Colman Andrews is the author of nine books on food. His latest book, The
British Table: A New Look at the Traditional Cooking of England, Scotland,
and Wales (Abrams), celebrates the best of British cuisine old and new.
A funny thing happened to food in England in the
latter 20th century: it started becoming English,
writes Colman Andrews. Food-savvy visitors to
London used to worry about what they’d find on
their plates; would it all be boring old roast beef
and mushy vegetables, maybe some treacly pudding
for dessert? Or mystery-meat pies with lard-laden
crusts, and heart-attack breakfasts of blood sausage
and eggs fried in bacon grease? If you can’t afford
the fancy French places, experienced travellers used to warn,
eat at Indian restaurants, or stick to fish and chips.
Today, of course, London is considered one of the world’s great
dining capitals, with eating places great and small representing
every kind of international cuisine, but the restaurants I most
want to go to when I’m in the English capital are the ones that
actually serve the food of this sceptred isle itself.
Although British food has long been scorned, there was a time
when they ate superbly–probably at least as well as the French.
English cookbooks of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries describe
incredible meals, and include every kind of meat, fish, game,
vegetable and fruit imaginable. Some historians believe that the
English taught the French how to roast meat. So, what happened?
A lot of things: the pleasure-denying zeitgeist of the Victorian
era; the mass rural exodus of the Industrial Revolution (and the
corresponding disconnection between, as they say these days, farm
and table); the overriding influence of French celebrity chefs; and
the privations of the two World Wars, to name just a few.
There were some bright spots in the 1950s and ’60s, but the real
renaissance of indigenous culinary tradition began in the mid-
1970s. Chefs like Anton Mosimann at the Dorchester Hotel
(offering “British National and Regional dishes”) and later Simon
Hopkinson, Brian Turner, Sally Clarke, Fergus Henderson, Jeremy
Lee, Mark Hix, Rowley Leigh and many more energized the
London restaurant scene by looking inward, at all their nation’s
wonderful food products, but also backwards,
to definitive British recipes from the past.
Dishes with rural origins, like potted crab or shrimp,
mackerel with sorrel sauce, chicken pie, Welsh salt
duck, jugged hare, lamb cooked in hay, and a whole
pastry-shop full of simple, but irresistible, desserts
found their way onto London menus–not as nostalgia,
but as pleasingly edible reminders of the depth and
breadth of Britain’s culinary heritage.
Even the most avant-garde of British chefs, Heston
Blumenthal–whose Michelin three-star Fat Duck in
There are many other good restaurants in London (most of
them less expensive and easier to get into than Dinner) where
one can sample traditional English cooking or modern
interpretations of it. The so-called “gastropub” movement, which
developed in the early 1990s out of a revivified pub called The
Eagle, wasn’t necessarily British (fish and chips might feature,
but so too chicken curry or moussaka). Today, though, English
flavours are palpable at such gastropubs as the Michelin-starred
Harwood Arms, where wild game is the specialty; the Anchor &
Hope, with its grilled Orkney kippers and seven-hour Swaledale
lamb shoulder; and The Malt House, where a meal might start
with smoked ham hock and parsley terrine, and go on to pan-
roasted partridge with shallot and apple purée.
Beyond gastropubs, I would direct diners first of all to St John,
where the remarkable Fergus Henderson and his crew serve such
deceptively simple ingredient-focused fare as roast bone marrow
with parsley salad, and grilled venison saddle with pickled walnuts.
Another must is Quo Vadis, since 2012 the preserve of Scottish-born chef Jeremy Lee, whose no-frills menus offer the likes of
smoked eel sandwiches, wild duck with bacon and prunes, and
a daily savoury meat or game pie with mashed potatoes.
The third essential stop for anyone wishing to eat British at
its best is Mark Hix’s Hix Soho, where the menu teems with
such only-in-Britain delights as pork cracklings with Yorkshire
rhubarb sauce, Cornish fish stew, chicken and lobster pie, and
the classic Sussex Pond pudding (a buttery, caramelized lemon
dessert whose origins date back to 1672). Then there’s The
Quality Chop House, an updated “working man’s eating
house” with a pub-like warmth. I try to go there every time I’m
in London, for a single dish: “mince” (ground beef) with toast
fried in beef drippings–gloriously simple, thoroughly satisfying.
What’s being served in these and other first-rate London
restaurants specializing in British dishes grows out of centuries of
tradition and utilizes the country’s astounding natural bounty.
And I think it’s as good as any food in the world today. ■
Finding London’s really good British food
Fulham, SW6 1QP
020 7386 1847
ANCHOR & HOPE
36 The Cut,
Southwark, SE1 8LP
020 7928 9898
THE MALT HOUSE
17 Vanston Place,
Fulham, SW6 1AY
020 7084 6888
26 St John Street,
Clerkenwell, EC1M 4AY
020 7251 0848
26-29 Dean Street,
Soho, W1D 3LL
020 7437 9585
66-70 Brewer Street,
Soho, W1F 9UP
020 7292 3518
THE QUALITY CHOP HOUSE
88-94 Farringdon Road,
Clerkenwell, EC1R 3EA
020 7278 1452