Top 20: classic failsafe restaurants in the UK | by Tony Naylor
Like you, we love new restaurants. But that fashionable whirl of hip food can get exhausting. When it does, olive turns to its old favourites, those timeless restaurants that guarantee a night of pleasure in the hands of seasoned pros. Some celebrate big anniversaries this year, all are still at the top of their game
With its punchy Italian food and glorious views across surf-tastic Watergate Bay, Fifteen is a peach of place to eat. But as you chow on arancini, ’nduja risotto or wood-fired monkfish with inzimino di ceci (chickpeas and chard), you’re also helping cultivate a Cornish food eco-system.
More than 100 disadvantaged youngsters have graduated from Fifteen’s chef apprentice scheme. “Travel around Cornwall to anywhere with a half-decent kitchen and you’re likely to be greeted by familiar faces,” says boss, Matthew Thomson. More than two thirds of the restaurant’s produce comes from Cornwall too, be it seafood landed in Newlyn or rare-breed beef supplied by renowned butcher Philip Warren. Certain suppliers, such as Newlina Eco-Garden (it keeps Fifteen in courgette flowers during summer), have been nurtured to maturity by the relationship with the restaurant. As Matthew puts it: “Fifteen has created a legacy.”
Two courses (dinner) around £35; fifteencornwall.co.uk
The Eagle, London EC1
“We wanted to do River Café food and knew, in a scruffy pub, we could do it for a quarter of the price,” says Michael Belben. That his humble Clerkenwell boozer, later dubbed ‘the first gastropub’, would start a dining revolution never occurred to him.
Born of necessity, The Eagle’s style (Victorian plates and car boot cutlery, mix ‘n’ match furniture, chalkboard menus) has been endlessly copied since. Its tiny open-kitchen has only ever had three head chefs: David Eyre, Tom Norrington Davis, now Ed Mottershaw. For chefs, there is something about the intimacy and energy of firing plates of gutsy, Mediterranean food (Neapolitan sausages with potatoes, fennel and aïoli, those epic bife ana steak sandwiches) into a bustling pub full of people downing pints of Hackney Brewery’s beers that cannot be beat. olive agrees.
Mains from £10.50; theeaglefarringdon.co.uk
In an age of outlandish restaurant concepts, it’s reassuring to know that, often, humble hunches endure. In the 1980s, Hansa Dhabi sold Gujarati snacks at school fetes (wowing locals more used to heavy, oily curries), while volunteering at a housing advice centre in Leeds: “I met a lot of frustrated, housebound Asian ladies who had little going for them. But they’d bring in delicious food and talk passionately about cooking.”
An idea began to germinate in Hansa’s mind and in May 1986 her eponymous restaurant was born. It was novel in two ways. It employed an all-female kitchen team and it served purely vegetarian food. “That was freaky in 1986.” Thirty years on, Hansa’s is still thriving. Among key dishes such as vadhu (mung bean curry) or Hansa’s spice bomb (deep-fried potato sandwich), several original menu items survive, such as the five-pulse chevti daal. “They’re dishes we Gujaratis
enjoy at home,” says Hansa, “and I treat our customers like visiting friends.”
Starters from £4.25, mains from £6.50; hansasrestaurant.com
Thackeray’s, Tunbridge Wells, Kent
It’s best known as the former home of the Victorian novelist William Thackeray, but, since taking over this beautiful 17th-century villa, chef Richard Phillips has made his own mark on local history. Not just by keeping Thackeray’s on the ball, but in opening two more pubs in his native Kent (Whitstable’s Pearson’s Arms and Hollingbourne’s Windmill), with a further boutique hotel due to open in February 2017.
These days, using the finest Kentish produce (currently beets, squash, game birds, venison), head chef Shane Hughes cooks the modern French food that keeps well-groomed locals flocking to this glamorous dining room. Think of dishes such as smoked rainbow trout with salt-baked beetroot, goat’s curd mousseline and parmesan tuile with a beetroot and apple vinaigrette or Thackeray’s raspberry soufflé. “It triggers a near revolt when it comes off at the end of each season,” says general manager Gary Beach.
Three courses, £55; thackerays-restaurant.co.uk
The Ubiquitous Chip, Glasgow
When Ronnie Clydesdale opened the Chip in 1971, it was a considerable curveball. It pushed Scottish produce, incredible French wine, and it didn’t serve chips (hence the in-joke name). At the time, all three were largely unheard of north of the border.
45 years-on, this labyrinthine complex is as busy as ever. Its several bars and its brasserie are central to the West End’s boho nightlife, while the main courtyard restaurant (glass-roofed and festooned with foliage), is still one of Glasgow’s best. Sadly Ronnie passed in 2010 but his son, Colin, continues his work by embracing the new while retaining much of the Chip’s original spirit.
The staff still rave about wine and some of it is biodynamic these days (try the Fasoli Gino Pieve Vecchia soave, £44.95). And while chef Andrew Mitchell’s modern dishes lead the way – say, partridge, duck liver boudin, charred leeks, pancetta and truffle cream – certain Chip favourites will never die. Its magical Jamaican pimento-spiced venison haggis has been on the menu since 1971.
Starters from £6.45, mains from £15.95; ubiquitouschip.co.uk
Bentley’s, London W1
Trends come, and go, but 100 years on this smart Piccadilly evergreen just does its thing. It sources impeccable seafood. It treats it sensitively. It welcomes guests with a warm heart. It feeds the soul.
Taken over by Richard Corrigan in 2006 (“I worked here as a young chef and like all great loves it stays with you forever”), Bentley’s has roared back in the last decade. Originally a warehouse that distributed Colchester Native oysters around London, the modern Bentley’s consists of a lively oyster and champagne room – where staff shuck like demons behind its grand, marble-topped bar – and, upstairs, a stylish grill restaurant.
Its dishes can get pretty whizzy, say scallops with serrano ham, white peach and jalapeño, but its luxurious, lobster-laced fish pie is Bentley’s undoubted classic. The friendly atmosphere is, likewise, timeless. “Bentley’s has always been about more than food,” says Richard, “and as the chains grow all around her rarity is amplified.”
Grill starters from £12, mains from £18.50; bentleys.org
The Dining Room, Chewton Glen, Hampshire
Back in the day, Chewton Glen was one of Britain’s first country house hotels. Set in 130 acres of woodland and gardens, this bucolic pile is less pioneering these days, but it hasn’t let the perfectly manicured grass grow under its feet.
This year, while celebrating its 50th (with a commemorative book, a menu of retro dishes and a dinner dance in December), it has also unveiled a new heritage orchard of over 250 rare fruit trees and is scheduled to open a £2.5m cookery school with housewives’ favourite and Chewton’s former pastry chef James Martin late in November.
In the swish Dining Room, waiting staff glide around with a well-practiced ease as they deliver modishly elegant dishes from Luke Matthews’ kitchen. A Thai-style lobster curry is one of his stand-out dishes. For a taste of Chewton Glen’s history, try the double-baked cheese soufflé (a regal classic) or Sunday lunch, where, as it was in 1966, the roast beef is carved from a tableside trolley in the traditional guéridon-style.
Starters from £9, mains from £21; chewtonglen.com
Quo Vadis, London W1
The word ‘institution’ is thrown around too easily, but how else to describe Quo Vadis? Formerly a brothel, home to Karl Marx, and a restaurant and private club since 1926, it is a bona fide Soho landmark. Its current owners Sam and Eddie Hart, who also run the Barrafina restaurants, are acutely aware that: “Given that history there’s a great responsibility to look after it, as custodians”.
Not that the Harts have been overawed by Quo Vadis. Since 2008, they have busily readied it for a new century. A chef of eminent rigour and good sense, Jeremy Lee was brought in to dispense deft, vigorous modern British dishes. In December, expect goose pie and a figgy pudding, alongside staples such as his crab soup and QV’s famous ‘kickshaws’, little deep-fried seasonal meat parcels.
The big news right now, however, is that Quo Vadis has just reopened after a refit which has seen a Barrafina open on its ground floor and the restaurant move into the former bar area, a room of stained glass windows, bold floristry and new illustrations from resident artist, John Broadley.
Starters from £7.50, mains from £19.50; quovadissoho.co.uk
Richard Ord owns one of Britain’s oldest and most acclaimed chip shops, but he is no slave to tradition. Colman’s secret batter recipe may “go back many years”, but this perfectionist is always fine-tuning his fish ‘n’ chips. “One of the world’s greatest dishes,” he says.
Colman’s was one of first UK chippies to start taking sustainability seriously. Its cod and haddock are line-caught from MSC-certified stocks, while the goodies on its extensive café menu – lemon sole with capers or real, langoustine-tail scampi with homemade tartare sauce – are generally caught by day-boats from around South Shields (where Richard is currently converting Sea Road’s iconic 1930s’ bandstand into a new restaurant). The hi-tech Kiremko ranges which Colman’s uses, to maintain a perfect frying temperature, are worlds away from the coal-fired fryers that Richard’s grandparents, founders Nella and William Colman, had to work with. “It sounds great,” he laughs “but it really wasn’t.”
Takeaway fish ‘n’ chips from £3.99; colmansfishandchips.com
The Square, London W1
Under chef Phil Howard, this two-Michelin-star Mayfair restaurant discreetly went about its brilliant business. Its dishes were utterly contemporary, but rooted in French fine dining. There was no unnecessary showiness, on the plate or off. Everyone expected that The Square’s 25th would be characteristically quiet.
Instead, this has been a tumultuous year. In March, Phil Howard sold up (he recently opened Elystan Street in Chelsea) and The Square’s new owner, high-end restaurant group MARC, has wasted no time in making its, erm, mark. In September, Japanese chef Yu Sugimoto was recruited from Le Meurice in Paris. Yu’s cooking is impeccably French, but, as MARC’s top man Marlon Abela told Bloomberg, it has a “certain Zen-ness to it”. The menu will be refreshed so that it uses
less butter, and in January the restaurant will be redesigned. 25 years in, The Square is suddenly one to watch.
Three courses, £105; squarerestaurant.com
10 More Timeless Old-Stagers
Magpie Café, Whitby, Yorkshire
Traditional quayside chip shop café since 1939 and still impressive. Of course, it fries in beef dripping; magpiecafe.co.uk
Andrew Edmunds, London W1
Porth Tocyn, Abersoch, Wales
Family-owned since 1948, this acclaimed hotel restaurant prides itself on a “dinner-party atmosphere”; porthtocynhotel.co.uk
Michael Hjort’s food has evolved over the last 26 years but seasonal fruit soufflés hark back fondly to his Roux training; meltonsrestaurant.co.uk
Randall & Aubin, London W1
Seafood slingers of distinction for 20 years. R&A will open in Manchester next year; randallandaubin.com
Castle Cottage, Harlech, Wales
A continuous Good Food Guide entry for 25 years thanks to Glyn Roberts’ ingenuity at the hob; castlecottageharlech.co.uk
Little Barwick House, Barwick, Somerset
Idyllic restaurant-with-rooms in its 16th year. Order roe deer with beetroot purée and rösti potato; littlebarwick.co.uk
Wheeler’s Oyster Bar, Whitstable, Kent
Brilliant, tiny seafood bar (est. 1856) and quirky Victorian parlour restaurant about to reopen after major refurb; wheelersoysterbar.com
Le Talbooth, Dedham, Essex
Opened in 1952 and still hot thanks to its serene riverside setting, chef Andrew Hirst and that chateaubriand; milsomhotels.com
Angel Inn, Hetton, Yorkshire