Where would you take visiting friends/family/loved ones when they come to London? It’s an age-old question really, and one that is increasingly hard to answer in a dining landscape that continues to get ever more interesting and rich. Do you hit up all the tried and true institutions? Pilfer the National Restaurant Awards list? Seek out all the hot new openings? In a city with as varied a restaurant scene as London, picking out the venues that seem to summarise the unique experience of dining here can feel like an impossible task.
It is a question I have been faced with (and taken very seriously) for the last fortnight when I’ve finally been reunited with my family. My sister’s cancer diagnosis meant my parents braved New Zealand’s managed isolation system a couple of times over the pandemic, but I hadn’t seen my brother since February 2020. It’s safe to say there were many tears shed at Heathrow Airport when they arrived, and more a few days later when my sister joined us, followed by many calories consumed over the subsequent fortnight as I attempted to show them what it is I love so much about this city.
Jet lag is an absolute bugger to beat, but the key is to keep pushing through the relentless exhaustion until it reaches an appropriate time to hit the hay. This meant we took a lunchtime excursion to nearby Broadway Market on the day they arrived, with the obvious dining choice being the new Koya Ko. After what has been a record-breaking summer characterised by endless, scorching, blue-sky days, my parents arrived on a day where I was awoken by cracking thunder, the dawn sky illuminated by flashes of lightning. With the family feeling thoroughly disenfranchised by flying out of winter and into a thunderstorm, the only trade-off seemed to be warming their cockles with impressive bowls of udon.
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I personally feel Acme Fire Cult is serving up some of the most interesting new food in London at the moment, capitalising on big, bold flavours and fire-licked char. That, coupled with a heavy dose of nostalgia due to my parents’ affinity for 40FT beers in 2020 when we were going through some dark days, made this an obvious next stop. The food is obviously great, but I also think Acme Fire Cult really personifies London’s love for lo-fi cooking with hi-fi flavour.
I think that when it comes to new people dining in London, that elusive ‘modern British’ restaurant that has been defined by chefs like Fergus and Margot Henderson is as necessary as a trip up the London Eye. Given the summer we’d had, I had bold hopes for a long, al-fresco lunch, and thus opted for Margot’s Rochelle Canteen. We had an immensely special meal, feasting on cod’s roe with radishes, rabbit and pork terrine, golden nuggets of fried ling with aioli, grilled onglet with carrots in a punchy, herby sauce and fish bathed in a pool of caper butter, washed down with St John cremant and white burgundy. If I could bottle memories and revisit them in the deepest pits of homesickness, this would be one of them.
Towpath brought necessary, life-affirming joy during the darkest days of my sister’s cancer diagnosis, so it was top of our list to revisit
Another restaurant that I think falls similarly into this undefinable, vaguely European, but somehow wholly ‘British’ category is Towpath. Another place that brought necessary, life-affirming joy during the darkest days of my sister’s cancer diagnosis, it was top of our list to revisit, and made for a joyful lunch. Last time we were all dining there it was three coats deep, shivering under a lone heat lamp in the late days of December, and yet still loving every minute, cherishing each other, the freedom of being able to dine outside of the home and the fact that my sister was there and alive, cheeks flushed and happy. This time, sweating under the beating sun, the city teeming with life around us, it felt like the personification of the light at the end of the tunnel. And that’s before you get to the food: jammy figs with ricotta and honey, more cod’s roe and radishes, tomato and peach salad simply dressed with a light vinaigrette, juicy watermelon piled high with feta and mint drizzled with a flourish of peppery olive oil, chunks of mozzarella topped with grilled courgettes, golden breadcrumbs bringing a necessary crunch, brown and white crab hoovered up in little lettuce boats. It is a testament to the power of simple food, and watching pedestrians and bikers dance down the canal, narrowly missing shoving one or the other in, is as London as it gets.
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Turkish food is as ingrained in the fabric of London’s restaurant scene as a full English or a plate piled high with pie, mash and liquor. There are many places doing incredible Turkish food around the city, but I think to truly see how this is being reimagined for the modern diner, there is no better place to eat than Mangal II. This is a restaurant with history – Ali Dirik, the father of the current owners, was responsible for bringing the ocakbaşi grill to London – that is proving there is so much more scope to Turkish cuisine than just plates piled high with grilled meat and fluffy flatbreads. I think it’s indicative of what it is to dine out in London at the moment. And it’s impossible not to feel like you’re somewhere wonderful sitting there in the middle of the compact dining room, sipping something funky from the wine list and eating grilled lamb shoulder on a bed of creamy bulgur.
Bright is somewhere to pull up a pew with friends and stay for a few hours over a procession of wonderful plates and wines
Speaking of cuisines integral to London’s dining scene, Chinese food is as interwoven with the British culinary experience as anything. I think a visit to Chinatown is necessary for many reasons, but particularly to dine at one of two institutions: Food House or Wong Kei. I opted for the former, and it was as delightful as ever. Glistening, blistered green beans mingled with crispy minced pork and lethal ribbons of chilli, acidic smacked cucumbers broke up the onslaught of flavour, fried rice was happily scooped up at breakneck speed, rice noodles with cabbage defied even the most deft of chopstick users and an enormous, cauldron-like bowl of sichuan beef swimming in a hubbub of chilli oil – so brightly coloured it would probably glow in the dark – was punchy, mouth-numbing and everything you want from Sichuan food.
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Then there is the loosely defined ‘wine bar with small plates’, now ubiquitous in the dining scene in London. Many of them are overpriced and not worth the time or the effort, but there are some that are truly wonderful. There’s Brawn just off Columbia Road, the newly opened Cadet in Newington Green, the slightly more low-key Dan’s in Dalston, Nick Brahmam’s Quality Wines and many more. But, to truly capture the essence of this concept, I would head to one of the eateries in the Noble Fine Liquor repertoire, and this time I opted for Bright. This is somewhere to pull up a pew with friends and stay for a few hours over a procession of wonderful plates of food and natural-leaning bottles of wine. You’ll eat well, you’ll drink well, you’ll be merry. Will the bill be small? No. But it doesn’t need to be enormous either. Either way, I doubt you’ll leave feeling ripped off, and it seems to summarise how many Londoners like to eat right now.
There was a lunch at Smoking Goat that was as wonderful as ever and a dinner at Dishoom which is necessary to see how a restaurant of muddling authenticity can quickly take over a city’s wider dining consciousness (also, the house black daal and lamb chops are bloody good). There are other places I’ve earmarked for when they come back but didn’t have the time to tick off: heaping piles of seafood at Bentley’s, an enormous martini at Dukes or the Connaught, a meal worthy of a jacket and heels at The Ritz, Adjoké Bakare’s incredible cooking at Chishuru, the dinner set menu at Ombra. If there is any reminder of how good it is to live and dine in London, seeing it through a visitor’s eyes is a pretty good way to go. And yes, I’d trade it all in for the simple joy of getting to hug the people I love most, but luckily over the last fortnight I’ve been able to do both at the same time.