Ballindalloch Castle, Cask Pub and Kitchen, Cork and Bottle, Devil's Advocate, Dufftown, Edinburgh, England, Fortnum and Mason, Haandi, London, London restaurant recommendations, London Review Cake Shop, recommendations, restaurants, Scotland, Scotland restaurant recommendations, Stuart Arms, Tea House Theatre, United Kingdom, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese
Continuing with my recap of my recent trip to England and Scotland, this week I want to highlight a few restaurants that were fantastic, and some that are to be avoided.
Weirdly (or maybe not, considering that it’s England) most of our favorite dining experiences in London were tea shops of one sort or another.
London Review Cake Shop
We happened upon the London Review Cake Shop, which is attached to the London Review Book Shop, when we were wandering around the Bloomsbury/Holborn area upon our arrival in London. We stopped in for breakfast on our first full day in town and had delightful quiche, cake, and tea. Some of their teas are served in traditional white ceramic tea pots, but many are served in glass tea pots on bamboo serving trays (this is known as a Gong Fu set). I ordered a pot of White Peony with Rose Buds, and my husband ordered Organic Gunpowder Supreme. Both were excellent and provided quality tea through multiple steepings.
After a tasty slice of quiche for each of us, I had a gluten-free rose and pistachio cake with cream cheese frosting, and my husband had apricot pie.
You would never have known that my cake was gluten-free, and it was YUMMY. If I lived in the area, I would be in this place once a week for breakfast, tea, or just a snack. It’s quite close to the British Museum, so I heartily recommend it for a pick-me-up after touring the museum. It has one large communal table, several small tables for two, and a handful of counter stools. You can dine in or take-away, but to really appreciate the tea service, you should dine in.
Tea House Theatre
Another little place we discovered (this time with assistance from Yelp) is the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall.It is aptly named because it is, in fact, a tea house but also a theatre. There were a number of flyers posted advertising upcoming performances. The inside is very quaint and felt English-countryside-cozy to me. There are wooden tables and mismatched chairs scattered throughout the space, and also a few comfortable nooks with arm chairs and coffee tables. There’s a play space in one corner with a bunch of children’s toys, and there are books and board games stacked on shelves. I got the sense that this was a place to linger.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of time to linger because we were just killing time before our tour of the Beefeater distillery, so we just had a pot of tea and a slice of cake each. My red velvet cake (with cream cheese frosting, of course) was delicious, but I was envious of my husband’s chocolate cake with chocolate frosting. They serve food too, but we only had time for cake!
Fortnum & Mason Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon
My absolute favorite meal in London was the afternoon tea we had at Fortnum & Mason, one of London’s famous department stores. Their Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon is on the fourth floor of the store, which is in the Picadilly Circus area of London. I had read about afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason in my guide book (Top Ten London) and made reservations before we left the States through the UK Open Table app. At £40 per person, it was a splurge (especially when you consider the exchange rate) but man, was it worth it!
The Tea Salon is elegant and spacious–they even have a baby grand piano in the foyer, which is played throughout the day for a charming musical accompaniment to your meal. There’s a choice of Afternoon Tea, Savory Afternoon Tea, or High Tea. We had Afternoon Tea, which included a pot of tea for each of us and more food than we could reasonably eat. The sandwich plate had two each of five different kinds of sandwiches: cucumber & cream cheese, chicken & sweetcorn, roast beef & butter, smoked salmon and horseradish cream, and egg salad & mustard cress. When we devoured the first plate of sandwiches, they offered us another, to which I foolishly agreed. By the time we finished the second plate of sandwiches, I wasn’t sure how were were ever going to eat the scones and cakes that were still awaiting us. But we managed.
The scones are served with the traditional clotted cream and preserves. The assortment of petit fours was divine, to the point that we didn’t even make a selection from the cake carriage because we were far too full from everything else. And of course, the tea was excellent. I ordered Countess Grey, which is Earl Grey with the addition of Orange Pekoe, and my husband had Smoky Earl Grey, which adds a bit of Lapsang and Gunpowder to lend the smokiness. We ended up buying a large tin of each to bring home with us, and the Tea Salon gave us complimentary small tins of their Afternoon Blend to take away.
There are literally hundreds of places to have afternoon tea in London. Seemingly every hotel and restaurant in the city offers some varying level of tea service. But if you are looking for a truly elegant experience where you will feel relaxed and pampered, then you must try Fortnum & Mason. You won’t be sorry.
Cork & Bottle
Our favorite non-tea restaurant in London was a wine bar (another Yelp discovery) called Cork & Bottle in Leicester Square. As with most wine bars, their by-the-bottle list is impressive. But my husband and I like to try things by the glass so we get more variety. I had a New Zealand Pinot Noir and a glass of Mumm Champagne; he had a glass of red Burgundy and a red Côtes du Rhoône. All four were delicious. We also had a hummus and pita appetizer with olives, which was quite tasty. We went to Cork & Bottle the same day we had afternoon tea, so we weren’t exactly hungry for a full meal. In pounds sterling, the prices are quite reasonable; but given the weakness of the dollar against the pound, the prices look less desirable after conversion. That’s not the restaurant’s fault though.
Hands-down, our favorite restaurant in Scotland (and probably our favorite restaurant of the entire trip) was the Devil’s Advocate in Edinburgh. My husband, Master of Yelp, discovered this one as well. It’s a bit off the beaten path, kind of tucked away, but quite close to the Royal Mile. We stopped in our first night in Edinburgh just to get a drink and a snack. We had not yet been to any whisky distilleries, and wanted to get our feet wet, so to speak.
U.S. hipsters would feel right at home in this place. The interior is primarily wood and other natural textures, and it seems to glow from within. Candles provide a fair amount of the lighting–we were actually a bit surprised they could have that many open flames in a building consisting of so much flammable material. The downstairs level contains the bar and some table seating; upstairs is more table seating with a dumbwaiter to send up food and drinks.
I outed us to our waitress as whisky novices. I told her that we needed help figuring out what to try, and she was more than happy to oblige. After hearing that my husband likes Lapsang Souchong and other smoky teas, she suggested a whisky from the Islay region, which tend to be the smokiest. She thought the Laphroaig 10-year-old would be a good bet for him, and she was right. I started with a whisky cocktail because I was hesitant to dive right into a dram of pure Scotch. We also ordered the shared charcuterie platter, which turned out to be rather enormous (and delicious). Our waitress succeeded again with a second round of suggestions–this time a Lagavulin PX Cask (aged in sherry barrels) for my husband, and an Ancnoc 12-year-old (aged in bourbon barrels) for me.
The Devil’s Advocate left such a good impression on us that we went back two days later when we were passing through Edinburgh again. We had the same waitress (who remembered us) and had another excellent experience. I ordered their soup of the day, which was a superb mushroom cream soup, quaintly served on a wooden board. I also had the pan-seared scallops, which were so tender, it was like cutting through warm butter. Magnifico! My husband ordered the fish of the day (their “fish and chips”), which I think was halibut the day we were there. He was quite pleased with it.
This time, when it came to advice on whisky, our waitress called in the big gun–Kyle the bartender. He came upstairs to our table–with his lumberjack beard and leather apron–to discuss with us our tastes and preferences (this was after our distillery tours, when we knew a little something about the subject). He recommended a Port Askaig 12-year-old from Islay for my husband and a Longrow Peated for me. Once again, the choices were excellent.
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, even if only for a few hours, I urge you to check out the Devil’s Advocate.
The Stuart Arms
Once we were up in the Highlands for our whisky tour, the selection of restaurants was slim. We stayed in a small town called Dufftown, and the proprietors of our bed & breakfast recommended The Stuart Arms for dinner, primarily because they have an amazing selection of Balvenie whiskies, and we weren’t going to be able to tour Balvenie because you have to book months in advance.
Indeed, the bar at The Stuart Arms is impressively arrayed with dozens of bottles of Balvenie. What’s even more amazing though is that they just let you wander back there and open and sniff all the bottles to figure out what you want to order! We each selected a different Balvenie (Golden Cask 15-year-old for me and Roasted Malt 15-year-old for my husband). I ordered the fish and chips, which was delicious–crispy and golden on the outside, and firm but tender on the inside.
Places to Avoid
We were very disappointed in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, which has such a great name, but mediocre food and terrible service. No one greeted us when we walked in. I had to flag someone down to find out how to get seated. He directed us down two narrow flights of stairs to the basement seating area. The only available table was covered in glasses and trash from the previous occupants, and it needed to be wiped down. We sat there for a few minutes before concluding that we probably needed to order at the bar. My husband went to order for us, and he had to ask for someone to come clear the table. When that person arrived, he had no rag in hand, so I had to ask him to wipe down the table. I ordered fish and chips (it was a pub, after all), and it was fine until I noticed that the fish still had scales attached in some places. I almost lost my appetite, but managed to eat around the scales. Gross. The only redeeming quality of this place was its selection of Sam Smith beers (which they serve to the exclusion of all other beers). The people on Yelp who rave about this place apparently have low standards. I wouldn’t go here again if you paid me.
I was also quite disappointed with the only Indian place we went, Haandi, which was near Harrod’s in Knightsbridge. The food was just fine–I have no complaints about that (except for the ginger lassi; I don’t recommend it). But their prices are outrageous. They charged us £6 for a small bottle of still water, when all we wanted was tap water. They charged extra for rice and naan–naan I can understand, but rice should be part of the meal. And the service was slow. If the meal had cost half as much as it did, I would have been completely happy. But it’s waaaaay overpriced.
Then there was the place where we tried to eat on three separate occasions and couldn’t get anyone to pay any attention to us. If you intend to actually eat or drink, don’t go to Cask Pub & Kitchen. This place was right down the street from our hotel in the Pimlico area. We stopped by on our way back to our hotel from being out for the day, but it was such a mob scene, we couldn’t even get inside. So we relaxed at our hotel for a bit and tried again. This time we got inside, but there was no hostess and no available seating at the bar or at tables. We looked around for a few minutes, but no one attempted to help us, so we left. We tried again for lunch the next day. We walked in and again there was no hostess. So we sat at one of the many empty tables. Several employees were milling about, preparing for the day or whatever, but not a single person approached us. It was like we were invisible! We sat there for 10 minutes before giving up and leaving again. So, don’t go there.
Our most disappointing meal in Scotland was Ballindalloch Castle. We had gone there on our way back to Edinburgh from Dufftown, knowing that there was a café/tea shop on the grounds. What we did not know was 1) that you had to pay the entrance fee for the grounds before you could get to the tea shop, 2) that the tea shop only takes cash, and 3) that the tea shop was more of a cafeteria than a restaurant. We had decent sandwiches and tea, followed by very good cake, served by a sullen clerk. If you’re already at Ballindalloch and you’re starving, this is a serviceable solution to your hunger. But don’t go out of your way to go there.
There will be no post again next week because I’ll be traveling home from Los Angeles. But stay tuned on October 22 for an introduction to Scotch whisky and a detailed review of the distilleries we visited in Scotland!