For Americans visiting the UK, the sticker shock of how little the dollar is worth in exchange for the pound might drive some discerning foodies to fast-food restaurants.
But here are five (plus a surprise bonus) gems where every dining experience is a celebration of exceptional food, drink, ambiance and service. To these basic essentials add the value of dining with a large number of long-satisfied locals and soon-to-be-happy visiting diners. And the al la carte offerings further ensure value-for-money because the final tab is based on how much one cares to eat and drink. For instance, some of our choices offer larger-than-usual starters and salads, either of which could be an entrée.
1. Rosa’s Thai Café SoHo: This clean and simple setting on a bustling street in SoHo is all about the food and service in comfortable and convivial surroundings. The knowledgeable and easy-going wait staff will suggest dishes for those whose only reference to Thailand’s exotic cuisine is Pad Thai.
We began with two spicy starters; the fresh summer rolls with peanut sauce and the Thai calamari with plum sauce. Following that, we opted for, naturally, the international favorite, Pad Thai with vegetables and tofu, and a rack-of-lamb in a coconut cream curry sauce. Each dish was beautifully presented and served on white enameled plates to create a culinary picture that got the salivary glands going. All was accompanied by ice-cold Chang beer, which perfectly suited the sometimes fiery food.
The generally young clientele waits patiently for a table at this two-floor restaurant on Dean Street, and there are usually four tables or more on the sidewalk. There are plenty of wonderful looking people about, because Rosa’s is just around the corner from Old Compton Street, where the gorgeous gay men, their allies and other sociable people gather in the adjacent establishments.
Once a waiting customer has been put ‘on the list,’ it’s possible to take a drink out onto this popular street to chat amiably with other waiting diners.
Rosa’s has three additional locations. Take a look at www.rosaslondon.com. Rosa’s delightful and hard-working manager, Aom, proudly mentioned the original Rosa’s in Spitafields on the East End, and the two newest locations at Carnaby Street and in the Westfield mall- Stratford City.
2. Cinnamon SoHo: This handsome sibling of the famed Indian-cuisine temple, the Cinnamon Club, is less formal but its menu has been lovingly created by one of the Cinnamon Club’s original expert chefs, and now operations manager, Hari Nacarai.
After imbibing a mango-inspired flaming cocktail, (the servers gave us plenty of time to enjoy these expertly made, high-quality creations), Hari advised that with our dinners we order a white wine – Domaine Preignes le Neuf Coteux du Libron. This superb chardonnay was the perfect accompaniment for our shared appetizer of the restaurant’s critically acclaimed spicy “Balls.”
These luscious creations, a generous serving of large and tender round Crab Cakes, Potato Bondas, Vegetable Shikampur, Mixed Game and Bangla-Scotch Egg were each accompanied by an expertly seasoned sauce. London’s Time Out wrote: “Of all the Balls that we’ve bitten this year, these are (undoubtedly) the best.” Need we say more?
Following the spicy balls, we continued this memorable dining treat with two entrees; a seared duck breast with sesame tamarind sauce, and the fish-of-the-day, a peanut crusted spicy hake, with pearl barley kedgeree. Both were exceptional choices. We ended our luscious meal with a British favorite, sticky ginger toffee pudding – with banana ice cream, clearly a bow to the Cinnamon’s Indian heritage.
The Cinnamon SoHo restaurant is on Kingly Street, a pedestrian way, close to Regent Street. You can find out more about this immensely satisfying dinner experience at www.cinnamon-kitchen.com. Have a Ball!
3. The Parlour at Canary Wharf: Prepare for a high-decibel, high-energy dinner in this fun contemporary space when you venture out beyond the tourist areas to Canary Wharf.
From our exceptional accommodations at the five-star Red Carnation Collection’s Milestone Hotel, we found our way to the Parlour via the Tube’s modern and spotless District and Jubilee lines. (Save big on local transportation with an Oyster card from
Upon emerging from the Underground into this cavernous and sleek financial and banking district, we just asked a nearby security guard, “Can you direct us to The Parlour?” Within a two-minute walk we were seated inside the towering and stylish restaurant with its floor to ceiling windows. It was a great show just watching lively revelers at the outdoor bar and tables listening to music, drinking, socializing and having an array of small, superbly made dishes that make the Parlour a great meeting spot for the smart, after-work crowd.
Our genial young server, Amici, a student from Lithuania, introduced us to The Parlour’s famed cocktails. There seems to be a return to the ‘cocktail hour’ among young, upwardly mobile Londoners, and the highly touted choices at The Parlour doesn’t disappoint. The “Fairground Millionaire” cocktail has rum, sloe gin, apricot brandy and fresh lime, and the “Tears of a Clown” was a gin mojito with blueberries and blue Curacao. These generous-sized libations are spectacular and for an additional WOW factor some are served topped with a flaming liquor-filled guava shell. Once it cools, toss it down.
While we sipped, we munched on a Peking duck flatbread served on a board with crispy duck, hoisin sauce, cucumber ribbons and spring onions. That alone could have been our meal. Assistant general manager John-Paul McGrath was on hand to give us suggestions from the Parlour’s enormous menu that is prepared by a corps of professional chefs who create their culinary masterpieces in view of the customers.
The turnover is so great that everything is always fresh and much of the food served is locally sourced. In the end, we opted to go simple – each having an 8 oz. ‘Allen’s of Mayfair’ Scottish sirloin with béarnaise sauce that came with roast tomato, grilled mushroom, and crunchy onion rings & chipped potatoes. It’s imaginative and delicious contemporary British fare, in The Parlour’s signature style.
By the time we were ready to wander back to the tube station, we’d already been introduced to most of the folks dining at surrounding tables by our now good friend, the energetic and entertaining Amici. The Parlour is a neat place to drink, dine and socialize at breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner, and all the hours in-between. www.theparlourbar.co.uk
4. Guinea Grill: Traditionalists will love both the Guinea Pub, and the ‘secret’ side entrance which leads to the quintessential British steak and chop experience – the Guinea Grill. Located on Bruton Place in Mayfair, close to the still stately Berkeley Square, there’s been an establishment on this spot since 1423. A pub opened here in 1675 and the current incarnation was licensed by Young’s brewery back in 1888 - with the adjacent grill opening in 1952. How’s that for history and tradition?
On the rainy night we visited, we were greeted by the charming ‘keeper of the door’ Shawn, who took our wet umbrellas (courtesy of the Red Carnation Collection’s Milestone Hotel), and led us to the bar for a pint while he was checking on our table in the intimate grill room.
Matre’d Marco appeared almost instantly, and led us first to the display case of prime Scottish beef aged on the bone from farms in Aberdeenshire. The chef showed us a selection of chops and other meats that are aged for at least 28 days. This menu is simple. In addition to the sirloins, filets and porterhouses, there’s a rack of lamb (roasted or grilled) and for the adventurous diners, try the Guinea Grill: Ox heart and beef liver with garlic & parsley butter; sausage, bacon, rib steak, lamb's kidney, and fried egg. mushroom and tomato. This is not the place for poor appetites or vegetarians – although there is a risotto primavera and lots of potato and veggie ‘sides.’
Our choices began with sharing some Scottish smoked salmon with caper berries and crusty bread, followed by ordering the small 5 oz. filet with horseradish mash potatoes, wild mushrooms and red wine sauce. When we were offered dessert, we needed to pass; the superb beef and the pint of Young’s had satisfied our appetites.
There is a bar menu in the clubby pub, but no reservations are taken. If you arrive early on a mild evening, just look for crowds of Londoners having bitters and drafts out on Bruton Place in front of www.theguinea.co.uk. You’ll be made to feel right at home, no matter what your nationality or ethnicity, in this jolly British enclave.
5. Roast: Located just a two-minute walk from the London Bridge tube station, Roast Restaurant is high above the Floral Hall of the busy Borough Market. The market closes down about 5 p.m., so if you want to spend an hour buying local produce, meats, flowers, cheeses and non-perishable goodies, try to arrive at 4 p.m. Once you’ve shopped for an hour at the busy stalls, you’ll be ready for a pre-dinner drink upstairs at Roast.
Take the stairs or elevator up to the reception area, let the host know that you’d like to have a libation before your dinner, and sit with the local business folk at the bright and shiny bar. The restaurant is an architectural delight with it large and handsome wrap-around windows overlooking the bustling market streets with a scattering of busy, classic pubs below. We are told that the owner had long ago saved an awesomely big and grand window from a building that was being knocked-down in Covent Garden, through which we watched the burst of sunlight. They had a second window made to match it, and now they are both a glorious focal point for the architecture and beautiful interior of Roast.
Once seated and enjoying our drinks, we shared the heritage tomato and torn sourdough salad with grilled fresh sardines and basil. Perfect for an August evening. As it was a Thursday, the “special” – native rare-breed, roast suckling pig with mashed potatoes and Bramley apple sauce appealed to our appetites. Delicious! But to be fair to the restaurant’s chef, we also ordered the pan-fried fillet of Peterhead cod – cooked to perfection, flaky and moist.
As we ate, the restaurant quickly filled to the rafters with diners as the sun set. Charmingly, Mr. Rayhanul Hoque, who is usually the breakfast supervisor, was on hand to visit every table and to chat about our choices and give us more information about the restaurant. We were aware that Roast is quite famous for its power-breakfast meetings, but there is always a cozy space to be found for those who in smaller numbers for a quiet start-of-the day meal.
Rayhanul told us that the establishment uses the finest seasonal ingredients to create the best of British cooking that both supports and celebrates Britain's farmers and producers, many of whom are stallholders in the market below.
Roast was opened in 2005 by restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab, OBE, founder of the legendary Cinnamon Club. The Club has since won a legion of fans and a clutch of awards. So, it was fun to know that we’d gone almost full circle – from the delightfully trendy Cinnamon SoHo to the grand market-top Roast Restaurant, all in just a short week. www.roast-restaurant.com
5. You were promised a ‘bonus surprise’ to the list. But first, here is the story behind this recommendation. As so many people, we are accustomed to eating a traditional lunch and dinner, but we are now happy converts to having an afternoon or evening array of small savories (crustless sandwiches) and sweets (single bits) or what is known as a Traditional British Afternoon Tea. The presentation reminded us of the equally appetizing Spanish tapas.
After a midday shopping trip to Harrods in London's exclusive Knightsbridge borough, we wandered a few blocks down Brompton Road to Egerton Terrace and the Egerton House Hotel. Afternoon Tea at this 5-star hotel makes for a delightful retreat away from the hustle and bustle of shopping. The Egerton House Hotel is a small and elegant establishment in a beautiful Knightsbridge townhouse. Afternoon Tea takes place in the sophisticated drawing room of the hotel, a space complete with beautifully upholstered armchairs and luxurious fabrics, furnishings, paintings and objet d’ art – all selected by renowned hotelier and owner Bea Tollman.
We were warmly greeted by Mr. Esley who offered us a choice of teas. We opted for a combination of Earl Grey and English Breakfast tea which he deftly served from a shiny antique silver tea pot into fine china cups. A huge tiered silver stand displayed an array of delicacies from tasty savory finger sandwiches (chicken salad rounds surrounded by sliced almonds, cucumber and watercress rectangles and smoked salmon on brown bread) to homemade pastries and cakes including mini cappuccino cheese cakes, dark chocolate cake, flavorsome macaroons and fruit tartlets. The warm homemade scones with Devonshire clotted cream and strawberry preserves are ‘simply divine.’ As we ate everything in sight, from savory to sweet, we didn’t even have to ask, and a second pot of tea was offered.
After tea, Mr. Espy asked if we’d like to tour the hotel. He turned us over to Scott Clinton, who was in charge that day. Scott and his colleague, Nikoleta Gulisova took turns helping other guests (there was a catered tea going on in the downstairs dining room when we visited), while Scott showed us a few of the soon-to-be-occupied rooms at the intimate 28 room Egerton House. We made a note to try for a reservation at the perfectly located Egerton House Hotel next time we’re visiting London. www.redcarnationhotels.com/egertonhousehotel
Tea is usually served from about 1-4 p.m., so make it a point to reserve close to 3. That way, you won’t need a dinner reservation that evening. The tea experience is so satisfying that later on you might just like a drink and a snack, while you map out the remainder of your stay in London – and may even decide to re-visit the five restaurants once more to try something new on each of the creative menus. Bon Appétit!
Written and enjoyed by Don Church and Tony Schillaci, Out and Travelin’