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London's Most Iconically British Foods


London will forever have a hold on me as the brilliant backdrop to the beginning of my professional life and early adulthood, so it's always a pleasure to reminisce and share information about this city I love. To me, this article reads like a little valentine to London's culinary culture, and I hope you savor it too.

Excerpt below from 6/2/22 Virtuoso article by Amy Merrick can be found HERE.

There's nowhere better to be in London at 10 a.m. than the Regency Cafe on the corner of Regency and Page streets in Westminster. You don’t need me to tell you it’s special, though. The ever-present line of hungry Londoners winding through its 1946 ivory-tiled interior says it all. Red gingham café curtains hang in big glass windows, and a glossy, deco sign spells out the restaurant’s name. Parked black taxis dot the surrounding blocks: The drivers are queuing up for breakfast along with the rest of the city. Art students wait alongside businesspeople, tattooed construction workers, and tweedy old-timers with caps and canes.

Nobody comes to London for the food, but when you’re here, it sure makes it easy to stay. The city’s peculiar culinary charms reveal themselves slowly, corner by corner, institution by institution, winding back the clock on its staggering 2,000-year history. These places aren’t suspended in aspic, catering to nostalgia alone, but are instead thriving hubs of food and life and flavor that have managed, tooth and nail, to continue to serve a city that has, from its earliest days, flung itself toward the future. Seeking them out helps reveal just what makes a classic worthy of its reputation, and what fuels a distinctly British establishment. Food alone does not a restaurant make.

The long line at the Regency Cafe moves fast. A few minutes’ wait and you’ll find yourself at the counter, finally able to read the old-fashioned red felt menu board just moments before it’s time to order. In the frenzy of the midmorning rush, the breakfast menu is completely overwhelming in its frank simplicity. A dozen different combinations are listed from a dozen ingredients: eggs, bacon, sausage, chips, mushrooms, tomatoes, baked beans, black pudding, hash browns, toast, buttered bread, and the unmistakably British bubble and squeak, a savory fried pancake made from cabbage and mashed potatoes. The sandwich menu is equally prosaic.

The food is hearty, cheap, hot, and delicious – and tastes just like you imagine it will, but better, because it’s nearly all fried, then lashed with a mysteriously sweet and savory, vinegary sauce called, simply, “brown sauce.” Best to admit now: You won’t be needing lunch. A whirl around the galleries of the Tate Britain a few blocks away always helps walk it off.

If I ever need to cheer myself up, I’ll turn the dial to the fancy-foods spectrum: Fortnum & Mason department store on Piccadilly, founded in 1707, with a royal warrant as the queen’s grocer. I’m not alone in this particular pick-me-up, but a waltz through its minty-green arched doorway and six floors of plush red carpet and crystal chandeliers never fails to astonish me. In addition to exceedingly refined groceries, there’s a tea salon, flower shop, wine cellar, butcher, bakery, and an entire floor chiefly devoted to fine china and tea accessories.

When Fortnum’s was established, Britain’s empire was unmatched, and London was the crossroads of the world. Even now, porters in pinstripe trousers and tailcoats whiz through the crowds to fetch provisions to fill their famed wicker hampers. Looking for marmalade? There are 35 varieties to choose from, with flavors such as lemon chamomile or blood orange and rose petal. Prefer some honey? They stock jars sourced from almost every county in England. The magic is that even the fanciest jar feels accessible, a bounty on offer, and even a ten-pound note will get you a treat.

The chocolate counter puts me in mind of a Nancy Mitford novel: rows of scented rose and violet creams with candied petals, tucked into a telltale turquoise box, more glamorous to me than anything from Tiffany’s. Load up a picnic basket with potted Stilton, gherkins, Welsh rarebit, waxed cheddar, Scotch eggs, sausage rolls, and cold-smoked chicken, and bam, you’re off to the races – or at the very least, St James’s Park, which is just a stone’s throw away, at the very foot of Buckingham Palace.

With the deeply British penchant for booze, libations are nonnegotiable. A stop at nearby Berry Bros. & Rudd, a fine-wine-and-spirits merchant founded in 1698, makes Fortnum’s look like a youthful upstart. Still trading from its original black-arched, wood-paneled premises on St James’s Street, the shop supplies the Prince of Wales with wine. Vaulted brick cellars offer winetastings, and the shelves hold classic vintages as well as surprises, such as British bubbly from Hampshire.

For decades, the best-selling offering has been the house-label Good Ordinary Claret, which speaks volumes about England’s longing for comfort and ease.

Inching eastward toward Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the street names tell another tale. In the same neighborhood as Fishmongers’ Hall, Fleet Place, Ropemaker Street, Ship Tavern Passage, and Whalebone Court, Sweetings, a classic seafood restaurant, first caught my eye the old-fashioned way: with a massive pile of gorgeous, fresh oysters heaped on ice in the front window. They enticed me as they have Londoners since 1889.

Sweetings is undeniably a special-occasion spot, but an unfussy one, with tall ceilings and utilitarian counter seating throughout, save for a small white-tableclothed dining room at the rear. Open only for lunch, it draws a mixed bunch. Navy-blue suits fill stools, while fashionable friends mingle over the signature Black Velvet cocktail, a heady mixture of Guinness and Champagne, served in a pewter tankard. After that, all bets are off: bacon-wrapped scallops, shrimp cocktail served in a silver footed dish, and half a dozen oysters – the briniest of my life – from Mersea Island off the Essex coast, shells still sporting fresh seaweed, studded with barnacles.

The bill of fare is straightforward and uncomplicated, like so much of the cozy British food that stands the test of time: Dover sole; fish pie topped with mashed potatoes; a battered haddock fillet, with chips, peas, and crunchy, saline samphire (known stateside as sea beans) available on the side. Sticky toffee pudding and a small jug of warm custard fill any remaining gaps.

There’s an immediacy to even the highest-quality food in these London institutions – a no-nonsense simplicity that comes as a relief, a “what you order is what you get” sense of comfort that all the newness in the world can’t conjure up. After all, the spots we return to time and time again, generation after generation, are the ones that make us feel at ease and provide space for life to unfold at the table. These places aren’t reinventing the wheel, and I, for one, am all for it. The wheel has been rolling successfully here in London for quite some time.

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