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Traditional British Cooking and where to find it in London

Clifford Mould discusses British Cuisine and recommends some famous London Dining Rooms

Just a cursory glance, if such a thing is possible with such a fat tome, at Mrs Beeton's original cookbook, would be enough to disprove the myth that we British have never cared much about food. The Victorian upper and middle classes took their stomachs very seriously. It is also a myth that the working class were all on the breadline; roast beef and oysters, now considered luxuries, were pretty much staple fare up to the 1914-18 war. Today's "great British breakfast" with bacon, blackpudding, fried bread and eggs, tomatoes and mushrooms is but a pale shadow when compared to the cold joints, meats potted and en gelée, devilled kidneys, quenelles of pike, jellied eels and haddock kedgerees that would await the weekend guests as they prepared for a bracing day in the saddle or on the grouse moor. The shoot picnic would centre around huge game pies or warming stews, carried laboriously into the field by an army of retainers, whose own victuals in the servant's hall were both abundant and varied. One wonders how anyone would have had room for a massive twelve course dinner, served in the evening a la Russe as the new fangled manner of presenting each course in succession was called.

Frequent breaks for dancing or walking on the terrace must have been a practical necessity as much as an excuse for decorous dalliance.

All this came to an end with the two World Wars, separated as they were by the depression of the 20s and 30s. Rationing continued in Britain until the early 1950s, and the post war development of new technologies that enabled the rapid distribution of cheap food was welcomed enthusiastically, but sadly, very few people cared enough to notice the slippage in the standards of food quality.

The nostalgia for such halcyon days lingers on - by no means confined to Britain and Merchant Ivory films. It's a huge industry in America where there are magazines devoted to Victorian living, and out of work actors spend the summer bringing to life contemporary figures at historic sites from Valley Forge to Dead Man's Gulch. So it isn't surprising that one of the most common questions we get asked by readers from abroad visiting Britain is, where can we find really good British cooking? Or is that a contradiction in terms?

"Okay", many of you say, "we've heard about this culinary revolution and all these wall to wall TV chef shows. And we know all about fusion cuisine, Cal-Ital and the rest, so where can we get proper traditional English cooking?"

I wish the answer was that easy. In many countries, the best place to find out about the nation's stomach is in the dining rooms of its private citizens. But again, if you dine with an English foodie who is a competent cook, the chance is they will be trying to impress you with latest fad they've picked up at a fashionable restaurant or on TV.

The best of British cooking has always relied on doing as little as possible with excellent ingredients. Before factory farming and food processing gained its hold, we took for granted free range meat, abundant supplies of fish and wonderful game. The recent beef scare has put a stop to the traditional cuts of beef on the bone, but there are plenty of other good meats available in Britain now. There has been a great revival in old and rare breeds such as the Gloucester Old Spot - a pig that produces tasty pork and bacon. The Scottish beef industry has maintained its high standards and most of the best restaurants get their beef from sources North of the Border. In the winter, game is still plentiful, and there has been a great revival of interest in the variety of flavours from all the different wildfowl, the abundance of venison and even the lowlier creatures such as rabbits and hares.

Dine Online's recommended Traditional Dining Rooms in the Capital

There are several broad categories of options: Pubs, hotels and restaurants

Pubs

Food in pubs has taken off in recent years. Some are amazingly good, others terrible. The best pub food is often the more Modern British eclectic style rather than the traditional, which all too often means bought in pies and over cooked vegetables that have been sitting under lights on a counter for too long. Pub chains like the Harvester Inns, run so-called carvery dining rooms where large joints of meat are often well cooked, but served on horrid little plates to counter-balance claims of "all-you-can-eat". A mass of bland vegetables are dumped on top like a dog's breakfast. They're often either raw if they've just appeared, or flabby if they've been sunbathing under the lights for a while

Our favourite West End pub restaurant that does really good British food is The Guinea, 30 Bruton Place, W1. The Guinea Grill is tucked away in a Mayfair backstreet (a contradiction in terms?), in a former stable behind the pub. Apart from the lobster and the oysters and the steaks, it's the award winning steak and kidney pie that brings back discerning regulars time after time! Tel: 020 7491 1442.

Hotel restaurants

Some of London's top hotels are particularly renowned for their traditional British cooking. In some cases only a few "classic" dishes (such as Dover Sole taken off the bone by the Maitre d' at your table) remain as vestiges of Edwardian Empire. Still riding high in the trad league is the Savoy Grill at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand. (Tel: 020 7836 4343). The panelled dining room is discreet and peers of the realm are amongst its regular clientele. Since we were last there, the very talented head chef David Sharland has moved on to his own restaurant, The Vineyard in Buckinghamshire. We've already checked out his very able successor, Simon Scott, when we reviewed The Upstairs Bar at The Savoy.

Another Grand Hotel with a posh grill room (and equally posh prices) is The Dorchester on Park Lane (020 7317 6464). Willi Elsener is one of London's best loved chefs, and his respect for British culinary tradition is as great as the range of regional British dishes that he cooks supremely well. Look out for terrific duck, Angus beef and smoked haddock. At The Hyatt Carlton there is a very smart Italian restaurant called Grissini-london. But you shouldn't overlook the hotel's more traditional Rib Room. Recently I watched fascinated, as very talented young lady pastry cook assembled wonderful puddings in the open kitchen area. This was at the end of a dinner that although substantial was of such quality that one didn't feel assaulted!

Virtually opposite The Ritz, (which remains a temple to international haute-cuisine) is The Athenaeum Hotel where Sally Bulloch is the ebullient general manager; she gives her name to its very stylish restaurant, Bulloch's at 116 Piccadilly. Here you find a judicious mix of British with a modern twist alongside well cooked traditional British dishes. They do game very well here, and the prices are not astronomical for such a location. Tel: 020 7499 3464

Round the corner in Albemarle Street is Brown's, regarded by many as the epitome of Englishness, and certainly one of the best places to go for afternoon tea. They've revamped the restaurant and called it 1837 at Brown's. 1837 was a double whammy of a year, when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne and Mr Brown opened his hotel. Here the chef is Gregory Nicholson who has done stages in some of the UK's best kitchens including L'Ortolan, Le Gavroche and Marco Pierre White's. The emphasis is on a return to classical grand hotel food, which has always been a judicious mix of traditional cuisine with some dishes that owe much to the great Escoffier. It would be as absurd to ignore the French influence on English cooking as it would be to pretend that Provencal cuisine is innocent of Italian, Spanish or North African culinary influences. Another reason for visiting Brown's is John Gilchrist who is London's most user-friendly sommeier. His list is astounding and he has the best and most varied list of wines by the glass I've ever come across.
Brown's Hotel, Albemarle Street, W1 Tel: 020 7408 1837

Specialist British Restaurants

Probably the best selection of British food (sometimes at slightly more modest prices) is to be found in the old established restaurants that have clung to their roots. Some would say that the only place to find really great British cooking is in certain gentlemen's' clubs in St James's, but you need to know your dining rooms as some are reminiscent of public school dinners. Since the clubs are exclusive by their very nature, the rest of us have to make do with restaurants, some of which try (and succeed in few cases) in purveying very much the same clubby atmosphere and style, but to anyone who is prepared to pay, and wear a jacket and tie!.

Leading the field in exclusive clubbiness is Wilton's, located in the heart of clubland, at 55 Jermyn Street, St James's. Wear a dark suit and stripy tie; ladies need to be the guests of chaps or they may well feel out of place. Game is well prepared, but the fish can be disappointing. Prices are high, but it's very establishment and a visit should be rather a treat! Tel: 020 7629 9955.

London's oldest restaurant is Rules, at 35 Maiden Lane WC2, behind the Strand. My grandfather is alleged to have breakfasted there every day as a young man. His father was a hatter in the Strand, who as a boy chorister in the Savoy Chapel Royal, "lived in" at Buckingham Palace so that he could sing hymns for Queen Victoria at her early morning prayers. The walls at Rules are covered with old prints and cartoons, the staff are solicitous in a rather grand way, and the trick is to settle back and relax into it all. Don't go in a hurry - take your time and mop up a life style that goes back to a more gracious, gentle era. This is the place for those who like game. Rules has its own estate - Lartington Hall Park in the High Pennines - real wilderness country. There, for a fee, you can help dispatch the partridge, pheasant, mallard, snipe, teal and deer that will find their way, after proper hanging, onto their well starched dining tables. Tel: 020 7379 0258

Tucked away at 11 Swallow Street, which links Piccadilly with Regent Street is Bentley's Seafood Restaurant and Oyster Bar. It looks a bit like Rules at first glance, but the emphasis here is on scales as opposed to fur and feathers. Oysters. lobsters and Dover Sole are to be found in profusion. You can ask for mussels to be cooked any way you fancy. The wine list is impressive, but traditional accompaniments such as Black Velvet or straight Guinness will wash down your oysters in style. Tel: 020 7734 4756

No survey of London's traditional eateries would be complete without a mention of Simpson's-in-the-Strand. This venerable establishment goes back to 1828, when it opened as "The Grand Cigar Divan" on the site of the former Fountain Tavern where the Kit Kat Club for literatti used to meet. Mr Simpson, a noted caterer of his day enlarged the premises in 1848, and in 1898 it was acquired by Richard D'Oyly Carte the opera impressario and hotelier. There are many dining rooms, the most impressive is the clubby restaurant on the ground floor with its glittering chandeliers, dark panelled walls "boxes" with divans to sit on left over from former days. Grand roasted joints are carved at the table from enormous silver dinner wagons. Don't miss the marvellous bread and butter pudding - if you can make room for it! Service is professional enough, but mainly by anachronistically foreign sounding waiters. On second thoughts I suppose this properly smacks of Empire! Simpson's, 100 Strand WC2, Tel: 020 7836 9112

In Covent Garden, The Earl of Bradford dabbles in trade with his now well established favourite, Porter's. Here the specialities are pies and puddings, the twin mainstays of very traditional British cooking. Stick your knife into the crust and the steamy aroma hits you smack between the eyes. Don't think that because it's owned by a Peer of the Realm that Porter's is posh. It's comfortably middle of the road and the emphasis is definitely on value for money. In many ways, it's probably the most genuinely British of all the establishments yet mentioned. Porter's, 17 Henrietta Street WC2, Tel: 020 7836

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