If you’re suffering from a bah humbug attitude and want to get into the Christmas spirit, there’s no better cure than a holiday getaway to London. This is a city that really comes alive in December. Nearly every street and window is decorated in festive trim, and it is pretty normal to see carolers singing in retail stores. In an era where online shopping is king and brick-and-mortar shops are merely showrooms, it’s nice to see that the in-store experience is still valued.
Because of all the holiday cheer and nostalgia in the air, my recent weekend trip to London was a bit more classic and traditional in nature. The last time I was here I spent more time in the hipster neighborhood of Shoreditch but this time I wanted to have biscuits and tea and watch a play in the West End. We stayed in Marylebone, which is like the West Village of London, and I loved it. It was picturesque and close to Hyde Park and Selfridges, which is really all I need.
Foodwise, we discovered some real gems on this trip. I was miraculously able to get a dinner reservation at The Ledbury on OpenTable, and the 8 course tasting dinner was one of the best fine dining experiences I’ve had not just in London but ever. If you have to blow your money on one meal, save it for this one. We also had the most fantastic tapas at Barrafina, far better than anything you can get in New York. London always has great Indian options, and our lunch at high-end Michelin star Gymkhana did not disappoint. The only restaurant that I thought was overrated was The Palomar, an Israeli small-plates restaurant that got high ratings on Yelp and was recommended by Goop and Tasting Table. It wasn’t a bad lunch, but the portions were small, and nothing really stood out. These restaurants are all in central and west London, so if you’re in the area and curious to know what these meals are like, read on for more detail and pictures.
The Ledbury // 127 Ledbury Rd, Notting Hill, London W11 2AQ, UK // +44 20 7792 9090
My friend compared The Ledbury, a two Michelin star restaurant in London and No. 14 restaurant in the world, to Blue Hill in NY, which is pretty high praise considering Blue Hill in my opinion is one of the best restaurants in the country, so I knew that I would have to have dinner there to see if this comparison holds up. That time came, I was able to get a reservation, and based on that meal, I can say The Ledbury certainly deserves its place in the Top 50. If you’re choosing between The Ledbury and, say, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal or The Clove Club, definitely go with The Ledbury. The restaurant has the ambiance of a nice neighborhood bistro and smart casual seems to be the unspoken dress code. They offer a 6- and 8-course tasting menu at dinner–go for the full eight. The portions are small so you won’t be bursting at the seams with food, unless you add on a cheese course at the end. For a more detailed recap, click here.
Barrafina // 26-27 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 3LL, UK // +44 20 7440 1456
Our tapas dinner at Barrafina was an unexpected highlight on our trip. I know it seems strange and out of context to seek out tapas in London, and that was my initial attitude as well, but the small plates here are authentic and fantastic. I haven’t been to Spain in awhile, but to me Barrafina is the best tapas restaurant outside of Spain that I have ever been to. We walked into the location on Dean St after our play ended, which was about 10:30 pm, and even then, the place was packed. They were about to turn us away since it was near closing time, but we persisted, and seats at the bar turned up in about 15 minutes. Everything that came out of the kitchen was incredible–the croquetas, the tuna tartare, the whole wild bream fish, even the pig’s ear was delicious. If we had more time, I would have ordered the fried calamari and the chicken thights. If I lived in London I would eat here everyday. I can’t wait to go back.
Gymkhana // 42 Albemarle St, Mayfair, London W1S 4JH, UK // +44 20 3011 5900
London does Indian food so well. The few times I do eat Indian food it usually happens in London, as the quality and variety is on a different level compared to the places in NY. India was a former colony, after all, so it makes sense that the Indian food scene in the UK is further along. This time around we had lunch at Gymkhana in Mayfair, which is in a district with a lot of nice shops and boutiques. Gymkhana has a Michelin star and the price point is on the higher end of the scale. It’s modeled after a colonial Indian sports club, which I guess means lots of dark wood. Again, you’re not here for the amateur show of tikka masala and tandoori. Get the kid goat keema, which tastes like a delicious and elevated sloppy joe of ground goat meat, the labooni wild tiger prawns in red pepper chutney, the venison keema naan (note: this naan stuffed with heavily spiced venison meat has a heat that slowly builds up and burns your mouth), and a side of dal lentils.
The Palomar // 34 Rupert St, London W1D 6DN, UK // +44 20 7439 8777
The Palomar has the look and feel of a scene-y restaurant. It was vetted by Gwyneth Paltrow’s blog Goop, and it does have pink neon lighting inside, so no surprise there. Coincidentally it was also our least favorite meal. The food was well prepared, but the flavors never reached the levels of sublimity that the reviews on Yelp promised. And it had the disadvantage of coming after our meals at The Ledbury and Barrafina. The signature kubaneh bread was good, a cross between a brioche and Hawaiian bread, and I loved the presentation of it all, but I’ve had better house breads elsewhere. The beetroot carpaccio was my favorite dish at lunch, while the shakshukit and aubergine were fine but not necessarily things I would order again. The meal did end on a very sweet note with the reverse chocolate fondue dessert, where little bits of marshmallow, peanut brittle and cake were already dipped into a silky pool of chocolate and condensed milk sauce.