Prior to last fall, the previous time I had visited London was as a teenager on an extended layover on the way back from Paris. As much as I loved the museums, the weathered European architecture, and the theater, one thing that remained vividly branded in my memory was the food--and not in a good way. To be fair, I’d just spent a week eating the kind of bistro fare that makes people’s eyes mist over when they speak of The City of Light.
Which is perhaps why the contrast was so stark when we set foot in some of London’s touristy areas. Maybe we just didn’t know where to go, but I’ll never forget the mental image of slabs of plastic-looking cheese quietly congealing onto pizza or soggy battered fish next to limp “chips.”
Fast-forward more than a decade and things have definitely changed. During my trip to London last fall and my return visit last month, I saw more than half a dozen a museums, a terrific version of a play I know by heart, and all sorts of other corners of the capital. Again, what left a powerful (and this time overwhelmingly positive) impression was the food. I hardly know the two cities well enough to make a comparison, but I think that London’s restaurant scene just might give Paris a run for its money.
The following is a list of some of my favorites from two too-short trips.
Visiting the British Museum (in between meals).
Despite all the gloomy predictions I had read of its demise, the neighborhood pub seems to be thriving. The two biggest changes over the last 13 years? The conspicuous absence of cigarette smoke and the fact that even cozy, unpretentious places serve some pretty terrific food. Of all the ones we visited, The Devonshire Arms, a South Kensington institution, was the best. You can quibble over the signs of gentrification—quinoa salad or veggie burger, anyone?—and the changing times, but those sweet potato fries are pretty delicious.
Great Late-Night Eats
If I had the chance to revisit one restaurant from the last year, it would be The Smoking Goat in Soho, a tiny gastrobar with a perma-line down the block that specializes in wood-grilled meats. It may not be exactly authentic Northern Thai, but no one gives a damn when the results are this good. I’ve had my share of goat (Kenya’s mbuzi choma comes to mind), but never any so meltingly tender as this one, which was slow-roasted over embers for 48 hours.
Yes, yes, I know Wahaca is a chain, but decent Mexican food is a rare commodity in Berlin and at the tail end of a booze-soaked evening, my group and I couldn’t have cared less. The duck tacos are good, the roasted sweet potatoes with lime and the cheesy cauliflower are even better.
Contemporary Dim Sum
Proper Cantonese dim sum is one of the many, many things I miss about China, and the ones at Yauatcha were easily as good as any I ever ate in Beijing. Venison wrapped in puff pastry and other unconventional additions are especially tasty.
Brunch with a View
With floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Tower Bridge, Blueprint Café might be one of the prettiest places to brunch in the city. Plates are on the small side for my taste (if I’m going to battle a hangover, I intend to do so with a mound of greasy goodness), but the quality of everything is excellent.
I’ve had my share of over-the-top high tea services around the world (the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok’s remains a personal favorite), but the one at Harrods is definitely up there. Scones are served warm with thick clotted cream and the pastries are delicious. And while this particular ritual is more about quality than quantity, I do appreciate the fact that they will bring you as many as you like. The waiters are also happy to let guests try as many teas as they wish, meaning you can sample rarer blends. No one would ever call this economic, but the price is surprisingly reasonable compared to other luxe options around town.
Fine Indian restaurants like Rang Mahal, Charcoal and Indus were something I took for granted in Bangkok and have missed ever since. Trishna, with a Michelin star, is a splurge but definitely worth it. Order the quivering, tender paneer topped with pomegranate seeds as an appetizer.
Dirt Cheap and Delicious Indian
I had to ask three passersby on the street to help me find Tayyabs and every single one knew it. Small wonder—this casual BYOB restaurant has been grilling up kebabs (get the lamb chops) and searing ghee-brushed naan in its tandoori ovens since 1972.
Notice a trend here? With branches spread throughout the city, Dishoom aims to recreate the cuisine and atmosphere of Mumbai’s disappearing Irani cafés. This translates to sepia-toned photographs on the menu and some wonderful, less extravagantly priced dishes.
Lousy photo of some pretty spectacular gnocchi.
The Ultimate Steak
I’m always a bit nervous visiting a new steakhouse, because although the bill will inevitably induce heart palpitations, there’s no guarantee that it will be good. Fortunately, Hawksmoor Knightsbridge is pretty much flawless. Staff were unfailingly friendly, the wine was ballsy enough to stand up to anything, and every dish from the feather-light ricotta gnocchi with asparagus to the gooey mac ‘n cheese that came with my blood-rare slab of beef, was spot on.
Chocolate, Chocolate and More Chocolate
Borough Market is, of course, great in its own right, but the best part of visiting it was stopping in the adjacent café dedicated cacao in all of its glorious forms. It might seem excessive to order chile-laced hot chocolate (thick enough to eat with a spoon) with chocolate-orange scones, but that’s kind of the point.
Did I mention that the chocolate-orange scones come with butter and melted chocolate? Talk about gilding the lily.