“London has the worst food. There are fish and chips with mushy peas on every corner.” It’s true that the city of Big Ben has long held the reputation as one of the worst culinary capitals in the world. The food has often been described as boring, bland, and devoid of flavor. Some make the exception for Indian cuisine, but many refuse to give any of it credit. But this is changing, along with many other parts of London, as the modern age influences and transforms the historic epicenter of the old British Empire. From its food and tea, to its nightlife and pubs, London’s culinary culture is vibrant and ready to reestablish itself as one of the foremost gastronomy centers in the world.
Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea
Although the Sanderson Hotel, home to the Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea, looks more like a mental institution from the outside than a luxury hotel, once you step in you’re transported to a modern lobby of marvel. A red love seat in the shape of lips puckers in your direction as you walk through the front doors. Other pieces of uniquely designed furniture adorn the spacious lobby. The colors are bright and attack your senses as you scan the room. The Long Bar stretches toward you on the right, inviting you for a drink or 10, with its welcoming padded bar chairs that depict feminine eyes on their backs. The bar leads directly to the main afternoon event, Mad Hatter’s Afternoon Tea.
This is not your Grandmother’s high tea. “Fancy dress” as the Brits call it is not required. Forget the white linen tablecloths and the formal servers in tuxedos. Manners are appreciated, but not demanded. Sure, there are elegant sandwiches and delicious pastries, but they have flair with white crab eclairs and coffee flavored pocket-watch macaroons that take it over the top. And we haven’t even arrived at the tea. With five varieties of different infused flavors, you cannot go wrong. And the pleasure you experience reading about each one on menus inside vintage books is enough to take you back to the time of Lewis Carroll. It may be tea that respects traditions of the past, but it very much captures the spirit of tea as it should be experienced in the present and future.
Crazy Bear Fitzrovia
Let’s turn to the food; the same cuisine that’s been lambasted in London for decades, but recently hyped by Conde Nast Traveler as one of the best food cities in the world. Although Crazy Bear Fitzrovia may not be fine dining by any means, and even though it opened its doors back in 2004, its modern and sleek vibe overwhelms you the minute the hostess removes the rope cord blocking access to the front door, allowing you to enter. Upstairs is the restaurant, which is illuminated only by the dim lamps at the center of each table. They’re rather awkward, and don’t move, but their addition to the décor is appreciated. It’s almost like you’re eating in a British palace turned nightclub, with its regal yet exotic feel.
The food continues the theme of elegant, but outlandish. The menu is intense with a multitude of options; an almost tapas-like Asian smorgasbord. I recommend the set menus for multiple people. Honestly, the food will not blow you away with unique flavors and textures, but the presentation is the antithesis of what the average person thinks of London cuisine. Mushy peas and fish and chips are nowhere to be found. The black cod is marinated in miso and sake, the pad thai is ornamented with sizable tiger prawns, the shiitake mushrooms are fresh, and the sea bass sashimi makes you feel like you’re eating next to the Sea of Japan, not the English Channel. This is not the London gastronomy that foreigners and locals typically describe.
After dinner book a table at the cocktail bar downstairs, where it’s guaranteed to get weird. With cushions plastering the walls, dance music beating through the speakers, and the lighting just right, it makes you feel like anything could happen in this room. There are even little alcoves for larger parties, but the bar is perfect for couples or even solo riders on the storm. And while a night at the cocktail bar may get weird, the bathroom gets even weirder, first with the fake door that blends into the wall (you’ll inevitably walk into the kitchen your first time looking for the toilet), and second with the mirrors covering all of the bathroom walls, allowing you to see everything, even if you choose not to.
Crazy Bear Fitzrovia is not for the faint of heart. It is for the Londoner and traveler alike who want a fresh, modern, and unique experience that will leave a lasting impression.
Dean Street Townhouse
This Georgian townhouse sits in the heart of London’s Soho neighborhood. The restaurant serves what they label as traditional British food, but it certainly isn’t the bland, boring fare you hear about. Go for the Sunday Roast, and you’ll leave more than satisfied. Start with the Pea & Mint soup, which is at the same time smooth and strong with an intense minty aftertaste. It’s light, and the fusion of pea and mint flavors just leave you wanting more. Next, splurge for the Hereford beef, and make sure you request horseradish and spicy mustard on the side. Pour on some gravy. Splash a little on the Yorkshire pudding as well. The combination of roasted potatoes, cauliflower cheese and vegetables will make you appreciate what’s billed as traditional British cuisine. It’s undoubtedly filling, but it’s guaranteed to leave you pleased and content. What’s better than finishing dinner at 5 PM too! Whatever you do though, do not skip dessert. Order the rice pudding with poached rhubarb. It’s creamy and crunchy with subtle hints of sour rhubarb flavor that can overpower your taste buds.
The entire experience is postcard worthy, from the setting and service to the traditional cuisine that boldly presents itself. Each dish is thoughtful, as are the tables they’re served on. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported back to Georgian times, even though you’re indulging on a modern take of a traditional Sunday Roast. It’s pure bliss.
Another classic London institution with odes to the past, but a vision for the future is the Gun. Situated along the river in Canary Wharf, the Gun lives up to its name with the myriad forms of weaponry decorating its walls. But this is more than just an aspiring armory; it offers some of London’s best riverside views and pub cuisine. Even though The Gun has been a public house in London for over 250 years, the main bar has a modern chic design that’s welcoming to any local or stranger. And the Gun Room off to the side is cozy and even comes equipped with a buzzer to grab the attention of any bartender that may have strayed too far. It’s a captivating environment that attracts an interesting crowd of all ages and refuses to disappoint any of its patrons, from its gastropub-inspired menu to its creative beer list.
In conclusion, while some may say that a book should not be judged by its cover, a city should not be judged by its antiquated reputation either. The food is not terrible in London by any means. There are interesting options for every palette. Whether its experiencing a modern take on afternoon tea, tapas style Asian cuisine, or traditional British food that’s presented with bold, aggressive flavors, there’s something here for everyone. God did more than save the Queen; He saved the cuisine too.