Classic London Restaurants

The days when London dining was synonymous with bad food are over. The revolution in London’s kitchens began simmering in the 1970s, and by the 1980s a handful of influential restaurants had brought it to a boil. Gourmet magazine recently termed this multicultural city “The best place to eat on the planet,” and its restaurants made up 22% of the top 50 in the world for 2005, according to a list compiled by 600 serious foodies for Europe-based Restaurant magazine.

Today, Londoners and visitors alike can choose from an ever-changing, cosmopolitan mix of cuisines and cooking styles, but a number of the original trail blazers continue to lead the restaurant scene. These ten have all managed to retain the loyalty of London’s fickle, demanding, and increasingly sophisticated diners:

Le Caprice
It may no longer be the hippest place in town or aim for the most outre cuisine, but if success is measured by loyalty, Le Caprice has it in spades. Since 1981, Le Caprice has consistently served a pitch-perfect combination of intelligent, respectful service and well-prepared up to date British cuisine. From the sautéed foie gras with caramelised apples to the almost legendary perfection of a simple rib-eye steak, the kitchen delivers quality without flash or ego. There’s even a relatively inventive vegetarian/vegan menu. Actors, media moguls, power brokers and generally fashionable people are regulars, so reservations are a must. Arlington House, Arlington Street. 020/7629-2239. Open every day. Lunch 12 to 3 (3:30 Sun.), dinner 5:30 (6 Sun.) to midnight. Sun. brunch menu.

Clarke’s
In the early 1980s, British-born chef Sally Clarke went to California and saw the light. Influenced by her mentor Alice Waters, of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, Clarke inspired a trend for ultra-fresh ingredients, simply but perfectly cooked. Last year, she celebrated 20 years at the same Kensington Church Street location, one that conveniently straddles the well-heeled Kensington and Notting Hill districts. The formula remains the same: a small, reasonably priced lunch menu and a four-course, no-choice set dinner that changes daily. Meals are accompanied by beautiful breads and finished off with chilled, handmade chocolate truffles. Basement diners can watch Sally and her team in action. 124 Kensington Church Street. 020/7221-9225. Reservations essential. Closed Sun., Sat. lunch and two weeks in August.

Le Gavroche
The Roux brothers, Albert and Michel, practically taught the British how to eat. Opening Le Gavroche in 1967, they introduced a lasting version of French haute cuisine to London. Michel moved on to open the equally legendary Waterside Inn in Bray, leaving Albert to earn the UK’s first, second, and finally third Michelin star. The dark, clubby, slightly formal room (jackets for men required) is lightened by the charm of the staff and the finesse of the cooking, now in the hands of Michel Roux Jr. Marinated tuna and salmon tartare with caviar, lobster ragout with truffles and leeks, banana soufflé a few of the taste sensations you’re likely to encounter here. The all-in, fixed-price lunch is almost a bargain. Reservations well in advance are essential. 43 Upper Brook Street, Mayfair. 020/7408-0881. Lunch and dinner, Mon. to Fri. Dinner only Sat., 10-day Christmas closure. Dress code.

Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road
His impact on London’s dining scene has been so profound it’s hard to believe that Gordon Ramsay first burst on the scene only 12 years ago, as the protégé of Marco Pierre White and Albert Roux. Now he’s a restaurant empire-builder with protégés of his own, running some of the grandest dining rooms in London. Fiery, inventive, and accomplished (braised pork with langoustines, a burger recipe that includes veal and minced foie gras)—he is a chef at the top of his game. And nowhere is this more in evidence than at his Chelsea flagship where, despite numerous television appearances and other celebrity chef rigmarole, he is still behind the stove and in control. Book early. 68-69 Royal Hospital Road, Chelsea. 020/7352-4441. Lunch and dinner, Mon. to Fri. Closed weekends.

The Ivy
A theatreland classic since 1917, part of the Ivy’s appeal is its high celebrity quotient. Diners regularly find themselves chomping shepherds pie next to the likes of Hugh Grant, Ewan McGregor, or J.K. Rowling. Many report that the real charm of the place is that staff treat everyone like a celebrity, except of course when it comes to the tricky business of booking a table. The extensive menu can be described as comfort food of the highest order; not challenging or particularly adventurous but very, very good. The Ivy has recently been acquired by the same group that operates Le Caprice; the new owners don’t appear to be changing the winning formula. Reservations well in advance are advised, but a nonchalant inquiry a day or two ahead could produce results. 1 – 5 West Street, between Covent Garden and the Theatre District. 020/7836 4751. Lunch to 3 and dinner to midnight every day.

J. Sheekey
There was a time when it was easy to book a table at this venerable Theatreland seafood restaurant. But the A-list crowd, last seen here in the 1960s, has returned with a vengeance, so forward planning is essential. It’s worth it. The atmosphere is buzzy, the people watching great, the before and after theatre service efficient. Back when Londoners thought “fish and chips” was the seafood meal, J.Sheekey was the only reliable place to eat oysters and was already treating freshwater and sea fish with respect and style. It’s bigger now, and recently joined the same stable as the Ivy and Caprice, but otherwise nothing much has changed. 28-32 St. Martin’s Court, Theatreland. 020/7240-2565.

The Ritz
John Williams, the new executive chef at the Ritz, has been quietly bringing the grande dame of London hotel restaurants back to life. With its “aprés nous le déluge” decor, 18th-century gilt chandeliers, romantic murals, Green Park garden view, and generally over-the-top bows and furbelows, this is one of the prettiest dining rooms in London. For years the food ranged from pedestrian to dreadful; the only consistent standard being the dress code. The new menu is simplified, lightened and modern (try the crepe suzettes prepared at the table). 150 Piccadilly. 020/ 7493 8181. Lunch and dinner, every day.

The River Cafe
It’s out of the way and expensive, but people keep on coming back. It must be the food. Must be the food. Fans praise fresh ingredients, intense flavours, surprising combinations (wood-roasted langoustines with wild oregano, bean salad with mint, thyme, and purslane) for all the repeat business. Since launching their shrine to modern Italian cooking in 1987, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers have introduced London to cavola nero (black cabbage), single-estate olive oils, mozzarella di bufala, and orreccietti pasta. The wine list is surprisingly reasonable. Thames Wharf Studios, Rainville Road, Hammersmith. 020/7386 4200. Lunch every day, dinner Mon. through Sat. Closed Sun. nights and 10 days at Christmas.

Rules
This 200-plus-year-old institution in Covent Garden (photo, top) has fallen off the pages of some of the snootier food guides. Trendy Londoners may have turned their back on it, but overseas visitors and tweedy British gentry still find lunch or dinner at Rules an experience like no other. Opened in 1798, Rules has served the likes of Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill and several generations of Princes of Wales. You can almost imagine them dining now, under painted glass skylights in the glorious, paneled and picture-bedecked Regency dining room. The large menu emphasizes game from the restaurant’s own estate; cooking is accomplished and occasionally inspired—wild sea bass with a pearl barley and herb risotto; lemon posset with English raspberries and lavender shortbread. 35 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. 020/7836-5314. Reservations required. Open noon to 11:30 Mon. to Sat., Sun. to 10:30.

The Savoy Grill
This is the place to watch the British power establishment at table. Politicos, CEOs, press barons, and football club owners have long considered its sober dining room the place to lunch. After a revamp of the decor and menu, the restaurant achieved the first Michelin star in the Savoy’s history in 2004. The new menu nods to modern tastes while respecting traditional, trademark dishes. Such items as steak and kidney pudding with poached oysters shares menu space with daurade on a warm cucumber and chervil salad. The Arnold Bennett Omelette, with smoked haddock, is a classic. Reservations essential. Jacket required. The Savoy, The Strand. 020/7592-1600. Lunch and dinner every day.

Faded Glories:

The Bombay Brasserie
Brought gourmet Indian cooking to London, but there’s more competition
today.

The Hard Rock Café
No one needs to stand in line for a decent hamburger in London anymore.

OXO Tower Restaurant and Brasserie
The view is remarkable, but the food, noise, crowds, and poor service aren’t.

Quaglinos
Big, noisy, and disappointing, with a shop selling souvenir ashtrays to suburban matrons.

Simpson’s in the Strand
Full of tourists and men in suits eating big slabs of meat. The world has
moved on.

—Ferne Arfin

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