When the Romans first settled in London, they built a protective wall around the city. The wall stood proudly until it fell into disrepair around the 18th century, but fragments still exist today as reminder to all the invaders the city faced.
In a way, British cuisine has also—until recently—barricaded itself, stubbornly plodding on against accusations that it was a dull, lifeless cuisine, made famous for its slavish dedication to overcooked vegetables and grayish meat. That wall kept out the slings and insults, but it also kept in lower-quality cuisine, preventing the kind of eclectic growth we’ve seen elsewhere.
A few heroes over the years have tried to break down that wall (Gordon Ramsay, Raymond Blanc, and Marco Pierre White), but it’s their successors who are shedding British cuisine’s stereotypically dull reputation and reemerging in a renaissance of bright, bold flavors. It’s a new British Invasion, with UK chefs staking out new territory, all the while keeping enough of the old cuisine as landmarks to honor. The result is the earliest twinklings of a golden age of British cuisine.
Whether they’re foraging for nettles a mere 30 feet from their restaurant (and spitting distance from a dilapidated cigarette factory), dipping into the frigid Dover coast for wild sea fennel, or following after Ferran Adrià with such modernist techniques as horseradish snow, Brits are saying “bollocks!” to the old culinary stereotypes.
But they're not necessarily turning off the rich culinary history for their forebears. Fergus Henderson may not be enthralled by sous vide or gels, but his nose-to-tail influence is still felt strongly among his acolytes in England and abroad. At Dinner, Heston Blumenthal and his protégé Ashley Palmer-Watts offer variations on antiquated English dishes of yore, such as Rice and Flesh, and Meat Fruit. And famed mixologist Oliver Blackburn incorporates Victorian and quintessentially British flavors into his modern cocktail list at The Gilbert Scott.
Those hoary walls are down—though enough parapets remain to remind us of England’s storied past—and the culinarian hoard is roaming the streets.
Considered one of the best Indian restaurants in London, Benares goes well beyond simple curries. Loathe to use the word fusion, Chef Atul Kochhar employs both his Indian heritage and advanced techniques, flying in produce and seasonal ingredients from “all corners of India” and then using modernist twists for new and fascinating dishes. Kochhar’s creations trick the eye and foil diners’ expectations, but the surprises are most welcome: dishes pop with bursts of spice and flavor (without overwhelming heat) and roil on the tongue with just enough sourness to keep you wanting more. The first Indian chef to earn a Michelin star (and then another), Kochhar also has developed an excellent wine program, run by Sommelier Ravi (he has only a single name), which has helped change Britons’ belief that Indian food and wines don’t pair well together.Recommended:
Even though Dinner serves both dinner and lunch, its name is wholly appropriate; Chef Heston Blumenthal dubbed it after the French word diner, which means “the main meal of the day,” and you’ll certainly look forward to a meal here above most other stops. The concept for Dinner took four years to develop, and it is Blumenthal’s first foray outside of Bray (where his institution, The Fat Duck, still holds sway). Everything is devoted to reflect ye olde Britain. The restaurant’s interior is fashioned with a spit, and antique wall sconces are modeled after those found in an old royal court. Blumenthal adapted the menu almost entirely from recipes from British antiquity (though crafted with playful twists); one of his hobbies is reading archaic cookbooks, and he created his Rice & Flesh dish from an old recipe found on a scroll written by Richard II’s head cook. The day-to-day operations are run by Blumenthal’s chief protégé, Chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, who has been with Blumenthal since the early days of The Fat Duck. Together, both chefs have created yet another must-stop destination along the British culinary road.Recommended:
Walk along the posh Knightsbridge area, and eventually you’ll be drawn to the Berkeley Hotel, which has been a shrine to many exemplar restaurants over the years. Yesterday, it was Gordan Ramsay’s Petrus. But today, it’s Chef Marcus Wareing and his eponymous venture (his first solo after leaving the Ramsay family). We haven’t yet eaten here ourselves, but the restaurant (which opened in 2008) is certainly on our next itinerary. The turbot and beef fillet have both received raves, and the wine program is considered strong. The velvet-lined walls and champagne trolleys bespeak the same kind of luxury you can expect on the menu. Wareing is joined by many of his longtime associates, including Michael Deschamps as head sommelier and Executive Group Chef Darren Velvick.
Located in The Halkin Hotel—which bills itself as a “sanctuary of discretion in central London”—Nahm was the first Thai restaurant in England to net a Michelin star. And while David Thompson expands his empire to Thailand itself, Head Chef Matthew Albert maintains a strong menu of traditional Thai dishes that include a wisp of English sensibility, such as braised oxtail or Scottish scallops. The miangs are gritty, tangy, and addictive (of the finger-licking variety), the salads bright and refreshingly pungent, and the curries big and bold, with heat that whips quickly (but doesn’t linger) past the roof of your mouth. The dishes are layered so that you can peel their flavors away, one at a time—or consume them all at once.Recommended:
Pied à Terre is just what its namesake suggests: a cozy venue on intimate Charlotte Street, a home away from home. But it also has been a second home for many of London’s great chefs, including Tom Aikens, 2008 Rising Star Neil Ferguson, and legendary Australian expat Shane Osborne, who opened the restaurant. Pied à Terre opened in 1991 under Chef Richard Neat, who ran the food lover’s sanctuary until 1996, when he was succeeded by Aikens and later Osborne. The reputation for excellence upheld by those chefs continues now with Chef Marcus Eaves, who took over as head chef in 2011. Despite its rich history, Pied à Terre is not mired in the past, but instead constantly trying to evolve. And under Eaves—and with menus devoted to fresh, seasonal product (a rooftop garden sports herbs, blueberries, honey, and other products)—it is likely to keep its pedigree intact.Recommended:
As the name implies, Pollen Street Social wants to be characterized as a social gathering place, with less of the pretension or restriction of many of its peers. “People can choose what they want freely” from the various menus. Although the atmosphere is akin to a pub, many of the dishes have delicate presentations, with garnishes often too fragile-looking to eat. But resistance is futile. And at the helm is Chef Jason Atherton, one of Gordon Ramsay’s protégés and now arguably one of the most exciting young chefs in Britain. With a state-of-the-art development kitchen downstairs—outfitted with induction stoves, steamers, and combi-ovens—Atherton is able to tinker with new ingredients and techniques. A dessert bar nestled against the glass-paneled kitchen—as well as a roaming gin trolley—plays into Pollen Street’s overall theme: “de-formalizing” fine dining, and encouraging more socialization in the dining process. The result: fine dining with a dollop of fun and one of the best culinary experiences you’ll have.Recommended:
Originally opened in 2002, Restaurant Sat Bains quickly established the city of Nottingham as an important filling station for epicurean pilgrims traveling the British culinary trail, a veritable Mina on the road to London’s Mecca. We were certainly happy to make the two-hour train ride. In 2005, Chef-Owner Sat Bains reopened a once derelict farm as a “destination restaurant” with an attached boutique hotel, an unlikely sight within the old industrial section and adjoining a cigarette factory. Bains strives to use locally sourced ingredients as much as possible, but he takes that philosophy closer to heart—and his own doorstep—than most. For his nettle soup, Bains forages the nettles and other ingredients within 30 feet from the restaurant, aptly naming the soup after the Nottingham postal code (NG7). That forces diners to “taste the post code” of where they are eating, as Bains puts it. “It is the location. You can’t get away from it. [You’re] not going to forget the restaurant.” We won’t.Recommended:
It’s a tall order to find one restaurant in London that best encapsulates British cuisine (mostly because the cuisine itself is still soul-searching), but smart money would almost always choose St. John. Chef-Owner Fergus Henderson is alternately considered the “father of offal,” an icon of British cuisine, and a major influence on such chefs as David Chang and Mario Batali. And no wonder. Henderson is a great transformer; St. John was built in a converted former smokehouse, a fitting pun for his meaty menu. There’s a bit of play to all his dishes: his signature, the Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad, was devised reportedly after watching a movie with a scene of several people sucking on bones. As for typically Brit off-cuts? Henderson instructs diners not to be deterred by tripe’s icky reputation but rather “let its soothing charms win you over.” It’s a menu that commands intense attention while ordering, and then a languorous smile while consuming.Recommended:
Walk down Bruton Place and you can easily miss one of the best restaurants in London. The restaurant is Umu, and the chef is 2008 Rising Star Yoshinori Ishii. Taking over from former Chef Ichiro Kubota in 2010, Ishii compiled years of experience at New York’s Morimoto, executive chef for the Japanese ambassador for the United Nations, and as sous chef at the three-star Kitcho in Kyoto, Japan. The result is not a patchwork of all those experiences, as you might expect, but rather a streamlined vision of pure Kyoto dining, the only one of its kind in the United Kingdom. Understatement is everywhere. A tiny sliding door—activated via touchpad—leads diners inside a shadowy dining room with wooden floors and simple, barely lacquered tables. Ishii is soft-spoken when describing his dishes, and he need not say much at all because the food does all the talking. The sake list is impressive, including a number of hard-to-find “raw” nama sakes and “unfermented” nigori sakes. Umu is a palate cleanser to the multitude of Indian, French, and Asian fusion that have invaded the city, and one that will leave you wishing there were more restaurants like it.Recommended:
Located in the heart of Soho, Yauatcha is rumored to have started the dim sum craze in London. It is designed as a modern Chinese teahouse, and though you can have a long, multi-course meal here, Yauatcha is even better suited to grazers: it offers a multitude of hot and cold teas (and tea smoothies), small, wok-friendly stir fries, succulent pork ribs, fluffy pork buns, and other Chinese Sunday brunch fare. Featuring fish tanks, azure lighting, and minimalist touches, Yauatcha also offers afternoon seatings (it is a teahouse, after all) and an extensive cocktail list, broken down by Spicy, Citrus, Rich, Light, and various signature drinks. Restaurateur Alan Yau, who formed the Wagamama chain of noodle houses in the 1990s, is the brains behind the operation, and Executive Chef Tong Chee Hwee is the muscle in the kitchen.
Sir George Gilbert Scott was a renowned Victorian architect known for rebuilding crumbling cathedrals and churches. His namesake—and a certain nostalgia for the Victorian era, both the menu and overall pastiche—is very much alive today in the restaurant and bar run by Chef Marcus Wareing. In fact, the bar’s foyer was designed by Scott, with gold, crimson, and dark wood bedecking nearly every surface and bell chandeliers dangling overhead. Bar Manager Oliver Blackburn runs an efficiently eclectic cocktail program, pouring gin drinks (Queen Mother’s Cocktail and The 1873 Cocktail) alongside classic favorites (a play on the Cuba Libre and the tequila-centric Gringo’s Manhattan). In the “engine room,” Chef Oliver Wilson crafts a brasserie-type menu of Cornish and Yorkshire favorites using top-flight product and a few callbacks to the U.K.’s yesteryear (Britain’s answer to the Joy of Cooking, Mrs. Beeton, gets one or two mentions on the menu).Recommended:
What happens when you enter a brilliant scientist’s laboratory? There’s a bit of deference, sure, but eventually you just want to tinker with the devices, flip switches, and peek into smoky beakers. A visit to “the bar with no name,” 69 Colebrooke Row, begs much the same: you feel compelled to try the multitude of cocktails on hand, all crafted by famed Mixologist Tony Conigliaro. Renowned for his signature Prairie Oyster cocktail and for bringing barrel-aging to the global cocktail scene, Conigliaro might seem like a dedicated experimentalist, but he simply focuses on concept and flavor above all else. A red awning greets you at the entrance, and once inside, candles, lanterns, checkered floors, and dark-wood paneling all breed familiarity and escapism (some liken the bar to a New York-style watering hole). The familiarity stops there, though, once you’re introduced to cocktails you’ve never encountered.
Located across town from Chef Fergus Henderson’s original restaurant, this hotel bar is situated in one of the busiest sections of town, but is a study in serenity. The main bar room is holed out of the center of the St. John Hotel (which opened in early 2011), and offers mid-afternoon “bun moments” (classic English teatime with prune, anchovy, and bitter chocolate buns) and traditional British snacks (anchovy toast, ham and mustard sandwiches). A blue whale hovers along the ceiling (the first few floors at the hotel are marked with “Moules,” “Huîtres,” and “Langoustes”), the floors are plain wood, and the walls are sparse and white (the bar carries the St. John name, after all, and Henderson’s no-frills sensibility). The drink list, though—which is populated almost entirely with the usual suspects—is neither Spartan nor bland: Manhattans, Sazeracs, Old Fashioneds, and Negronis fill out the menu.
The Millennium Mayfair Hotel has a bit of magic to it. The posh hotel conjures a new, modernistic approach to the simpler pleasures of an age nearly forgotten. Overlooking some of London’s key landmarks and the beautiful gardens on Grovesnor Square, the Millennium was built as an 18th century townhouse in the simple Georgian style of that age. With large marble bathrooms and walk-in wardrobes, the hotel basks in a luxurious glow. Attached Italian restaurant Avista offers a menu with a heavy focus on seafood and game, giving further weight to the sense of history and heritage.
In 2005, Chef Sat Bains took over his self-named restaurant and re-opened it as Restaurant Sat Bains with Rooms, marking it a “destination restaurant” with an attached boutique hotel. While he focuses on the back of the house, his wife, Amanda, helps run the bed portion of the bed-and-breakfast. The eight rooms there are all elegantly furnished in different styles, all of them far more stylish (think beautiful armoires and bed canopies) than your typical standard hotel room. Bains often meets guests who stay for dinner and shows them the inner workings of his well-oiled machine; a kitchen workshop most mornings allows the more daring to help chop and filet (often under head chef John Freeman’s supervision).