| Print |

Quo Vadis Soho

The Essentials

Prime-time for dinner in the UK is around 8-9pm. Cash-strapped diners can get great deals from set Theatre Menus between 6 and 8pm, which are swiftly served for those catching shows in the area and consist of edited choices of two courses.

There’s generally no siesta times for restaurants, so you’re as likely to get served at 4pm as you are at noon, but make sure to check higher-end venues’ opening times to make sure you aren’t turned away hungry.

The Celebrity Chef Phenomenon

Sure, every town has its most celebrated chef, a person whose restaurant people flock to, to taste the latest and greatest in gastronomy, be it the humble pizza-maker with the most perfect base, or the big-shot star with the molecular diffusion device.

In Britain, however, being a celebrity chef comes with a slightly bigger cache than just owning your own Michelin-starred restaurant. There’s TV shows to be had, book deals to be signed, autobiographies to write and kitchenware to produce – as well as, of course, a distinct personality to PR.

Nigella Lawson turns cooking into sex, Jamie Oliver is the everyman’s Essex champion with a wealth of causes to campaign, Gordon Ramsey swears almost unstoppably and has developed a strange line of staccato patter, and then there’s the darlings of Saturday daytime TV. You’re likely to hear the names Ainsley Harriot, James Martin and Anthony Worrall Thompson muttered in a derisory tone by ‘true’ culinary chieftans, for selling out to house-wife TV and teaching us all how to make bolognaise whilst students munch on their morning cereal.

Either way, a chef’s actual restaurant is often an afterthought in most British minds, with even the grand master of all things molecular, Heston Blumenthal, expanding on his Fat Duck concept with a new restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental and a whole host of new reality TV show programming and Waitrose advertising campaigns. Ah, how the mighty have fallen.

Still, head along to any of their restaurants and you’re quite likely to have a great meal – as they say, there’s no smoke without fire. Find out more about Who's Who on London's food scene.

Gastropubs

Because the British are so inextricably linked with their pub culture, someone somewhere thought up the ingenious concept of offering properly cooked food alongside their pints, as opposed to the usual array of peanuts, pork scratchings and salt’n’vinegar to be found behind the bar.

Thus, the gastropub was born, and it's now a bit of an institution, usually offering slightly less grotty environs and an increasingly knowledgeable menu to punters who order a glass of rosé with their posh burger and chips before retiring to the patio with a jug of Pimms.

The Hotel Scene

Perhaps it’s the imminent arrival of the 2012 Olympics, or maybe Londoners are just cottoning onto the more international trend of finding everything you need under the beautifully hewn international roof of a hotel – but it seems more and more culinary action can be found inside one of these properties.

There’s Nuno Mendes’ spectacular Viajante taking up residence in the Town Hall Hotel and Apartments, Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner set up in the Mandarin Oriental, Wolfgang Puck’s CUT is soon to launch in the new Dorchester Collection property 45 Park Lane, Jean-Georges Vongerichten launched his iconic NYC eatery Spice Market in the W Leicester Square, and there’s already hype surrounding the Corinthia Hotel’s Massimo restaurant and Quince at The Mayfair Hotel. All this and you don’t even need to stay overnight to take a bite.

Tipping

It's considered polite to tip 10% wherever you’ve eaten, though also acceptable to leave nil if you thought the food was tosh and the service on par with that of a surly toilet attendant. There’s usually an option to add gratuity to the credit card bill, though having cash to hand it always useful. But make sure to check that service isn't already included, to avoid double-tipping.

Taking Tea

A British institution, the taking of tea is no joke to a country which prides itself on a good cuppa, whether it be builder’s (served in a mug and usually stemming from a bog-standard teabag like Tetley’s or PG Tips), or a proper Darjeeling served in a teensy china cup.

You may be asked if you’d like your hot beverage in a mug or a cup, so bone up on your china knowledge; mugs are larger and deeper with more generous handles, cups come with saucers and necessitate pinky pointing.

Of course you won’t be given such a common choice in high-end tea-taking institutions, where a strainer, side dish and loose leaves will boggle the mind before the heady scent of your Earl Grey has even had a chance to infiltrate the senses.

The Aftermath Kebab

The Brits have very little pride when it comes to their post-clubbing chow-down of choice. The only things generally open at 4 in the morning, are chippies – Fish & Chip shops which have very little to do with jaunty trips to the sea for freshly battered cod and vinegary chips, and a whole lot to do with kebab meat turning on a greasy spit, cheese melted over limpid fries, and fried everything with a hefty side of salt.

Identifiable by their photographic menus (drunkenly pointing and grunting is the ordering method of choice), as well as surly foreign staff and a couple of fridges full of soft drinks and Stella. It’s not classy, but it sure as hell staves off the morning munchies.

The Fry Up

A Breakfast of Kings in Britain has little to do with finesse, and even less to do with the Royal Family. If you want poached eggs and a side of salmon with your grains, stick to hotel all-inclusives and upmarket eateries. Greasy Spoons are where the real action is – café culture without the continental class, a Full English Fry Up includes eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, toast, mushrooms, tomatoes and if you’re feeling hardcore – a slice of Black Pudding.

The National Dish

It’s a bit frightening that a recent survey of what Brits considered their National Dish turned up an unequivocal vote for... the curry. India’s finest is one of England’s favourites, but then with such a multi-cultural population, you’re as likely to find a fantastic Lebanese stew as you are a traditional roast dinner, so it’s hardly a shocker.

Should you be looking for something quintessentially British, try a Roast Dinner which gets served in most pubs on a Sunday, grab some fish & chips wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper and eat whilst walking, or get stuck into some properly stodgy, boarding-school puddings like Spotted Dick with lashings of custard.

Eye Candy

If you’re more interested in what’s walking past your plate than what’s on it, your best bet is to hit Old Compton Street in Soho and set up shop somewhere like Balans, which offers unrestricted floor-to-ceiling views of the passing action. Classier joints for a bit of people-watching include Bistrotheque in the East End.