The greatest 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 contemporary smash-hits 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 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.
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 £150 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.
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 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.
The common touchstone for a Mexican restaurant’s ambition is in its al pastor, the Lebanese-influenced taco, once known as tacos árabes, made with slices of pork shoulder that’s been vertically spit-roasted and often garnished with bits of diced pineapple. At Tacos Padre, the Borough Market restaurant whose outdoor sprawl feels as though you’re dining out in a semi-big parking garage, the al pastor is the calling card, two large fistfuls of the jaggedly cut meat that have been pressed with a house rub enriched with chillies, a variety of warm spices, and habanero-pickled pineapple, and charred to a point where it brings to mind the smokey-sweet smack of char siu, the barbecued pork that is common in the Cantonese kitchen.
Is the namesake dish at Tacos Padre the best in London? It really depends on who you ask – the Hackney food chasers once queued for the better part of a Saturday afternoon waiting for the fabled flour tortillas coming out of Sonora’s one-time hut; and the media crowd still seems to be drawn to the offerings by the restaurateurs Sam and Eddie Hart – and the tortillas here can sometimes miss the mark, but the tightly edited menu is largely divine. The red guacamole draws upon salsa macha, the fiery crispy-chilli oil, and avocados from the west-Mexican state of Michoacan; thick raw oysters are overlaid with lime juice and morita-oil drops; and the perfectly grilled lamb chops are marinated in avocado leaf and an oil infused with guajillo, a moderately hot chilli. Just remember to not sleep on the pastor.
The Culpeper Regen Rooftop
If you were to ever end up at The Culpeper, the east London gastropub whose footprint takes up an entire corner block on fumey Commercial Street, you may want to take in the sprawl of its downstairs pub, dart pass the Ercol chairs, resist the tempting allure of sinking into the first-floor restaurant’s blue banquettes, head straight for the rooftop and order chef Pawel Ojdowski’s set menu, a survey of produce that’s been brought about by regenerative farming practices.
In a place like east London, where your artfully plated dishes of cavatelli and twice-smoked mutton chop better be precise or else there are six other neighbourhood restaurants that are ready to put an arm around your Veja-wearing customers, The Culpeper’s homely offering is lovely in its simplicity, especially when the weather is divine: potted flora and beds of produce; a DIY-store’s-worth of wooden fixtures; grilled Colchester oysters punched up with chiu chow sauce; lamb shoulder, rendered beautifully over charcoal and left pink, all juice and funky fat and a touch of chew, the way in which all able cooks handle their lamb; and a panacotta flavoured with rhubarb, sweeter than what convention often dictates, but no less welcome, especially after a meal that is largely dictated by fire grilling.
A quick scan of the tables at Sushisamba, with its flurry of Charlotte Tilbury, designer stubble and questionable tans, will likely verify what you have already read in the endless listicles that outline the Japanese-Peruvian-Brazilian high-rise restaurant: that its reservation list is drawn here more so for its social-media opportunities of the city horizon than the provenance of its ingredients, the ambition of its chefs, or the potential pleasures of its dishes. And, being a dovetail of cuisines and cultures, it’s probably not the place for you if you’re seeking the drunken thrill of an improvised izakaya meal or the intimacy of a nine-seat hinoki counter serving the rarest cuts of fish from Hokkaido.
But it’s only when you sit down, ogle the landmarks, and see the fleet of dishes begin to fly to your table – there are two hockey-puck-size hunks of ribeye and fillet that are leavened with splashes of juiced oranges, small saucers of black beans, sautéed greens, and farofa, a dish of toasted cassava; an arrangement of wagyu gyoza whose exterior is moistened with a dab of kabocha purée and sweet soy; and two ragged cuts of the coveted toro, tuna belly, that gleam with the luscious shimmer of new silk and make way for a briny, slow-burning fish smack so mysteriously delicious it might make you think of your first trip to Osaka – that you realise you’re in for a pretty reliable meal. Not quite as good as the views, but close enough. With a couple of sips of sweet-fizzy sake, the spirited surrounds – what the social-media obsessed might call “vibes” – can be quite magical, only if you overlook the selfie flashes coming from all angles.
Now read about the London restaurants where you should blow your bonus…
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