By Philip Vidal
“When a man tires of London, he tires of life,” Samuel Johnson, 1777.
Summer travel is upon us, and if you are traveling to London, I would like to share restaurant recommendations. There are restaurants I always visit when I am in London; I’d also like to recommend several restaurants I enjoyed on a recent trip.
This article is dedicated to the late Robert H. (aka Tubby) Bacon, a true gourmand and maître emeritus (1998-2011) of the Commanderie de Bordeaux/Chicago Chapter, and his wife, Julie, who privately published critiques of London and Paris restaurants for friends. “A Short List of Tubby and Julie’s London and Paris Recommendations – October 1993” includes some three-dozen restaurants, bistros and wine bars, and this list was invaluable when planning a trip to those cities. Tubby and Julie’s daughter-in-law, Joan Bacon, also has keen insight into the London restaurant scene, and I am likewise grateful for her recommendations.
With the exception of my first trip to London as a recent college graduate, I have stayed at the same hotel, the Connaught in Mayfair, where – like the bar in “Cheers” – they remember your name and preferences. Upon checking in, I usually have lunch at Scott’s (20 Mount Street), which is just down the street from the Connaught. When I first went to Scott’s in the mid ‘80s, the décor was ‘high Victorian’ and Mount Street was staid and sleepy. Mount Street is now bustling and lined with designer shops. Scott’s, whose specialty is fish and seafood, has been updated. It’s a ‘see and be seen’ kind of place, but the food is as fresh and delicious as ever. Speaking of “place,” I always try to order fish that aren’t readily available on this side of the pond, and I most recently had a whole plaice at Scott’s that must have been swimming in the Channel that morning.
Like Scott’s, the Connaught Hotel was tarted-up about ten years ago. The Connaught used to have a very formal dining room and a grill room. Both served classic French haute-cuisine. The grill room was smaller and more intimate, but both were terrific. The grill room is gone and the formal dining room is now the two-Michelin star restaurant Hélène Darroze at the Connaught. Thirty years ago, the menu was printed entirely in French. Now, there is no printed menu. Instead, the waiter gives you what looks like a children’s board game full of white marbles that are printed with names of ingredients. You then construct your menu from the marbles. The Connaught also has several bars that are always hopping in the evening.
David Moore’s Pied à Terre (34 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia) was on Tubby’s list of recommended restaurants so I tried it for the first time some twenty-five years ago and have made a pilgrimage back every time I am in London. Since that first visit, I have gotten to know David Moore and his wife, Val, and the rest of their family. Pied à Terre has the same high energy, creative vibe as Blackbird in Chicago, and like Blackbird has just gotten better and better. The food is inventive but recognizable, and the wine list is superb. Dining there is a wholly satisfying experience.
St. John (26 St. John Street, Smithfield) is a restaurant that pops up on every list of where to eat in London. “When in Rome…,” as they say, so I placed reservations. St. John serves traditional British cuisine. The cooking is ‘nose-to-tail’ and everything in between. Fish is also on offer. The roasted bone marrow and parsley salad has been a menu mainstay. Neeps were on the menu when I was there. I had no idea what they were so asked the waiter. He said that they are also called swedes, which didn’t help. Turns out they are what we Yanks call rutabagas – again proving the point that England and the U.S. can be seen as two nations divided by a common language.
A St. John alum opened Hereford Road (3 Hereford Road, Notting Hill Gate). It’s another great place for traditional British food. Before heading to the antique shops and galleries on Kensington Church Street nearby, I had a delicious lunch of little whole fried fish, similar to sprats or our smelts. For dessert, I had a Bakewell tart, which was featured on “The Great British Baking Show,” but had never tried. It was a delicious end to the meal. If you’re feeling a bit peckish before or after shopping along Kensington Church Street, I also like Clarke’s (124 Kensington Church Street) for fresh, seasonal fare, and Kensington Place (201-209 Kensington Church Street) for seafood.
The Enterprise (35 Walton Street) is a terrific gastropub — and a local, neighborhood favorite — where you can fortify yourself before tackling the enormous Victoria and Albert Museum a few blocks away.
Frenchie’s original location is aptly in Paris. Frenchie’s chef-owner, Greg Marchand, now has a location in London, Frenchie Covent Garden (16 Henrietta Street). My first visit to this bistro was terrific and the restaurant would make a great pre-theater option since it is close to the theater district.
The last several times I was in London, I had an entrée to Annabel’s, a private club, but never went. This last trip, when I had time, Annabel’s was closed for renovation, but it has since re-opened at 46 Berkeley Square. I live in a Mies van der Rohe apartment building where the mantra is “less is more.” From the photos of the new Annabel’s that appeared in the April edition of Vogue, Swedish designer Martin Brudnizki’s interior design can only be described as “more is more.” And indeed, they now offer more…breakfast and lunch, in addition to dinner and cocktails.
The Arts Club of London (40 Dover Street) is a private club and is a sublime place for lunch, dinner or drinks. The food has an Italian flare and the dining rooms are beautiful. There is welcome outdoor dining – a rarity in London. Also in the area, I had a marvelous Wiener Schnitzel at The Wolseley (160 Piccadilly), which is located in a former automobile showroom, next to the Ritz Hotel. The Wolseley is a cavernous brasserie with an enormous, all-day menu that has something for everyone. It is a perfect place to stop before or after visiting the Royal Academy, which is just across and down the street.
I don’t line-up or ‘queue,’ so I don’t go to restaurants that don’t take reservations, or bookings, as the British say. Several friends recommended Barrafina which has tapas bars at three locations in London (the original one in Soho is supposed to be the best); unfortunately, “bookings are not accepted.”
London has some of, if not the best, Indian restaurants in the world. I attended an Art Institute of Chicago group dinner in a beautiful private room at London’s oldest surviving Indian restaurant, Veeraswamy (99 Regent Street). Friends also recommended Gymkhana (42 Albemarle Street, Mayfair) and Amaya (Halkin Arcade, 19 Motcomb Street, Belgravia). Dishoom has several locations, but the Covent Garden location at 12 Upper St. Martin’s Lane, was recommended as a good pre-theater spot.
On a recent trip to San Francisco, I dined at InSitu, the restaurant in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. InSitu’s concept is to curate and offer the best dishes from the best restaurants around the world. I had the buttermilk fried chicken from London’s Clove Club (380 Old Street, Shoreditch), so I wanted to try the restaurant while visiting London, but just didn’t have enough time. I have also never been to River Café (Thames Wharf, Hammersmith), which just celebrated its 30th anniversary. I plan to try it on my next trip, and this alone is reason to go back to London. Knopf recently published “River Café 30: Simple Italian Recipes from an Iconic Restaurant.”
Farther up the Thames, just outside of London, is Kew Gardens. Whenever I visit Kew, I always have lunch at The Glasshouse (14 Station Parade), a Michelin-starred restaurant, and have never been disappointed.
Just a bit farther up the Thames is the charming village of Bray, which boasts two terrific restaurants. Regularly on the list of the world’s best restaurants is Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck. I wasn’t able to get a booking there, but I had some of the best French food and wine of my life at Alain Roux’s The Waterside Inn nearby. Diego Masciaga, the general manager, met me at the door with a glass of Champagne, compliments of Val and David Moore, who had tipped him off that it was my birthday. He then showed me to a table overlooking the Thames. White swans glided by so gracefully and regularly that I thought they were automated. One of my most memorable birthdays.
Of course, these days there’s an app for everything. Friends in London told me about an app that determines your location, then gives you the ten best restaurants in your immediate area based on diners’ reviews. As an affirmed Luddite, I don’t think I’ll be using this app, as I would first have to get a cell phone. Better in my view to use lists like those assembled by Tubby and Julie Bacon, and to depend on the recommendations of knowledgeable friends. Safe travels, and bon appétit.