I stumbled on a particularly ridiculous website the other evening – featuring Cafe Rouge and Spaghetti House to give you an idea of the level of credibility they are striving for – the lead reader review of whose top-rated establishment included the unintentionally apposite comment ‘the whole experience was superfluous’, but it made me consider, in the run up to San Pellegrino’s annual World’s 50 Best Restaurant Awards: ‘Which are London’s best restaurants?’
This topic inevitably crested the conversation over lunch recently at Ilia with Bloomberg’s critic Richard Vines, a man who dined three times in its opening month at Heston Blumenthal’s lionised Dinner (surely London’s most feverishly hyped opening in years?) and was recently Rene Redzepi’s guest, with Pierre Koffmann and Polpo’s Russell Norman, at his Copenhagen restaurant Noma, currently No. 1 in San Pellegrino’s list. We considered the differences between ‘best’ and ‘favourite’ – defined as providing the most enjoyable experience, consistently (i.e. the best – ‘to us’) and thus you might be less surprised to know that Richard’s top 10 London restaurants featured Soho’s BarShu and the City’s Lahore Kebab House among more obvious gastro-temples. And there are places that would feature in all but purists’ lists almost in spite of the food (Le Garrick and every gentleman’s club in a 5-mile radius of St James) but that have other factors important for an enjoyable dining experience: Service, ambience, clientele, location, reflection of Zeitgeist, ease of securing a table, quality/price ratio of the wine list – and in my business partner Boo’s case, an absence of Molton Brown hand wash. But to what extent do these factors obscure an objective assessment of food quality?
For example, I happen to think La Gazette and Mien Tay deliver among London’s most authentic French bistro and Vietnamese cuisine respectively but how skewed is my judgement by both establishments being very local, very affordable and very welcoming to me? Also for me particularly – the former’s depth of great value older vintages and the latter’s BYO policy and proximity to New World specialists Eagle Wines must surely impact on my overall assessment, no?
Let’s answer – yes, but then ask does it really matter? Is the sensuous pleasure of dining not a wholly subjective experience after all? Perhaps not:
Derek Brown, a fellow speaker at SilverSpoon 2010, former head of Michelin and their chief inspector, suggests that the organisation does not review restaurants in the traditional sense but offers instead a unique ‘quality audit’. Their guide is thus correspondingly dry, but you don’t buy it expecting the meandering topical introductions of broadsheet reviews, a vein of humorous observation and culturally pertinent asides throughout and a self-consciously witty conclusion linking back to the opening theme. However the question raised by many today is do Michelin’s ideas of ‘quality’ reflect those of increasingly confident, informed and well-served diners, for whom the very nature of eating out has changed considerably? And in a world where the critical paradigm is shifting from guru to peer-based reviews, is there still a place for aloofly-objective assessments, based on intransigent criteria rather than the shifting concerns of the foodie community? Lofty thoughts on one’s nosebag and trough antics, perhaps, and rather too many twiddly questions asked in the paragraphs above with no unequivocal answers. So:
I would suggest, somewhat circularly, there are two categories of ‘best’ restaurants in London: Those you always recommend to die-hard gastro-tourist acquaintances who want to experience the city’s finest (with or without your company), and those places you enjoy taking people to yourself. Whilst you’d expect some overlap, the list will not be identical. The former are based almost wholly on the consistent quality of the food, divorced from other considerations (apart from price); the latter more dependent on those other contributing factors mentioned above.
Thus my top 10 choices in the first case would be:
The Ledbury, Galvin La Chapelle, The River Cafe, Le Gavroche, St John, Dinner, The Square, Pied à Terre, Locanda Locatelli, Viajante.
In the second case:
The Opera Tavern, Great Queen Street, The Ivy, Polpo, Ristorante Semplice, Terroirs, Trishna, Tignello, Mien Tay, La Gazette.
This last list is slightly more humble (cheaper, and less Michelin driven at least) and closer to WineChap HQ, so more often frequented. If I had the time, money and a driver waiting outside then more of list 1’s choices might start appearing on it, but expediency, convenience and pricing have led me more often to the latter selection. So a benign circle ensues, where your treatment in regularly-patronised establishments improves and visits correspondingly increase in frequency. This is still arguably the most important aspect of eating out for many London diners – who are happy to overlook a bad meal, or poor wine choice in a regular haunt so long as we are greeted effusively by name on the door, led to our preferred table and comped an aperitif Champagne by the management. It’s these restaurants that remain our favourites and thus the best to and for us.
Tom Harrow, aka WineChap, is one of London’s most gluttonous movers and shakers, providing the world’s greatest plonks to some of London’s best restaurants, private collectors, gourmands and bon vivants.