Letter From Laura: Dining in London
The highlight of any trip to London for me is lunch at Le Gavroche, 43 Upper Brook Street, just off Park Lane. This is fine dining in elegant surroundings with superb service and a discerning clientele.
Jackets for gentlemen, please. It is also one of the great travel bargains in terms of value for money spent. Under the guidance of Michel Roux, Jr., Monday through Friday, noon to 2 p.m., this Michelin two-star French restaurant offers a prix fixe three-course menu with half a bottle of either an excellent white or red wine for a total of £50. Try going into one of Jamaica's or Miami's top restaurants and ordering an exquisite three-course meal with good wine and come out paying less and you'll understand why Le Gavroche at lunch is often booked weeks in advance. Dinner is, of course, more expensive but of an equally high standard.
Another locale with a prix fixe lunch of £30, which the guide book 1,000 Places To See Before You Die describes as having "an eclectic, modern and consistently wonderful menu served in an Art Deco masterpiece of a building," is Bibendum Restaurant, 81 Fulham Road. We enjoyed exchanging news with Jamaican author Evan Jones and his lovely wife Joanna over a delightful meal while sitting amid the splendour of stained glass windows in what was once a Michelin tyre building! Beneath the restaurant is the popular Oyster Bar with entry through a vendor's flourishing display of flowers.
A more disappointing experience was checking out the newly refurbished Savoy Grill on the Strand. The large room seemed sparsely furnished despite the flame-red walls and chandeliers. My fois gras was a once-in-a-decade treat and my introduction to Eton mess, a dessert of crumbled meringue, whipped cream and strawberries, divinely rich, but the service was unpardonably slow. What's worse, after our late dinner, the hotel lobby was absolutely deserted. No one at reception. No one at the concierge desk. We couldn't even find a bellman to call a taxi. Granted, there had been a major fire in a building across the street earlier in the day, but one expects better of the Savoy.
Locanda Locatelli, 8 Seymour Street by the Churchill Inter-Continental Hotel in Marylebone, with understated but elegant decor in beige and grey, manages to convey a greater sense of privacy. We enjoyed our meal immensely at Locanda Locatelli, known for its excellent Italian cuisine, though exiting through the hotel lobby rather than using the street entrance made us wonder if we'd suddenly been transported to Arabia. Indeed, on nearby Edgeware Road, there are some very good Middle-Eastern restaurants.
A different Italian restaurant we've loved for years is the cozy Villa Bianca, farther afield at 1 Perrins Court, Hampstead in a charming lane with flowering hanging baskets adorning the restaurant's front balcony, just between Hampstead High Street and Heath Street. Open for lunch and dinner seven days per week you could combine a meal here with a visit to Hampstead Heath and Kenwood House with its exquisite interior and exhibitions. The azaleas are magnificent in spring and, on the lawns, summer concerts are frequently held. Years ago I heard The Three Tenors perform together - Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras. This summer's fare included Tom Jones, the Gypsy Kings and George Benson, though not at the same time! If you're lucky enough to have tickets for the musical Fela! at Sadler's Wells theatre in Islington, Frederick's Restaurant in Camden Passage Islington has a light, airy interior with garden tables in good weather and fine food.
dinner at The Ivy
No visit for us would be complete without dinner at The Ivy, my brother-in-law's favourite. The Ivy, 1-5 West Street, in the West End, is a perfect post-theatre spot frequented by celebrities, actors, artists and people who love good food in a convivial atmosphere. Note, all these restaurants require reservations in advance but once in the door at The Ivy, the welcome is always warm. Good English and continental cuisine with everything from shellfish, pasta, roasts, grills and even hamburgers and fries - elegantly presented - are available every day of the week from noon until 11:30 p.m., 10:30 p.m. on Sunday evenings. Director of the The Ivy, Fernando Peire, is the restaurant inspector on Channel 5's fascinating programme by that name. One episode featured the 500 Restaurant, 782 Holloway Road near Archway, north London. An Italian/continental restaurant which doesn't look like much from the outside, 500 is reasonably priced with a good wine list and a delightful chef and manager. We enjoyed it for a change of pace from the dressier places. Fernando now recommends it on his website: fernandopeire.com where you can also read about The Ivy.
China Town is another option for great food at reasonable prices. Two of our favourite restaurants are Top of the Town and Lido, 41 Gerrard Street, where we have crispy duck, similar to Peking Duck, but instead of the duck being roasted and sliced before being served with plum sauce, spring onion and cucumber in rice pancakes, the duck is deep fried and shredded. I've never seen it in the States but Palais Royale at Matildas Corner now offers it here in St Andrew. Summer in London also offers exciting possibilities with summer fairs. We visited a colourful one by The Pond in Highgate where grilled sausages and various treats were offered. Tours of nearby Highgate Cemetery are popular because its tombstones are marvels of Victorian art and a visit to Karl Marx' grave is a must!
Chains like Cafe Rouge - I love their simple French breakfast of fresh baguette, unsalted butter and strawberry jam with café latte - are a staple and when our pockets are depleted, we pop into a Sainsbury's deli and buy salami, brie, fresh bread, olives and fruit of the season to enjoy in our room. Dining in London offers thousands of possibilities, but these are my favourites.