The world is wide, and we want to see (and eat) all of it. We've partnered with VisitBritain to take a closer look at the foods, producers, restaurants, and regions that make Great Britain a top destination for food-loving travelers.
It’s hard to get a feel for where to eat in an unfamiliar country. Even in one you know fairly well, it can be difficult to grasp what trends are bubbling under, what chefs are thinking, what changes are taking shape. Guidebooks are invariably out of date, newspaper lists are often made up of hastily assembled information culled from a variety of sources (and most of the restaurants are neither tried nor tested by those compiling the lists) and it takes time to wade through the work of restaurant critics (which critic do you choose? How far back do you go?). The restaurants of big name chefs are easy to find, but there are other gems that are less well known.
Here in Great Britain, we are still trying to work out what “modern British cooking” actually is, though the influence of the New Nordic cuisine—and a growing love of the sour and the fermented—has helped us towards finding an answer. Our romance with Italian food, which took off in London in the mid-1980s, has not waned. The British probably fantasize more about the Italian way of life than any other; food is our way of attaining it. Then there’s all the Indian, Chinese, Turkish, Thai and Middle Eastern places, which flourish because of our magpie love of the food of other cultures and the work of the many immigrants (and descendants of immigrants) who have opened restaurants here.
This is my personal list of places to head to if you’re visiting Great Britain. Because I live in London and because most visitors start here, my list happens to be fairly London-focused, but it takes you to Scotland and the English coast, too. You will eat well off this list for sure, but I hope you will also get a feeling for what’s happening in restaurant food in Great Britain right now.
The following chefs and restaurants—some old, some new—should be on your radar. For help keeping up with what is going on here there’s also a short hymn to the British restaurant critic you ought to be reading and following.
Tom Adams is only twenty-nine and was recently named Chef of the Year at The Observer Food Monthly awards. Chefs get awards all the time, so who cares, right? But Adams is the real deal. And he redefines “farm-to-fork.” Coombeshead Farm, in a lush valley in Cornwall (a magical place with a Georgian house at its heart), is co-owned with New York restaurant maven (and fellow Brit) April Bloomfield. It’s the weekend destination on every British food-lover’s “must go to” list.
As soon as you arrive you’re ushered into the kitchen, where Tom is likely to be pickling or making sourdough for that night’s dinner. You’ll be given a gin and tonic with the addition of his blackcurrant leaf infusion, then he’ll take you on a tour of the cellar: not just a place for wines, but also for ferments, preserves and other culinary experiments. It’s all very relaxed, like turning up at the home of a friend who is also a wonderful cook.
Adams is big into curing, fermenting and British meat. He cooks pork from his own Mangalitsa pigs (his mum gave him a pig for his sixteenth birthday and that was it) and is obsessive about where he gets his beef and lamb. There are a lot of sour and clean flavors in his vegetable dishes.
You can just have dinner at Coombeshead Farm (dining, by the way, is communal, which adds to the pleasure and quirkiness of the place) but most guests stay in the understated rooms upstairs, especially as this means you also get breakfast: cured pork belly, porridge with quince, homemade jams and Tom’s own butter.
The most serious food-lovers who visit Great Britain manage to make the pilgrimage down to Whitstable on the south coast (a ninety-minute train journey from London). Cab drivers at the station are used to ferrying diners out to The Sportsman, a pub with a Michelin star and some of the best food in the country. The chef and owner, Stephen Harris, is entirely self-taught and his food truly is a “cuisine de terroir.” He cures pork from the pigs that eat in the apple orchards nearby and drags buckets of seawater up the beach to make his own salt. Over the years he has taken inspiration (and technique) from many French chefs, but in the last decade or so he has been learning from chefs in Scandinavia, Belgium and the Netherlands—and many of the top chefs from these countries make regular visits to The Sportsman.
Some of his dishes are perfectly executed versions of simple British classics, such as roast pork belly with apple sauce; others are his own, dishes for which he has become well known, like slip soles in seaweed butter. Harris is obsessed with technique, but not out of cheffy posturing, only in the pursuit of better flavors.
He eschews fame so you won’t find him on the television or doing pop-ups in Lima (though he has just written his first book, The Sportsman). One of the most intelligent chefs I know, he truly cares about food and is happiest in his kitchen. Get on that train.
Joseph Trivelli, who is joint head chef at The River Café (a longstanding beacon for lovers of Italian food), is a gently rising star (often the best sort of star). Half Italian—his father is from the south of Italy, though Joseph was born and brought up in England—he pops up every so often in The Observer, usually standing in for food writer Nigel Slater, and I always keep his recipes. They’re muscular, simple, down-to-earth (roast duck stuffed with quince, fennel and salami, or beef with chestnuts and lardo) and mostly Italian (though sometimes very British ingredients get an Italian treatment, like his Brussels sprouts cooked under olive oil). Not only can you taste his food at The River Café, Trivelli is writing his first cookbook, which will be published in 2018. I can’t wait.
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Gyngell is not a new name on the restaurant scene but she is so reluctant to stand in the limelight that it’s easy to forget about her. She has a cooking style of great clarity. Perfect seasonal produce coaxed, rather than bullied, into simple intense flavors is her bag (she is the nearest thing we have to Alice Waters). After cooking for other restaurateurs she opened her own place three years ago, Spring, a beautiful dining room (neo-classical, high ceilings, pale blue walls, lights wrapped in soft fabric) in Somerset House, a gracious location in the middle of London. Her clearest influences are Italy and California (via Melbourne and Sydney—Gyngell is Australian). Some dishes are basically great assemblies, like burrata with chestnuts, bitter leaves, pickled pumpkin and furls of sweet prosciutto; while others are robust and layered, like melting, slow-cooked pork with meaty girolles and polenta. Her sourcing is peerless.
Gyngell is more emotional about food, and about the importance of being a respectful conduit for good ingredients, than any chef I’ve ever talked to; it is not unusual for her to tear up when she speaks about cooking. Her heart and soul is on the plates at Spring. Lunch is the best time to go (the room is at its loveliest in daylight); plan on spending the afternoon.
The Quality Chop House has been on the go for a long time—it opened in 1869—and retains the tiled floor and wooden pews from its days as a “Progressive Working Class Caterer” (the interior is Grade-II listed, meaning it’s been deemed “of more than special interest,” so no changes can be made). In those days, the food was more straightforward but the current owners—Will and Nick Lander, respectively the son and husband of wine doyenne, Jancis Robinson—see themselves as custodians of a place with a history, a place which they have worked hard to polish and elevate.
Chef Shaun Searley produces food that manages to be both robust and elegant. QCH is known for British ingredients and cooking—you can have toast with minced beef and dripping, Welsh rarebit and little tartlets of beetroot topped with a delicate custard of Devon Blue cheese—but French technique (the silky chicken liver parfait, the perfect pork terrines) is in evidence, too, and you’ll also find the odd Mediterranean dish. It all comes together in a coherent whole. Everything that passes your lips has been made with the utmost care; the tangy sourdough, the butter—cultured and produced in-house from raw Guernsey cream—will put a smile on your face before you’ve even ordered.
Meat is given more prominence than anything else on the menu; they have their own butcher’s shop next door and their chops are legendary. A wine list rich in poetry (ask to see the long list, even if you’re not going to order from it) and one of the most professional front-of-house teams in London make this a dream spot. Few visitors from abroad know about it.
Inver, a small restaurant tucked away in a village on the banks of a Scottish loch (that’s a lake, for you visitors), opened two years ago to much praise: British restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin simply wrote “Go. Go by car or boat or bloody helicopter.” I was worried for chef Pam Brunton and her partner Rob Latimer (who does front of house) because of the remoteness of the place. But those hungry for good and interesting things to eat have worked out how to get there and where to stay nearby. Most make a trip out of eating here, coming for dinner, staying the night and having lunch the next day.
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Brunton has been most influenced by stints at the Scandinavian restaurants Noma and Faviken, and has applied a New Nordic approach to Scottish ingredients. There’s halibut with cockles, coastal greens and smoky mussel butter, burnt grain dumplings with wild mushrooms, creamed corn and egg yolk, chamomile rice pudding with raspberries. A little bit Nordic, but fundamentally Scottish.
Of all the high-end chefs in London cooking inventive British food (Isaac McHale at The Clove Club, James Lowe at Lyle’s), Robin Gill’s is the most accessible. His restaurants, The Dairy, The Manor and Counter Culture, are informal—the money is on the plate, not in the décor—and are packed with locals and chefs alike.
Gill takes sustainability and waste very seriously; he buys animals whole and ages and stores his own meat, and has built a cellar where his chefs make their own charcuterie and ferments. Beehives are on the roof and they’ve turned a piece of nearby wasteland into a kitchen garden.
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Gill was hugely influenced by working in Italy, where seasonality and sourcing were central, but it was his time in Scandinavian kitchens that is most evident in his cooking. Texture is key, fermenting and curing is important, local British ingredients reign. You might find Cornish mussels with English corn and bread miso or smoked beetroot with black garlic and crab apples. Counter Culture (next door to The Dairy; they refer to it as The Dairy’s “little brother”) is all about small plates that celebrate curing, pickling, bottling and fermenting.
Gill also runs The Bloodshot Supper Club. Originally an opportunity for chefs to get together to let off steam, share ideas and eat, this is now open to lesser mortals as well. It takes place on the last Saturday of every month and kicks off at 1:00 am, running through the night. Book it if you dare.
Asma Khan is not a trained chef. In fact, when she arrived in Great Britain in 1991 she couldn’t even boil an egg. Frustrated, she made several long trips home to India to learn about her Mughal culinary heritage from both her family and the people who had cooked for her when she was a child. Back in England she started to sell Indian street food (at first to raise money for humanitarian disasters), and immediately the people who tasted her cooking wanted more. The day she finished her PhD in British constitutional law she registered her company, Darjeeling Express, and started to cook full time.
Indian home food is what Khan loves. After some hugely successful supper clubs she opened her own place, Darjeeling Express (a Calcutta-Hyderabad-Rajput restaurant near Piccadilly) this year. She has an entirely female kitchen, none of them trained chefs, all cooks who learned from their mothers and grandmothers, most of them people who Khan has met as she settled into life in Great Britain. (Khan’s employment ethos has been to find women from traditional Indian families who felt undervalued or had few opportunities.)
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If you want food as cooked in Indian homes, rather than Indian “restaurant” food, Darjeeling Express is your place.
You’ll have tasted Chinese food, I’m sure. But you haven’t tasted Andrew Wong’s Chinese food. Wong never wanted to be a chef. His parents were in the restaurant business so he grew up in it—and couldn’t wait to get away. But when he was at university his father died and he had to help his mother keep the business going. He says he has no idea why or how, but gradually he became interested, obsessed even, with historical dishes, with the food of every area of China, and with the food of the countries that border China. He went off and cooked, studied and worked in China to learn as much as possible. In 2012, he opened A.Wong.
He describes his cooking as “modern Chinese,” but that makes it sound as if it’s westernized and finicky. The food is refined and considered, but it’s still as joyful and appetite-satingly delicious as that served in a great traditional Chinese restaurant...only much better.
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Wong says what drives him is boredom—he is always chasing flavors and putting new dishes on the menu—though none of this is done just for the sake of novelty. Xiao long bao (soup dumplings) are soft pouches of gently pinched dough that burst to fill your mouth with gingery vinegar and fat, ozone-rich prawns. Then there’s sweet Cantonese honey roast pork with wind dried sausage and grated foie gras, and gong bao chicken (with crispy skin, flickers of red chili, Sichuan pepper) from Chengdu. Even the desserts—which I normally forego in Chinese restaurants—are little fairy stories, like coconut water granita with blackberries, Xinjiang mulberries and mochi.
The menu is made up of small plates—that way you can taste quite a bit of China, even if there’s only two of you—and each one is exquisitely presented. (If you have several hours to kill, go for the ten course Taste of China menu). The place might feel informal (the main floor has a bleached Scandinavian look) but the service is as careful and attentive as that of any fine dining restaurant. Wong has already written his first book—and a lovely thing it is, too—but this is not food to cook at home; let Andrew Wong do it for you.
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Marina O’Loughlin is the restaurant critic of restaurant critics in this country. She writes for The Sunday Times (having recently taken over the column presided over, brilliantly, by the late AA Gill). She was previously at The Guardian (you’ll find many of her old reviews online) but you can keep up with where she is eating (and what she’s thinking) by following her on social media (she is prodigiously opinionated on Twitter). Scottish, sassy and unpretentious, you won’t just read her column for guidance on where to eat, though. She writes like an angel, gliding seamlessly from a joke that will make you laugh out loud to a lyrical description worthy of Chekhov. I often feel I’ve already dined in a restaurant simply from reading her review (and usually have a phrase from her weekend review still swimming around in my head on a Wednesday). O’Loughlin also has a great palate. And she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. She’s everything you could want in a restaurant critic, really.
We've partnered with VisitBritain to take a closer look at the foods, producers, restaurants, and regions that make Great Britain a top destination for food-loving travelers. Follow along on Instagram to see what's going on across the pond at @lovegreatbritain and what Great Britain is eating at @greatbritishfood.