We recently returned from three weeks in England. We spent a week in Somerset and the Cotswolds, but the bulk of the time was spent in London. It was a dream trip with origins in a week-long trip we had scheduled in 2020 that was canceled for the obvious reason and the longer it was delayed the more it grew. Revenge travel?
We ate a lot of good food in London, it is easy to do. Growing up I remember jokes about British cuisine, but these days I don’t think there is a city I enjoy eating out in more. It’s good fun. And so we had two weeks of meals at restaurants that were old favorites or recommended by friends or written about by people I trust. The funny thing about having that many nice meals in a relatively short amount of time is that it can be disorienting. Meals that might have stood out during a normal week suddenly seem less special. It got me thinking about what makes a good restaurant. And the main thing I’ve arrived at (and this isn’t original) is that it is never just the food. In fact, sometimes I think the food isn’t even at the top of the list. We ate good food at places that didn’t feel great for other reasons. There was a cool new place with incredible food where the staff kept telling us they needed our table in 2 hours (1 hour, 30 minutes, 15 minutes…), an iconic favorite that felt “museum-like” (to quote a friend I was complaining about it to), and another that was phoning it in and relying on an endless stream of tourists. We had good company and were on vacation at these spots, so none of this really bothered us. But you know when something is off. A handful of places felt so right that I keep thinking about them…
Rochelle Canteen is such a dreamy place—a small restaurant built in an old bike shed in a walled garden in the center of London’s oldest housing estate. It’s all impossibly beautiful and chic while also feeling comfortable and joyful. The food is an ode to British produce and traditions with the Mediterranean creeping in along the edges (which is maybe how most contemporary British cooking could be described?). When I think of the restaurants in the world I love the most, it is high on the list. I can’t imagine being in London and not eating here. And I am hopeful that they someday reopen for breakfast, which was such a special time to sit in that garden.
I love places that set clear boundaries. There was once a coffee shop in Chicago that didn’t have any chairs. It drove people crazy, but I always kind of respected it. Leila’s Shop has chairs, but is only open for a few hours a day, and a few days a week. Their menu contains a handful of items made in the open kitchen that takes up half of the very charming space. The pace is slow and deliberate. And the food is exceptionally good. The kind of food that could not be made if they didn’t have such a limited scale. It all feels a bit like going over to a friend’s house for lunch, a friend who happens to be an amazing cook. My friend Samin recommended this place to me years ago and I am forever grateful.
Inside George Orwell’s favorite pub, The Compton Arms in Islington, Dara Klein is cooking ridiculously vibrant and joyful Italian food through her pop-up, Tiella. The experience starts with the pub itself which is a great space and has very good energy, which seems to emanate from a woman named Nikki who manages things beautifully. I would very much like to be friends with Nikki. But we’re here for the food which is all really incredible and exactly the food you want to be eating while getting drunk (or not!) in a space full of people looking to have a good time. A plate of salami served with giant chunks of giardiniera, chickpea pasta topped with fried pasta (!!!), and for dessert a bay leaf panna cotta with fernet and poached loquats—that dessert did not need to be that good! But it was! I regret we didn’t go earlier in the trip so we could make a return visit. But I will be very eagerly following Dara Klein’s career and will eat wherever she is cooking.
Cynthia Shanmugalingam who wrote the beautiful cookbook, Rambutan, now has a restaurant with the same name in Borough Market serving incredibly delicious Sri Lankan food. It hadn’t been open for very long when we were there and it still had a very buzzy new restaurant vibe. And despite being packed, our service was friendly and attentive. And the meal itself had us saying wow or wtf (in the best way!) a lot. The standouts for me were the gundu dosas which are just bonkers. But I also loved the pineapple curry and the Milo soft serve for dessert was the perfect end to the meal.
Florence Knight is remarkable for many reasons but her sense of style and taste are kind of unparalleled in the restaurant world. I loved her cookbook, One, and have followed her career for years. Sessions Arts Club was one of the places I was most looking forward to eating at and it did not disappoint. You arrive at a barely marked door and meet a receptionist who sends you up in a lift to a space that is both wonderfully grandiose and gently decaying. It feels like a private club that has been taken over by chic squatters. And Florence’s food is so clever and playful, while being easy to relate to and enjoy. I’ll think about the plate of potato gnocchi and potatoes cut in the same shape as the gnocchi covered in a creamy sauce for a long time. Both monochrome and trompe-l’oeil, it was as delicious as it was chic.
Somehow, regretfully, this was my first time eating at the Towpath Cafe. We had intended to go in the past, but it never worked out. I regret not going sooner because one visit and I was in love. So in love that we went back a couple of days later. And so in love that since being home most of my post-holiday sadness is focused on the fact that I can’t be a regular at Towpath. Truly feeling emotional about it! Which is maybe partially jetlag but also definitely love. For those of you who don’t know, Towpath is a cafe built into a series of 4 small kiosks/industrial units that border Regent’s Canal making it a genuinely unusual place for a restaurant. There is no door! Four graffitied garage doors are rolled up every morning and the restaurant merges with the city. It feels like magic. I can’t think of anywhere in the world I would rather eat breakfast, while having a chat with Lori (a truly kindred spirit!), as bikes and runners stream by. It’s heaven. And for those of you not going to London anytime soon, I highly recommend the Towpath cookbook (by co-owners Lori De Mori and Laura Jackson) which really gives you a sense of the space and includes recipes for some of my favorite things (like the eggs fried with chile and sage). Towpath, I love you. I’ll see you soon. I promise.
In retrospect I’m noticing that these places are all run by women. Maybe a coincidence, but maybe not.
Other highlights from this trip: Mangal II (Beautiful food and service…and also a beautiful chef. Sorry!), Marksman (A great Sunday Roast), Quality Chop House (The greatest Sunday Roast), Jolene (Forever favorite. Love it so much.), Kudu Grill (Such a good time! Such good food!), Quo Vadis (Honestly, pretty perfect.), Bao (A favorite lunch in central London), Yard Sale Pizza (first time I’ve had pizza I loved in London), Cafe Cecilia (one of the best meals of the trip- seriously good. Will think about their Guinness bread forever), Forno (Everything great! I loved it.), E. Pellicci (First time at this East London institution.Genuinely good food and a lot of fun. Bryan was proud of me for cracking a good joke with the staff.), THE RITZ (Okay, hear me out, one of the best meals of our trip was breakfast at The Ritz. It is like getting to eat the fanciest breakfast of your life in a dining room that is museum-worthy. A total pleasure and worth every pound. But it was a lot of pounds. Revenge travel!).
There were also a lot of bakeries. Which maybe we’ll talk about another time.