Whether it’s fine dining experiences, or outstanding pub grub; independent gourmet stores or world-renowned food halls; award-winning restaurants or hidden gems, London’s foodie scene has truly come of age. We sniff out some of the finest epicurean experiences in the British capital.
Long gone are the Olympics and the Thames-side Royal processions marking the Diamond Jubilee, but what is still in season are the island nation’s seasonal produce and traditional tastes – as alluring to the country’s 30 million average annual visitors, as any of the more traditional sights.
Far from the stodgy staples long associated with British cuisine, today’s tastes are cosmopolitan, multicultural, experimental and, as a result, full of flavour – just like Londoners themselves. Whether it’s adding new zest to old dishes or putting a traditional twist on international favourites, the British appetite today is one that craves adventure.
“London is the greatest food city in the world and for tourists, food and shopping are now as popular as Buckingham Palace,” says award-winning Executive Head Chef Steve Munkley, at Royal Garden Hotel’s Chinese restaurant, Min Jiang. From one of London’s most exclusive addresses, Chef Munkley has seen visitor numbers soar over recent years, with the focus very much on food. While many will credit the increasing popularity to the infusion of different cuisines, the growing interest in London’s food scene is rooted in the city’s rich history, culture and seasonality.
Here is my pick of some can’t miss dining and food-shopping experiences in London:
While the Middle East is no stranger to the finest of dining experiences – and the crème de la crème of international culinary talent – the added allure of London combines unrivalled choice with the city’s unique heritage.
The Wolseley on Piccadilly is a venue as well known for its espresso cups of rich hot chocolate as it is for its celebrity clientele; the story goes, cast and crew from James Bond film Skyfall held pre-production meetings here. A place to glimpse London life in all its glamour, less familiar faces frequent the former car showroom and bank – which to this day retains the full glory of its art deco charm – throughout the day, from the city traders’ breakfast rush, to the evening crowd frequenting the towering dining space of this cultured café until its midnight close. Menu highlights include Eggs Florentine, the Royal Plateau de Fruits de Mer and Côte to Boeuf (prices start from £14, around Dhs40).
As is the nature of a city as diverse and culturally porous as London, there are a number of dining venues inspired by the Far East. Sunday is the best day to factor in a dim sum feast overlooking Kensington Palace from Min Jiang, on the top floor of The Royal Garden Hotel, Kensington High Street. Famous (and we mean really famous) for its Dim Sum ((£6 per dish) and Peking Duck – roasted and finished with applewood in a wood burning oven – this is the place to sample authentic Chinese.
One of the most peculiar quirks of British cuisine is its innovation of Indian dishes. So fond are the Brits of a curry, the affinity has led to the invention of dishes such as balti and chicken tikka, which although Indian-inspired, are British born adoptations of Indian classics. Michelin starred chef, Atul Kochhar, who recently opened Rang Mahal at Dubai’s Marriott Marquis hotel, is regarded as one of the chefs who redefined Indian cuisine for the western palate. “Curry has become so interwoven in our national fabric, that not only do we now find curries on pub menus and pizzas, we have also created our own,” Chef Kochhar explains from his award-winning London restaurant, Benares.
The Berkeley Square dining experience that is Benares, led to Chef Kochhar’s second Michelin Star, and although often packed out, it is a five star dining experience that should be worked into any London holiday. The main restaurant is vast yet intimate, and the chef’s table offers an envious view of the cooking action. Dishes are contemporary and varied, with excellent poultry and seafood grill options for Indian food fans seeking new, rather than reinvented.
Another culinary experience held dear in Britain is an establishment today known as the Gastro Pub – a modern take on the pub which now centres on quality, honest, comfort food. Inspired by the concept, but disappointed with its interpretations, brothers Tom and Ed Martin opened their own chain of gastro pubs in 2000, and are today the proud landlords of 11 such properties around the capital. Their philosophy of authenticity makes use of the finest British produce, some of which cannot be found anywhere else.
The Gun, a 200 year old property at London Docklands – once frequented by Lord Nelson – was restored by the brothers after a devastating fire in 2001 and is now the regular haunt of hundreds of locals who flock to the quaint, Grade II-listed gem for favourites such as the Coldharbour Pie and 35 day aged Cumbrian Longhorn rib-eye steak (prices start from £15). What’s more, the restaurant’s service includes a chauffeur service from the nearby Canary Wharf!
Time for tea
If your ideal afternoon is spent relaxing over copious amounts of tea and baked goodies, then a ‘proper’ Afternoon Tea, or High Tea as it is also known – a quintessentially British tradition dating back to the 1800s – is the only place to be between 2pm and 5pm, in London. “The rules? You’re not allowed to talk about religion, politics or other subjects that will cause arguments. Afternoon tea is a relaxed, delicate and fine affair,” says 10th generation brand ambassador for Twinings Tea, Stephen Twining.
Twining, who reveals that his own tea drinking habits range from an early morning English Breakfast through to Earl (and Lady) Grey, winding down to green tea in the evenings, personally enjoys the traditional (and award winning) experience of The Athenaeum, in Mayfair (from £29.50). Offering an extensive menu of teas, you can work your way through ten varieties while sampling cucumber or smoked salmon sandwiches, followed by scones and English crumpets.
To find the best afternoon teas, scout out offerings that are accredited by The Tea Guild –
this is where the English tea fanaticism really comes into its own – or have won one of the guild’s annual awards, widely considered to be ‘the Oscars of the tea world’. In 2012, The Athenaeum won ‘Top London Afternoon Tea’, and as a result, is full most afternoons.
For an afternoon tea with style, fashionistas would be hard pressed to find a tea more entertaining and picturesque than Pret-a-Portea at The Berkeley Hotel (from £39). Widely regarded as one of London’s top 10 teas, passionate pastry chef Mourad Khiat and his team spend three days creating each of the designer-inspired biscuits and cakes.
Bringing the afternoon tea to an ever-wider audience, leading catering company Peyton and Byrne has opened a string of bakeries across London, including shops at The British Library and St Pancras, for the time-pressed tea drinker. These quick-fix tea salons are perfect to break up an afternoon of shopping or to take shelter from the inevitable rain! Menu highlights include the Oreo muffins, carrot cake and cheesecake topped with fresh fruit in syrup. To enjoy a more leisurely Peyton and Byrne experience, you could visit The Wallace, a French style brasserie housed in a Marylebone art gallery, where Head Chef Ivan Simeoli has pioneered a cucumber sandwich in a jar and a candyfloss encased caramel cherry (£17.50).
No holiday for a foodie is complete without some gourmet shopping, and in London, there’s no better starting point than Harrods. The renowned food halls are based on a concession model, with names such as Tamarind and Bateel sitting alongside a wealth of Harrods-labelled goods, providing everything you need, whether it’s for a lavish dinner party, a Hyde Park picnic or simply souvenirs to bring home. The market-style eateries located around the food hall, cooking dishes from the neighbouring counters, offer a tantalising smorgasbord of colours, aromas and flavours.
Also on the historic high street, the only place for locally produced honey (so local, the bees live on the roof of the store!), world famous Monarch Marmalade and a lot of tea, is Fortnum and Mason, in Piccadilly. Founded 300 years ago, the store holds a Royal Warrant and is also home to the Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon, opened by the Queen, Duchess of Cornwall and the Duchess of Cambridge last year. A five-storey fairground of playful colours and original furnishings – think wind-up biscuit tins playing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ – it’s an English experience like no other.
If you’d like to tap into the growing penchant for ‘local and organic’, you will find a more homely, farmed approach to food in smaller, independent stores as such as Daylesford in Pimlico. This charming grocery café stocks products mostly from its own local farm, bakery and creamery, with a few select producers in mainland Europe used for specialist goods. The shop has won more than 90 international awards for its produce over the past three years, and is best visited during its farmer’s market on a Saturday morning.
In fact, London is brimming with independent food stores like this, each of which surpasses the concept of specialist. Paxton and Whitfield, hidden away on Jermyn Street, has been selling the finest and rarest cheeses from around the UK and Europe for 200 years and even runs its own cheese society. Like Fortnum and Mason, this backstreet gem has held a Royal Warrant since 1850, when the store was appointed cheesemonger to HM Queen Victoria. Today the shop stocks Cheddar Smoked Ceodre, Langres, Petit Munster and Selles Sur Cher. Knowledgeable staff are on hand to advise customers how to put together the perfect cheeseboard.
For those with a sweet tooth, the only place to go for chocolate is Rococo Chocolates, founded by textile designer Chantel Coady in 1983. Chantel prints her textiles designs onto each of the 31 varieties of handmade chocolate sold at the Montcomb Street store, and is known for the chocolate tastings and workshops she holds for chocoholics in the area.
To truly taste London’s charm could take a lifetime, but punctuate each culinary encounter with Thames-side walks and afternoons in museums, and you will be left with a taste to savour for years.
Town & country
If you want to take your culinary experience in the UK to the next level, head out of the city to the captivating Le Manoir aux QuatSaisons in Great Milton, Oxfordshire. A personal ambition of Chef Raymond Blanc, Le Manoir is a sprawling country retreat, with 64 lavish boutique guest rooms, a two Michelin Star restaurant and the Raymond Blanc Cookery School. Not to mention the ‘wow’ factor to match. From the moment you arrive in the sleepy English village less than an hour’s drive from London, the Le Manoir experience is one of luxury. So fixated is Chef Raymond on the quality of the guest experience, that he even selects the bath pillows himself.
The sole philosophy behind Le Manoir is taste – and to create the richest and most authentic flavours, anything that passes your lips while on the grounds has been sourced from local farms or grown on-site.
In the adjoining cookery school, each of the 13 menus has been crafted by Chef Raymond and he regularly drops by classes to meet the aspiring chefs. Classes are held in groups of up to ten students by one of his four most trusted chefs, with the more complicated lessons taking up to four days.
Courses change annually, with the nine-course Seasonal Dinner Party menu changing four times a year. Despite the lavish and often intimidating menu students face – think brioche and guineafowl – patient and experienced tutors guide the class through each step and even prep some of the more complex elements in advance. The takeaway recipe and techniques handbooks are particularly useful when recreating the experience at home. Courses are served as they are made and enjoyed with the chef who is on hand for any personalised advice. Currently, the school is offering chocolate, patisserie, vegetarian and fish themed courses. Need to know: Prices for the Raymond Blanc Cookery School Experience starts from £1,623 (around Dhs9,000) for two, including accommodation, breakfast, a nine-course Menu Decouverte Dinner, a day in The Raymond Blanc Cookery School and personalised cookery school apron. Students also receive a book of their recipes and cooking technique tips. Visit www.manoir.com.
Where to stay: The Royal Gardens Hotel is centrally located on Kensington High Street with fantastic palace views. Room rates start from £320 (around Dhs1,800), visit www.royalgardenhotel.co.uk.
Getting there: Emirates, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic all fly direct
from Dubai, with economy fares starting at Dhs3,500.