Mrs Ramsay, the matriarch of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’, lays claim to what is maybe the most famous and everlasting quote about English food. In her eyes:
“What passes for cookery in England is an abomination... It is putting cabbages in water. It is roasting meat till it is like leather. It is cutting off delicious skins of vegetables... A whole French family could live on what an English cook throws away.”
Anybody who’s been subjected to a relative’s blast furnaced Christmas dinner can reliably say she has a point.
But these days, the hot take on English, and indeed all British food being terrible reads archaic. Yes, we’ve got pies and mash, fish and chips, and other classic (and not to mention brilliant) combinations. More often than not British cookery reads simple, but done well, like at these restaurants, it’s also superb.
St. John is the full English of British restaurants. It’s the dog’s bollocks, the bee’s knees, and without out it (and Fergus Henderson) London wouldn’t just be worse off, but it would be without the numerous chefs who have used St. John as their place of education. The Clerkenwell restaurant is a haven and home to the most traditional and understated of British cooking. From their famous bone marrow on toast, to a simple deep-fried mullet with ketchup, to one of their garangutan pies. The white walls of the restaurant are your figurative canvas to a meal of browns and reds, butter stains and before-bed madeleines.
One can only imagine the amount of wink-wink, nudge-nudge conversations that have gone in the Regency Cafe over the years. And if you’re lacking in the requisite imagination, then just stick on Layer Cake. The quiet corner in Westminster is likely London’s most photographed old school caff, but its breakfasts are a pretty picture too. Hunks of crispy fried bubble and squeak, bursting bangers, and rosy pink back bacon. It’s the etiquette as much as anything here though. There’s no space for shrinking violets when your order is bellowed from the front to collect.
When we first reviewed Sweetings we said that it was a restaurant “full of walking, talking, sentient signet rings, and the sound of the same anecdote, from different generations, about that moustached dinner lady in the school canteen.” That still stands today, as it always has done over this legendary seafood restaurant’s 130 year plus tenure in the City. Pewter tankards of ‘Black Velvet’ (champagne and Guinness) are still served and the oyster bar is still there to be propped up every lunchtime. Don’t expect the menu to amaze, but for things like fish pie and sticky toffee pudding and the like to comfort.
A grade II listed building doesn’t entail that what’s going on inside will take you back to another time. Take many a Wetherspoons as case in point. Thankfully, the Quality Chop House does not follow this lead. In reality, it follows the lead of traditional British cooking with subtle refinements. British classics aren’t reinvented in QCH’s gorgeous, low-lit, wood-panelled room, but rather perfected. Their confit potatoes have a BTS-style following of their own but it’s other things, like their Mangalitza black pudding with apple pureé, or their spongy slab of ginger Parkin with butter scotch sauce and vanilla ice cream.
If you’re interested in cosplaying being a member of the House of Tudor, then Rules is your restaurant. The historic spot has no need for rose-tinted glasses as this place leans maroon, velvet, and murals of Maggie Thatcher. It claims to be London’s oldest restaurants, taking its place in Covent Garden a couple of centuries ago or so, and who’s to argue with that. You might find yourself arguing with some of the quality of food - think 1980s private school dinners - and the finances required, but come in game season and it’s worth playing monarchy make believe.
Few restaurants remain with the gold stamped guarantee of a good time like Quo Vadis. This is in no little part thanks to Jeremy Lee, the head chef who has made this Soho institution a home and a home to so many others. Of course there’s the smoked eel sandwich, which is as good as everyone says, but there’s also the bar to prop up with a martini, the superlative chips (that wordlessly come with ketchup and mayonnaise), paté, pies, and a tower of ‘Quo Vadis profiteroles au chocolat’.
The inclusion of a chippy on a guide to British restaurants is essential, but the question of what chippy isn’t easy. London’s chippies tend to traverse the line between family favourite and just fine, but what Fish Central offers is a bit of everything. It’s an old school fish restaurant in Clerkenwell, the kind where you bring nan and granddad because, after all, this was a spot when it first opened in the late 60s. Their three-course fish supper featuring just the right amount of marie rose sauce, a paddle-sized piece of fried cod or haddock with hand cut chips, and a dessert preferably with custard remains a go-to for every generation.
Maggie Jones’s is as quintessentially British as Colin Firth, Jane Austen novels, or having an impassioned argument over whether you should put the cream or the jam on a scone first. This old school Kensington spot is full of quaint home-county nick-nacks, paintings of farmyard scenes, wooden church pews, and enough taper candles to make you feel like you’re in a period drama called something along the lines of Love and Crumble. Open for over 40 years, this place is alleged to have been a popular spot for members of the royal family - namely Princess Margaret - so it’s perfect for people who are looking for a side of history with their fresh game.
On the other side of the metaphorical throne of British food sits Margot Henderson, head chef and one part of Rochelle Canteen. When it comes to havens there is perhaps none more serene and comforting and beige-filled than the canteen. The Shoreditch restaurant still has feel of hush-hush despite its location behind in school yard being nothing like a secret. The changing menu never disappoints. Ever. Be it their classic radish and cod’s roe, pig’s head croquettes, guineafowl and bacon pie, or a gargantuan ice cream sundae.
If your idea of a pub involves fruit machines, sticky floors, and drunk locals that have somehow been sat on their stool since the 80s, then think again. The Harwood Arms in Fulham is about as close as you can get to being an upmarket restaurant whilst still being a pub. It’s on a little street that feels more country than town, and once inside, you’ll find neutral walls, deer antlers, sophisticated furniture, and a posh ’20s bar that we absolutely cannot picture Peggy Mitchell standing behind. You can expect dishes like whole baked lemon sole, strawberry and lavender trifle, and plenty of things involving fresh game. The three-course set menu is fifty quid, which yes, could get you pretty far on the fruit machine at your local, but trust us, the food here is worth it.