We go to London once or twice a year for the theater. We certainly don’t go for the food. We’ve never been fans of British food, and almost always eat in Greek or Indian restaurants when there. In the past we’ve always stayed in Mayfair, near a nice little group of restaurants in an area called Shepherd Market. But this year, because our daughter was there to give a talk to an international law group, we stayed near her hotel, in an area called Covent Garden. And for the first time we ate really well.
We stayed in a hotel at Seven Dials in the Covent Garden district where seven small streets converge in the heart of the theater district. In addition to lots of theaters and small art galleries, there were basement night clubs in the evening, and groups of young people drinking on the sidewalks in front of the many pubs all night long, blocking the signs saying “no drinking on the sidewalk.” The whole area was like the Third Street Promenade on a busy weekend.
And, according to the hotel concierge, there were 143 restaurants within a 5-minute walk. And what a collection!
We started out at the L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, one of the great French chefs. After my wife mentioned that it was cramped and loud, and was overheard by the waiter, we were seated upstairs in a spacious, pleasant area where we were the only guests. The waiter from the north of France, Jerome Taverson, was superb. The veloute of chestnut soup was a miracle. The chicken was simple, but prepared to such perfection it was like none I’ve ever had. Can you imagine that plain chicken could be so good?
After that lunch anything seemed like it would be anti-climatic. But I stumbled into an actual British beef house, in an old basement, that was almost as wonderful. Again, just a few steps from our hotel was the Hawksmoor steak house, located in the mildly-restored basement of an old brewery. The owner of the brewery during the 1800s was famous for his once-a-year dinners serving big chunks of beef. And they’ve maintained the tradition. I didn’t order the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding like I would have liked to, because the smallest piece was 2 1/2 pounds. But I had a great filet.
Then we learned that Chinatown in London was just a few blocks away. While walking through it just before lunchtime I saw a restaurant with no name in English, but roasted ducks hanging in the window. So I went in for lunch. I was seated upstairs, and a menu in Chinese was brought to me. Fortunately there were pictures of each dish. A separate menu was then brought which, in English, said “steamed crab daily special $15.” So that’s what I ordered. I should have been suspicious when they immediately brought a finger bowl to the table with about a dozen napkins. Then came the biggest plate of steamed crab I’ve ever seen. As I was eating it, which took about an hour, the place filled up with Chinese speaking people ordering one dish after another, so I got to see a lot of the beautiful dim sum and other dishes they were serving. But I don’t know what they were saying about it.
One night I felt like Indian food. I had already had an Indian snack across the street from the hotel, but this time I asked the hotel clerk his favorite local Indian restaurant. He recommended Mela, which means “fair” or “carnival” in some Indian dialect. It was about four blocks away. The naan bread was superior, the chicken tikka was very good, but not better than available in Los Angeles, and the soft shell crabs were in a sauce that was too heavy for them. But it was a very good Indian restaurant. Next door was an Indonesian restaurant that also looked interesting, but I didn’t have a chance to try it. On the way back was a Spanish restaurant with wonderful Spanish guitar music playing, so I had another beer there.
On the way to the Covent Garden Sunday antique market we passed a number of interesting restaurants, including one African, and several French bistros. We stopped on the way to the theater at the Great Greek. It was very crowded in the main room, so they seated us in the basement, where it became equally crowded very quickly. But they had a system: in spite of the tables being very small, they served the plates on a metal rack so they were stacked vertically on the table, saving lots of space.
Late one night I suddenly got hungry so I went down the street to a beautiful bistro in an old building that had been a French hospital 50 or so years earlier. I had a “dressed crab” and a glass of a German white wine. A perfect snack. On another late night when I needed a quick snack I stopped into an Italian restaurant one block from the hotel and had a pizza. Everyone was speaking Italian and after a while I joined in the conversation and it was fun.
I had only one other meal in the neighborhood and you’ll probably laugh at this one. But I couldn’t resist the local Mexican restaurant, two blocks from the hotel. It was a bit more upscale than many of the Mexican restaurants in Santa Monica, but the food was first class and very much like the best of our Mexican restaurants. And I was getting homesick, so it felt good.
I’m not including all the names and addresses of these restaurants because other than the L’Atelier none are necessarily worth the trip. It’s not the individual meals or restaurants that made this week so enjoyable. It was the location of the hotel, and the ambiance of the neighborhood. The Seven Dials neighborhood is like a giant food court, with art hanging over the streets, and pubs and theaters everywhere. There is every kind of ethnic restaurant, and if that’s not enough there are food carts on the side of the street selling falafel, dolmades, and wonderful looking wraps. For foodies like us, it was heaven.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org