Choosing a good restaurant is a fraught task at the best of times. How does everyone feel about spicy food? Is that friend-of-a-friend gluten-free or dairy-free? Everyone’s agreed on steak except that one person who’s just decided to go vegan. And if you’re tasked with making the decision on holiday, when everyone is heavily invested in having the best time possible, things just become that much harder.
Of course, the pressure ramps up significantly if you happen to be a fine dining chef yourself. Yet, even in unfamiliar surroundings, it’s possible to unearth some real gems. We asked some of the world’s finest chefs to share the secret hotspots and tiny eateries they rely on when travelling.
Cantine del Vino Gia Schiavi, Venice, Italy
Chosen by: Tommy Banks, Michelin-starred head chef of the Black Swan at Oldstead, rated TripAdvisor’s number one restaurant in the world in 2017.
“In Venice there is a traditional casual cuisine called ‘cicchetti,’ which is basically their equivalent of pub food. We were recommended this particular place, which is run by two sons and their ancient mother, so we decided to try it out. They did a dish which was just fresh ricotta on bread, topped with olive oil and walnuts. Normally I’m all about the cured meats, but this thing just blew me away. We ate about five of them, sitting with our legs dangling over the bridge outside, drinking Aperol spritzes and watching the gondoliers fix gondolas at a little shipyard opposite.”
Nan Tei, Happy Valley, Hong Kong
Chosen by: Olivier Elzer, Chef Patron of the newly-opened L’Envol at the St Regis Hong Kong, and recipient of a total of 18 Michelin stars.
“As so much of my work is centred around haute cuisine and gourmet dining, in my free time I much prefer informal places where you can just eat good food with no fuss. That’s why I like Nan Tei, a Yakitori restaurant which is a perfect reminder that Japanese cuisine is so much more than sushi. I’m particularly fond of the one tucked away on Yuen Yuen Street. Order the grilled chicken wings: perfectly crispy on the outside and succulent on the inside, which is very hard to achieve when grilling meat on a skewer.”
The Heron, London, UK
Chosen by: Vivek Singh, Best-selling food writer, Saturday Kitchen regular and CEO of the Cinnamon Collection restaurant group.
“The hottest Thai food you’ll come across in the UK is in a Thai restaurant in a pub near Edgware Road. The Heron is right in the heart of central London, but they’ve only just started translating their menu into English. I always take my chefs if we’re looking to try something spicy and sure enough, every time I go there, I come out feeling like I’m walking three or four inches above the ground. Is it bravado? Is it foolishness? I don’t know, but I just love eating there and leaving light-headed, with my pupils dilated, squinting at the daylight. Their ‘hot’ is really hot.”
Skosh, York, UK
Chosen by: Tom Brown, Head chef of Hackney’s Cornerstone, named third-best restaurant in the country at the 2019 National Restaurant Awards.
“My girlfriend lives in York, so she took me there years ago. Like most chefs, I’m very sceptical. Plus, they did this dish which had almost everything I hate about food: a piece of cured trout, topped with a yuzu lime ‘cloud’. I looked at it and I just thought, ‘behave.’ But then I put it in my mouth, and I hated how much I loved it. It was so delicious, a genuine explosion of flavour. If this restaurant had been in Shoreditch, everyone would be talking about it.”
Casa Juanín, Pendones, Spain
Chosen by: Tommy Heaney, Founder of Heaney’s Cardiff and Uisce by Heaney’s and two-time Great British Menu finalist.
“Seven or eight years ago, my dad, my uncle and I went travelling around Europe on our bikes. We ended up in the Asturias region of northern Spain. We ate at Michelin-starred restaurants, but also asked the locals in bars where to eat. They all said this place called Casa Juanín, in a village called Pendones. It was literally in the middle of nowhere, this tiny restaurant up in the Picos mountains. When we got there, they were only serving a single one-pot dish: wild boar fabada, which we ate with some traditional local cider. It was amazing. It’s always stuck in my mind.”
Looking for something a little closer to home? These are the best vegan restaurants in London…