This is Tower Bridge. Not London Bridge. You can tell because it has towers. Duh.
I get asked a lot what the best restaurant in London is and where tourists should go. The former I find a bit tricky to answer (and we’ll get to that in a minute) and as for the latter, I’ve sent out that list of ‘must dos’ so many times in the past year you’d think I’d have written this post long before this point. I hadn’t because I tend to steer away from this becoming a review blog – I review restaurants in my day-to-day so like this to be my own space; this time it’s a plea.
Guys, you have no idea how infuriating it is when somebody visits London and their response is, “meh, it was okay, the food is terrible, though”. What do you mean the food is terrible?! Where did you go? What did you have? Why didn’t you like it?! I usually find out it’s because said individual wanted to “eat like a local” and this meant dodgy fish and chips, watery tepid tea, a big name chef’s restaurant which did not live up to the hype and at least one obligatory pub lunch where everybody around them seemed more interested in drinking than eating; it drives me insane. When I see tourists lining up around the block at Planet Hollywood or the Hard Rock Cafe I want to grab them by the shoulders and shout, ‘WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS TO YOURSELF’ and the truth is they do it because they simply don’t know otherwise. We all know that feeling – you’ve been walking all day, you’re tired and you spot a beacon of familiarity amongst a land of grey and people trying to get from A to B: it happens. But did you know that just around the corner there’s a place which is a million times better and half the price? Probably not or you wouldn’t be subjecting yourself to tourist traps.
Well, that’s why I’m writing this, but first take every pre-conceived idea of “London” out of your head and throw it away: we’re not all friends with the Queen, my school life was not a scene out of Harry Potter, we aren’t obsessed with William & Kate’s every move and we don’t drink tea by the gallon… well, okay, we probably do the last one but we don’t go out for afternoon tea all the time. Now listen carefully because I’m about to blow your mind.
London is a huge capital city, soon to be host to the 2012 Olympic Games (nightmare) and incredibly diverse and multi-cultural. “Eating like a local” is no longer limited to English breakfasts (though they are a treat from time to time: a horrible, heart attack inducing, mid-hangover, greasy treat) or afternoon tea (not to be confused with high tea which is, in fact, a light supper).
We’re incredibly proud of our dining scene – home to some amazing restaurants and chefs, we’re spoiled for choice. “British food” is not just meat and veg, it’s Japanese yakitori, it’s French finesse, it’s Italian small plates and Spanish tapas, and so much more. Having said that, there are also fantastic movers and shakers, revolutionising the face of British food – we’ve got it all. Stop thinking of London as a dot on a map and start thinking of it in exactly the way it deserves: a metropolis of ever-changing food and excitement.
The other week I was having Sunday dim sum with some food friends and joked that one of the girls we knew had already been to the brand new highly-lauded restaurant in town within a week of opening. “Isn’t that funny? Doors are barely open and she’s already been!” I laughed, popping a wasabi siu mai (prawn dumpling) into my mouth. The two boys looked at each other, back at me and then raised their hands. “We’ve been too – within three days of opening.”
The casual dining scene, especially in the past year, has positively exploded. With the rise of food truck culture, the demand for a permanent home from these street favourites has been high. In the past few months alone we’ve seen a former burger cart take up permanent residence just off Oxford Street and a popular barbecue truck open the doors to their first restaurant in Soho (barbecue being a very new thing to the UK). Both of these venues have punters lining up around the block for a table, come rain or shine. Londoners, just like New Yorkers, know where the latest hot spot is within hours of contracts being signed, Twitter buzzes with claims of ‘it’s true, x was as good as they’re all saying!’ (who “they” are and what they’ve been saying within hours of opening is another matter entirely) and blog posts and reviews are written by the thousands of fans (and, of course, the not so impressed); so why do I still hear that old adage that British food is bad?
To eat well in London it takes, as most things do, a good bit of planning and organisation. With so much happening and so many good things to try, you can’t rock up at 7pm on the day and try to wrangle your way into a table – the bloggers alone will have secured their place weeks in advance. It’s akin to showing up to, say, David Chang’s Momofuku Ko in New York and being all, ‘alright D-Chang, just got into NYC – how about a table for 6?’ Plan. Book (if you can; the trend is now moving towards restaurants who don’t allow bookings). Get there early (a must if you can’t book ahead). Call the restaurant, don’t just rely on their online booking system (I don’t understand this aversion to talking to people on the phone – just pick up the phone, dial a number and talk to a human being). You will not be able to walk in to Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck – the booking system is incredibly complicated and infuriates many. If you’re desperate to eat there then investigate the booking system (lines open at the beginning of each month, you can book 3 months in advance) and keep calling until you get through.
I can’t tell you where the best place to eat in London is because there’s just so much, it’s so very different and everybody’s tastes are different. I know where my favourite conveyor belt sushi joint is, or my favourite alternative pizza joint; I can tell you where to get a bangin’ Indian-style lunchtime wrap and a cooling lassi, or my favourite late-night Chinese joint to have lashings of siu-yook (roast pork) or wonton mein (wonton noodles) after a night out on the town (Canton, 11 Newport Place; incidentally this was my father’s favourite when he was a student and also my older brother’s, all by chance). I can even tell you one of the only places where you can buy guanciale (cured pig’s cheek) or where to source the freshest weekend produce.
If you need to experience fish and chips, at least go to a chip shop who know what they’re doing, and if you’re going to have tea, dress up and have it with champagne or at least do afternoon tea the way it’s supposed to be done. Pub lunches are great but make sure you go to a really decent gastropub or British brasserie, not just any old pub you spot whilst out and about. Still really just want a burger? Then I’ll steer you away from the “dirty burgers” of McDonalds & Burger King and tell you where they toast the bun just right, grill the patty so that it’s crisp and juicy and generally make it – according to some – orgasm inducing. Even better, I’ll let Daniel tell you his top 10 burgers in London, if that’s your thing.
Sound expensive? None of this stuff has to break the bank. I can, of course, recommend the best rhubarb gin & tonic I’ve ever had at a moderately priced restaurant, or the much pricier high-end side of London, but it all depends on how much you’re willing to spend.
I will pass you on to colleagues and friends, I will recommend food writers and bloggers, I will even take you to some of these restaurants if you’re dining alone; in short I will bend over backwards to give you the best damn experience you could possibly have whilst in London. But I will not, repeat not, stand for it if you come into my home city, go to the nearest tourist trap and then go home with the idea that the food in London is rubbish. If I hear that you’ve done this then I’m going to hunt you down and punch you in the baby-maker: don’t do it.
So how do you eat like a local?
1. Research (this includes things like: do they take AmEx? Mostly: no).
3. Book ahead.
4. Enjoy yourself and that’s an order.
Questions? Want me to expand on any of the above? Just drop me a line and I’ll do my best. Until next time, peace and love.
PS: American? Don’t forget that you’ve still got until the end of the month to submit your home State food memory to my project! Go, go, go!