My favorite food day was back in 2003, on the day I graduated from The Courtauld Institute in London. I grew up a foodie, the son of foodie parents (we once took a multi-week holiday built around eating at legendary barbecue joints in the American Midwest, and once drove four hours to get French fries from a stand on the pier in Baltimore), and wherever we went, we would map out our meals, long before we shifted gears to consider such mundane things as visiting people and seeing sites.
I inherited this trait from my parents, but in truth I usually left it to them. My father loves researching restaurants, and specialty dishes, and so when I moved to London for my post-graduate studies, I knew that I could place myself in his hands, with regards to restaurant recommendations.
Through many years of visits to the great city of London, we developed regular favorites to which we returned whenever we could. But of all the culinary expeditions we undertook, that graduation day was most memorable. As a special treat, my parents took me to my two favorite classic London eateries: Rules for lunch and The Ivy for dinner.
It was heavenly excess, and allowed me to compare the two greatest sticky toffee puddings of my life in direct, head-to-head competition. Here is my personal list of the must-eat classic restaurants of London, those that have endured, stood the test of time, and continue to produce at the very highest level.
Simpson’s in the Strand
Part of the Savoy Hotel building on the Strand, this is one of the oldest restaurants in the city, and still the best classic establishment to taste a traditional Sunday roast (though who needs to wait for Sunday?). It opened as a smoking room in 1828 and began to serve roast meats in 1850, while it was also the premiere venue for chess players to test their mettle.
And just in case you still doubt its cultural resonance, the king of traditional British comic fiction, P. G. Wodehouse, called it “a restful temple of food.” The roast beef, gravy and Yorkshire pudding are the draw. Nothing light, nothing nouveau, just good, old-school British fine dining, white tablecloths and all.
The Newman Arms
Part of the appeal is that it’s tricky to find, and seats only about a dozen customers, and you probably should reserve. The dollhouse-sized upstairs dining room of a traditional dark-wood-paneled pub down an alley off a side street in Fitzrovia that no tourist would stumble upon serves killer savory pies. Beef and Guinness. Chicken and ale. The combination of meat and veg, cooked in beer and sealed in buttery pastry is hard to beat. Or, I should say, was hard to beat. In researching for this article I found, to my dismay, that the Newman Arms is for sale and currently closed. But such a legendary, long-standing establishment (so entrenched in London’s cultural history that it appears in two novels by George Orwell) means that someone will surely buy it and bring it back to life.
Rock and Sole Plaice
A fish-and-chips shop has been present on this spot since 1871, so it is fair to call this an enduring legend. There are loads of good local places, serving up perfectly-cooked white fish, battered and fried, with fries, in a cone of newspaper, needing only a dash of malt vinegar.
But I’ve never had fish-and-chips as light as these, with none of the weight and grease associated with frying. Plus, located between Covent Garden and Seven Dials, this is in the heart of tourist London, as spot easy to find and return to. Often.
In 1798 Thomas Rule opened what would become London’s oldest continuously-running restaurant. The walls look like a Victorian drawing room, covered in Vanity Fair cartoons, old photographs, and oil paintings, with a warm, golden glow brought out by perfect lighting and ochre walls. A doorman in a top hat and overcoat smiles as you enter, and the staff makes you feel like landed gentry, even if you’re a plebeian like me.
The restaurant owns an estate up north that provides much of their meat. They do nothing particularly original, just very fine versions of very traditional dishes, in an atmosphere that simply feels wonderful. Don’t forget to leave room for sticky toffee pudding.
London’s most beloved restaurant (good luck getting reservations) has maintained its astonishing quality of food and service, in a stylish Art Deco interior, for decades, as well as its fiercely loyal clientele, a who’s who of London stars (one time I was eating there opposite Stephen Fry, Salman Rushdie and Mick Jagger). There are certain restaurants I’ve been to that just do everything right. It’s almost as if they pump laughing gas through the vents, because everyone has a brilliant time, every time they go. Il Latini in Florence, Da Luigi in Rome, Union Square Café in New York and, in London, The Ivy, all have this aura about them—I would build a holiday around eating at any of them (and have). The Ivy does not allow phones (so the ever-present celebrities can relax), and has a dress code. But that’s part of the fun. So, too, is the Poulet de Landes, probably the single best dish I’ve ever had, anywhere, and which I would request as my last meal. Special, happy French chickens are stuffed with foie gras and truffles (lots of them) and drizzled with a Madeira reduction sauce. It is simply incredible and unreproducible. My father and I bought the fanciest chicken we could find in the US, and followed the recipe in the official Ivy cookbook. The result was good, but it wasn’t the same. You’ve got to have it there. Bucket list. And don’t forget to save room for sticky toffee pudding.