The best meals are often those flavoured by a setting and a sense of place. A flaccid, oily bowl of pulpo a la gallega on Spain’s Costa Brava might have been regrettable were it not for the gentle swell of the Med’s soft waves and the rugged, jagged backdrop. Half-seasoned baccalà mantecato, cooked to the consistency and bite of limp cardboard and gavaged to the masses of tourists visiting Venice, can taste like transcendence when it’s at a cicchetti bar that has a front-row seat to the city’s waterways and centuries-old palazzi.
When the time is right and that small sliver of heat and sun comes to the UK, few experiences can equal the bubble of comfort that comes with an alfresco lunch. If seeking out any one of London’s great restaurants with outdoor space, here is our hand-picked selection of the tables to reserve.
The River Cafe
In a city where restaurants pop up and fade away with equal speed like the adverts that illuminate Piccadilly Circus, few places have made quite the mark on the London landscape like The River Cafe, chef Ruth Rogers’s paean to the Italian kitchen, launched over three decades ago when the capital’s culinary scene received little validation by the international set, and defined by its frippery-free approach to sourcing and plating, a standard that has influenced smash-hit newcomers such as Café Cecilia and Café Deco.
On the Hammersmith end of the Thames, its riverside garden is frequently thronged with diners who come for the menu that changes twice daily – calamari ai ferri might lead to risi e bisi – a Venetian rice dish with peas, mint, stock and vermouth – piccione al forno – whole wood-roasted pigeon – and end with the year-round Chocolate Nemesis.
The River Cafe
The tortilla from Barrafina, the crowning glory in brothers Sam and Eddie Hart’s restaurant group, is a fabled London dish, a salt-flecked lozenge of sliced potatoes and onions that is skillet-fried to a soft umber and weeps golden yolk if you dare (you do) slice into it. At Parrillan, an outdoors venture also by the Harts, set in Coal Drops Yard, the former coal-peddling rail station revamped into a retail complex, cooking is left to the diner, each table handed a grill the size of a shoebox, and a menu that includes raw materials with which they will eventually coax into life.
The lively terrace, packed with recent visitors to the neighbouring gorpcore boutiques and cafés selling Yemeni coffee at £15 a slurp, is often perfumed with aromas of scorched gamba roja; thick cubes of tuna pinxto whose outer coating should take on a medium burn but whose inner inches should remain close to their raw form; and marinaded skewers of lamb moruno. A glass of white vermouth, chilled until the beads of condensation appropriately drip on a warm day, only adds to the continental feel. Parrillan’s first sibling branch is slated to open this spring in Borough Yards.
Brat x Climpsons Arch
You have probably heard of Brat, even if you haven’t yet landed one of its coveted hardwood chairs at the Shoreditch original, chef Tomos Parry’s restaurant whose cues are taken from the Basque Country. And you have probably heard of Brat’s turbot, the colossal flat fish with a melting face, served blistered and whole, and with an entry point of around £140 per catch.
A table at its Climpson’s Arch location, in London Fields, takes the wood-fired ovens outdoors, adding a degree of en plein air joy to the occasion, but retaining an accomplished approach through the likes of lamb sweetbreads brightened up with salsa criolla; a mutton chop whose deep, pungent, seeping juices flavour the plate and the airspace around it, the type of cut you swore you saw DiCaprio once eat in The Revenant; and the gently burnt cheesecake, denser than its New York cousin and without the thick base you’d usually find on your supermarket aisles.
Brat x Climpsons Arch
Margot Henderson’s prosaic cooking has long circumvented trends and fads since her restaurant, Rochelle Canteen, opened in a former bike shed, in 2006. Deconstructions, squeeze-bottle drizzles, and tweezers are eschewed in favour of more generous portions that underscore seasonal British produce, and dishes are treated with modest intervention – you may find Welsh pork on anchovy toast, a Hereford-beef and kidney pie, and a blood orange polenta cake on your visit.
The interior, bedecked in those east London design staples of Ercol chairs and Aalto tables, is compact but homely, yet it is the terrace – heated when necessary, covered by an installation of flora and with a view of the inner garden and courtyard – that is the true move.
Fried chicken, when done right, is the food type that can hoodwink a man – the oily stuff, courtesy of the colonel, can hit the mark when inebriation kicks in, but be regrettable when your head is a killing floor; the new-wave takes, at restaurants such as Amass, in Copenhagen, have a cleaner profile and with less crunch than you would usually desire, not necessarily bad, but not worth returning to either. The fried chicken at Allegra, the seventh-floor restaurant at The Stratford Hotel, where the sprawl of the Olympic Park meets the retail mob at the Westfield shopping complex, has the core of what great fried chicken should be – an experience of demi crunch and juice and an exhale of pleasure, like all good cuts of its kind, and moistened with aioli and punctuated with discs of pickles.
A seat at Allegra’s terrace, when the weather is just right, is also a lovely thing, a space for 50, polished to a sky-rise-in-Manhattan feel, with open-fire cooking and a tight, seasonally driven menu that may comprise choux showered with pounded pistachios and caulked with liver parfait; or a pork chop that radiates a fading pink and is veneered green with peas and lettuce; and the fried chicken. It is certainly worth the tube-ride out east.
Gunpowder, Tower Bridge
A lynchpin within the wave of singular, contemporary Indian restaurants that have arrived in the capital, Gunpowder draws the crowds with its punchy small plates, namely goat ham croquettes with apple chutney and chorizo; a spicy-venison-and-vermicelli doughnut; and Karwari soft-shell crab – and larger, family-style dishes that range from whole duck leg with Andhra sambal and parsnips to whole beef rib in Kerala pepper sauce.
The south London branch’s outdoor seating offers a view of Tower Bridge without having to wrestle with the tourist hordes, and its breakfast menu, some of which is influenced by traditional bakeries, such as Kayani Bakery in Pune, leans towards the gentler side. The Anjuna Market Style Omelette incorporates crab and grilled tomatoes with a side of pao, an orb-like Goan bread roll; and the cardamom pancakes are paired with caramelised banana and flecked with pistachio and come with a sluice of crème fraiche. Wash it all down with a spiced Masala chai; the walk over Tower Bridge can wait.
Gunpowder, Tower Bridge
Now read about the London restaurants where you should blow your bonus…
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