so there will be even more room to enjoy a good cigar after one of his great meals.
19 Old Park Lane, Mayfair, W1 4LB
Lunch and dinner, daily
If you are familiar with the New York City restaurant scene, a visit to the London Nobu may not interest you. But if you skip it, you're making a mistake. This is one of the hottest restaurants in London, attracting hundreds of customers each night to its spacious second-floor Zen-like dining room just above the reception area of the trendy Metropolitan Hotel.
Sure, it's noisy and the tables are tight and service can be slow. However, I have never had a bad meal here and I have always had a great time. It's one of the best places for people-watching, from famous actors to English aristocracy to young musicians in Indie bands.
The menu is very similar to Nobu in New York, although slightly reduced in size. The classics are still there, such as starters of Toro (tuna belly) tartar with caviar, hot miso chips and new sashimi. The latter two are particularly good, fresh and flavorful, a new wave interpretation of classic Japanese dishes.
The small, fresh potato crisps have a flowery, tangy character from their miso glaze and the finely chopped raw tuna on top of the chips gives a meaty, earthy aftertaste. The new sashimi of shrimp -- meaning it was pan-fried for a few seconds -- is cool and tender on the inside and warm, spicy and nutty on the outside from the sesame seed oil sauce and raw garlic and chive garnish.
A main course of roasted cod, which is marinated for a few days in miso, is incredibly rich and pungent, yet refreshing. Many customers apparently come just for the sushi and sashimi, and the few pieces I tried were perfectly done, incredibly fresh and tender.
Try a bottle of German Riesling or Pinot Gris from Alsace, one of many interesting wines on the well-selected list. I had a 1997 J.J. Prüm Riesling Spätlese that was the perfect foil to my meal. This is not a place to smoke cigars, since the tables are packed together. So, pop down to the reception area or bar at the Metropolitan for an after-dinner smoke.
Pied À Terre
34 Charlotte Street, North Of Soho, W1P 1HJ
Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Pied à Terre continues to be one of the best restaurants in London, despite recent changes in the kitchen. The continuity of high quality is due to the hard work and dedication of the restaurant's part-owner and manager, David Moore, a young Irishman with a passion for great food and outstanding wine. He is following the example of such classic restaurateurs as Jean-Claude Vrinat of Taillevent in Paris and Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque in New York. He maintains that it's not just outstanding cuisine that makes a great restaurant but a combination of everything from the service to decoration to the wine list.
Granted, Moore's restaurant is much smaller than such gastronomic temples as Taillevent and Le Cirque. It's also more like eating in a chic, modern art gallery than a clubby or showy space. Yet Pied à Terre reflects the mood of London today -- refined elegance without pretension -- and Australian chef Shane Osborn is making extremely subtle and refined food, perhaps the best ever here.
Try the frothy, buttery white bean, black truffle soup or the light cannelloni filled with earthy death trumpet mushrooms served with sautÈed frog legs in a light butter emulsion. You can't go wrong with foie gras poached in chicken stock and served in a sweet yet vibrant Sauternes sauce or the succulent roasted rabbit loin with cep mushrooms and artichokes in a meat, mushroom jus.
With its superb food, an ever-changing, interesting wine selection (try one of the dry whites from Austria or a Super Spaniard red), quick and friendly service and good cigars, Pied à Terre continues to be my favorite restaurant in London.
20 Queen Street, Mayfair, W1X 7PJ
Lunch, Sunday to Friday; dinner, nightly
You don't have to visit India to eat spectacular Indian food. London has some of the best Indian restaurants in the world and Tamarind remains the finest. It even has one star from the Michelin Guide. The refined, relaxing decor of this basement restaurant in Mayfair is the first indication that this is no simple curry house. Diners can watch the chefs cook various meats, fish, poultry and vegetables in the beehive shaped clay ovens through a window at one end of the dining room. The food is vibrant and sophisticated, redefining what most people think of Indian cuisine.
Nearly all the courses are spicy and refreshing, emphasizing the wholesomeness of the kitchen's ingredients. All the spices are shipped directly from India and the three chefs come from the Dehli region in India.
Some of the most interesting dishes are fish. A saffron-and-yogurt-marinated tandoori monkfish is soft, tender and succulent, with light pungent flavors. Pan-fried salmon with green spices and crispy spinach is equally tender yet is tangy and intensely flavored with cumin. Service is quick and friendly, and the staff is always willing to offer suggestions. The big drawback here is the wine list: it's short and expensive. I was still able to find a good bottle of Australian Riesling, although an Indian lager beer might have been a better choice.
6-10 Bruton Street, Mayfair, W1J 6PU
Lunch and dinner, Monday to Friday
There's something very Manhattan, or even Parisian, about eating at The Square, just around the corner from Berkeley Square in Mayfair. Maybe it's the modern decor with its sleek glass front with subtle lines of wood, black marble and stainless steel. Or perhaps it's the serene and extremely efficient service of elegantly dressed waiters attending to your every need. It might even be the sophisticated, smartly dressed crowd that frequents the restaurant. Whatever the reason, it's always a treat to eat in this cosmopolitan restaurant in the heart of the city.
Lunch is the best option here, if you really want to get a feel for Mayfair when the local business, media and fashion crowd use The Square as their cantina. Evenings are slightly less active. Regardless, the food is always excellent, uncomplicated, almost minimal cuisine emphasizing bold and rich flavors. A light amuse bouche of a small teacup full of creamy and frothy langoustine soup with roasted mussels is just the right thing to get your appetite going. A starter of Red Mullet baked en papillote with fennel is fresh and delicate, while a main course of oven-roasted brill served on a bed of creamed Savoy cabbage with lentils and lardons is savory and flavorful. The salty flavors of the vegetables and bacon enhance the tender white meat of the fish.
The excellent waitstaff is almost entirely French, including sommelier Marc Moignoux, who presides over an extensive list of hundreds of well-selected bottles. Everything's available, from the latest hot wine from Spain's Priorat area to the best of Australia's Barossa as well as plenty of bottles from Bordeaux and Burgundy. Cigar smoking is allowed (a good selection of Habanos is available), but customers are usually not encouraged to smoke until the end of lunch or dinner in the small waiting area.
15 Lowndes Street, Knightsbridge, SW1X 9EY
Lunch and dinner, Monday to Sunday
About five years ago, this Knightsbridge restaurant came to the spotlight as the Italian restaurant in London, and it still holds true despite the departure of chef Giorgio Locatelli. The main reason for its continued success is manager Enzo Cassini, who not only runs a welcoming and efficient dining room but also maintains the best Italian wine list in town. He works closely with Locatelli's former understudy, chef Andrew Niedham, to maintain, and even improve, the menu.
The dishes haven't changed and the focus is still northern Italian. Start with the asparagus risotto. It's moist and flavorful, complementing the grilled spring vegetables. You can't go wrong with a fresh and delicious pappardelle with broad beans and arugula. For a main course, try a creamy and tasty roasted monkfish with a dusting of walnuts and a caper butter sauce.
Service is always quick and friendly and nothing is forgotten. Let Cassini choose a wine for you, since he spends his holidays touring his Italian homeland for great bottles. He's just as happy to recommend an inexpensive wine from Umbria or Le Marche as a top-class Super Tuscan or Gaja Barbaresco. His list includes about 400 different wines. Cigar smokers should book late, if they wish to smoke in the restaurant.