It's getting hot in here: best BBQ restaurants in the UK
Missing those summer barbecues? Meet the chefs who are getting all fired up, as we explore the restaurants that are going back to basics and cooking over coals, come rain or shine
Looking for the best BBQ restaurants in London that isn’t your average steak or burger joint? Check out our expert guide to the top BBQ restaurants in the UK. These grill restaurants include Hawksmoor's BBQ menu, BBQ ribs at Smokestak, and much more at Berber & Q, Temper and Blacklock. Here are the best BBQ restaurants in London...
Berber & Q
The one for the veg
A converted railway arch in east London, Berber & Q takes its culinary inspiration from the Middle East, North Africa and the Ottoman empire, with food cooked on a wood-fuelled mangal grill with shelves. (There’s another Berber & Q Shawarma Bar in Exmouth Market, too).
Run by former Ottolenghi chefs Josh Katz and Mattia Bianchi, Berber & Q serves its meats on a tray with cumin salt, harissa and grilled pitta bread. A typical menu might include green chermoula chicken thighs or hand-pulled lamb shawarma, although meze dishes get equal billing.
“Our cauliflower shawarma is probably our signature dish and one that definitely benefits from spending time on the fire,” says Josh. “Cauliflowers absorb smoke very well and are a great example of an ingredient that is hugely enhanced by time on the fire.”
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The one where all the chefs eat
Founders Tom Adams and Jamie Berger started Pitt Cue as a street-food truck on London’s Southbank, but it’s now a 100-cover restaurant tucked between the City and Shoreditch. “We see ourselves not as a barbecue restaurant, but as a restaurant that barbecues,” says restaurant manager Crispin Sugden. Housed in a 19th-century warehouse, the Devonshire Square Pitt Cue has an open kitchen with a US-built, wood-burning grill.
Often using meat from their own farm in Cornwall, cooked over sustainable oak and lumpwood charcoal, chefs keep things simple. The ‘farm to fork’ philosophy extends to Tom’s beloved Mangalitsa pigs, loin chops of which end up on the daily changing blackboard menu, alongside the likes of smoked shoulder of lamb or aged rare-breed Dexter beef fillet.
The cave man
Born and raised in Barbados, David Carter’s early life was centred on outdoor living, and this inspired his Shoreditch restaurant Smokestak. “Growing up in Barbados, open-fire cooking was a way of life,” says David, who bought a 4.5-tonne smoker in Houston, Texas, and had it shipped back to east London to start Smokestak.
What started out as a street-food operation in Dalston four years ago has turned into a fully fledged bricks-and-mortar business just off Brick Lane, serving dishes such as thick-cut pork rib with pickled cucumber; coal-roasted aubergine with red miso and toasted cashews; and grilled baby gem with walnut gremolata and crispy bacon. “Cooking over ‘real’ fire is primitive in every sense,” says David. “The draw of man, meat and fire has brought out the blokey bloke in all of us.”
The one obsessed with smoke
“Fire means flavour,” according to John Kent, the head chef at Smokehouse in Islington, where the kitchen butchers whole animals from some of the UK’s best farms. Whole-animal butchery and cooking over fire are just two things they are passionate about at Smokehouse, and it demonstrates skills that are missing in many kitchens.
“We had been looking for a way to take whole-animal butchery and cooking over fire to the next level, and opening Smokehouse was our answer to that,” says John, who cooks meat over English oak and lumpwood charcoal on a robata grill.
“From a chef’s perspective, fire introduces a level of flavour. You don’t often find a fire pit in the standard home kitchen, and this has created a great opportunity for chefs to create flavours you can’t replicate at home.”
The one in a Mercedes
A familiar sight at Bristol street-food markets and festivals, Murray May’s is run by Ewan ‘Murray’ Lindsay and Thecla ‘May’ Horton, who set up their mobile catering business after working in the hospitality industry for many years.
Working out of a converted 1987 Mercedes truck, they cook kebabs on a charcoal-fuelled Turkish mangal grill. Thecla admits that cooking over real fire in a truck can have its challenges. “On a hot day, it gets a bit toasty at times, and then there’s the logistics of making sure the fire is ready on time for an event, and also extinguished and cool before driving off!”
The one with basic instincts
Part of the Salt Yard Group, Ember Yard in Soho serves Italian- and Spanish-inspired tapas and small plates using a bespoke, Basque-style grill and sustainable charcoal and wood from Kent, which gives a distinctive taste to dishes such as chargrilled Iberico presa with whipped jamon butter, and grilled octopus with broad beans, preserved lemon, pea and mint purée. Head chef Brett Barnes says: “The char and the smoke working in unison are a magical combination that appeals to our most basic instincts.”
The one that dry-ages
In the shadow of Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, Asador 44 works wonders with the barbecue grill and spit in its open kitchen. To complement the Spanish theme, owners Owen and Tom Morgan have installed dry-ageing cabinets in the restaurant so that diners can see the Galician, Asturian and Welsh meat maturing while they dine. Owen says: “Birch is becoming our firm favourite to cook our 10-year-old dry-aged Galician blonde ribs.
The flavour from the ageing is incredible in itself, but when you add the flavour of the charcoal cooking, as well as a crust of fleur de sal, to the meat, and serve it rare and sliced, it’s an experience that should be tried at least once in life by everyone!”
Although he worked at Michelin-star level with the likes of Marco Pierre White and Pierre Koffmann, former British soldier Richard Turner’s name is now synonymous with barbecuing. “I first started cooking over live fire 10 years ago in the gardenof my pub, The Albion in Islington,” says the executive chef of the Hawksmoor restaurant group, which has sites in London and Manchester.
“I bought a huge barbecue to cope with the seasonal fluctuations of the pub and acquired a reputation as a live-fire cook.”
He prefers to use fruit woods, particularly apple and cherry, although the restaurant group’s decision to cook this way was “a happy accident” as their original Spitalfields site inherited a charcoal grill from the previous Turkish restaurateurs. “To be honest, as a business, it is rather expensive. A live-fire restaurant needs state-of-the-art extraction and filtration, which can add hundreds of thousands of pounds to the cost of your kitchen build.”
The fashionable one
Fashionable restaurant Kitty Fisher’s may be situated in upmarket Mayfair but its culinary heart is very much in the Basque country.
“The original influence was the asador style of cooking from northern Spain,” says head chef George Barson. “With big cuts of meat and fish cooked over birch- or apple wood-fired grills, we felt that this style, and a relaxed, sociable way of eating, was perfect for the intimate setting.”
This means dishes such as leeks, smoked hollandaise, crispy chicken skin and hazelnuts or Iberico pork, Hispi cabbage, apple and wild garlic. “As it is a very small kitchen, almost every dish is cooked over the fire in some way –whether this be a piece of rib-eye steak directly onto the grill, or making a smoked caramel in a pan over the flames.”
The Gunton Arms
The one with all the wood
Chef Stuart Tattersall doesn’t have to look too far for his supply of meat, game or even fuel – most of it comes from the Norfolk estate that surrounds The Gunton Arms, where he cooks meat over wood in the bar’s fireplace. “We cook on a very simple set-up comprising an 8mm steel plate that sits directly on the open fire,” he says.
The rib of beef is the star dish, the wood giving the meat a nutty flavour on the fat which works especially well with a silky béarnaise sauce and goose-fat potatoes, also finished on the fire. “A lot of guests have a desire to be part of the action, and sharing the room with the chef gives a theatrical vibe to their evening.”
Roth Bar & Grill
The one with a fire pit
At the Roth Bar & Grill in Somerset, chef Steve Horrell uses an outdoor fire pit all year round. “We have designed our own outdoor cooking equipment and fire pits, and had them made by a local fabricator in Bruton,” says Steve, who cites Argentine chef Francis Mallmann among his influences.
The set-up at Roth Bar & Grill is an impressive one. As well as a rack for cooking whole animals, there is ‘The Bird Cage’ comprising 50 chains hanging over the fire for chickens, game birds or legs of lamb, and ‘The Inferno Table’, a three-layered cooking table, the middle shelf used for cooking salt-baked fish or roasting vegetables.
The one with the spice
Housed in a former fabric warehouse in Spitalfields, Som Saa is proof that cooking over real fire doesn’t always have to be about American-style barbecue cooking. Head chefs Mark Dobbie and Andy Oliver specialise in regional Thai street-food dishes such as grilled quail with crispy garlic, lime, pepper and salt, and whole grilled mackerel with a peanut dipping sauce.
The kitchen has a large open pit grill with racks at different heights so the chefs can cook food over a blend of beech wood and charcoal at different speeds and intensities. Mark says: “Thai cuisine doesn’t have the same emphasis on heavy smoke flavours that other cuisines might. Street-food vendors in Thailand all have their DIY homemade grills and you’ll never be able to get close to that flavour unless you’re cooking over wood.”
The one with stovies (and Neil Rankin)
One of the UK’s leading barbecue chefs, Neil Rankin opened the Soho branch of Temper at the end of 2016 and it has been such a success that a second site, Temper City, opened over the summer.
At both, meat (butchered in-house) is cooked in open fire pits, over wood and charcoal. The eclectic menu at Temper City includes a range of dishes with no geographical boundaries so mutton rolls and Korean haggis sit alongside meatball marrow masala.
“We wanted to create a spectacle for the guests,” says Neil. “We have a five-metre-long open pit with a clay wood-fired oven at one end and also have two flat, cast-iron areas, one for cooking burgers and getting colour on steaks and one for the tortillas. The wood oven is just used to finish the meat, giving it a big kiss of high heat.”
The one which shunned The Big Six
For Bristol chef Henry Eldon, cooking over solid fuels is driven by a desire to connect to the origins of cookery. Dishes like roasted monkfish tail and home-cured pancetta and charcoal-grilled jerk aubergine are created in a kitchen powered entirely by solid fuels.
There is a wood-fired oven, a coal-powered vintage iron Swedish stove, a 60-litre cast-iron cauldron and a Japanese-style yakitori grill. Henry’s decision not to have gas was a result of “a primitive connection to the smell of a bonfire” as much as it was not having to rely on the ‘Big Six’ energy suppliers.
The one with the flatbreads
The original Blacklock opened in 2015 in a former illegal strip club in the heart of Soho, and a second launched earlier this year in the City. Named after a foundry in Tennessee that made clothes irons, Blacklock specialises in lamb, beef and pork chops cooked over English oak and piled on chargrilled flatbreads.
Among the most popular dishes on the menu are the maple-cured bacon chop, the 55-day-aged rump cap steak and the Barnsley lamb chops.
“The only gas we use in our kitchen is to fuel the fryers for our beef dripping chips,” says founder Gordon Ker. “We cook everything over or in our charcoal grill, including things that would typically be roasted in an oven, as we prefer the natural and intense flavour you get from cooking over live fire.”
Other BBQ restaurants to try
In a nutshell: Pared-back Argentinian restaurant serving luscious grilled meats in a tucked-away part of Southwark.
What’s the vibe? An Argentinian parilla joint with a look that’s modern and cheerfully unadorned – think exposed air-conditioning ducts on the ceilings and plain, sturdy tables and chairs made of warm-coloured slabs of wood and iron. The main focal point is the huge charcoal grill (embers glowing underneath) which dominates the open kitchen.
What’s the food like? Any menu that lists fried eggs as a side can justifiably be described as hearty, and Chimis’ offering abounds in winter-bulking fare.
The highlights of the mains section are the grilled meat and fish dishes, which include Argentinian beef, secreto iberico (a succulent grilled Spanish pork cut), lamb cutlets, chicken legs, cod, octopus and more.
Try the indulgent picada de parilla (listed under starters in the menu, but easily big enough for a main): this was a hearty plateful of tender, juicy sweetbreads, a black pudding (lighter and more fragrant than the English version) and a delicious smoked pork sausage. With all of this came a mound of some of the best homemade chips we’ve tasted, fried in beef fat and drizzled in a garlic sauce.
And the drinks? The focus of Chimis’ wine menu is, as one would expect, almost all Argentinian with a few Uruguayan vintages sprinkled in. Options are available for white and rosé wine but the focus is very much on red. El Guardado Chic was a lovely smooth syrah and Lazos Terra (our favourite) was a smoky, tannic cabernet sauvignon with dark fruits.
olive says… Avoid the table next to the coat rack, to avoid being disturbed by guests reaching over to grab their garments throughout the meal.
Words | Mark Taylor