Ten restaurants to visit in 2018
Tim Magee travels the world, eating for a living. Here are some of his favourite restaurants, from Sydney to Seasalter
Bennelong in the Sydney Opera House: ‘Worth travelling to the other side of the globe for’
My first stop in Paris is always to eat bacon and cabbage. Choucroute in Brasserie Bofinger or Lipp. In Lipp the staff look like an undertakers’ retirement party, semi-embalmed septuagenarians to a man and without a laughter line between them. The room is good, the food ok and the service awful. I love everything about it.
I’m not ignorant of destination dining or what makes a great restaurant. I can make a fair fist in these pages to explain why the best food is in Beirut or Tokyo. Why I think Noma is the most influential restaurant in the world and what will be copied from its new iteration. Why El Celler de Can Roca has disimproved over my last three visits and is still serving too much food.
How Paris’s Le Grand Vefour or Arzak in San Sebastian need to move forward. How exactly Alain Ducasse ruined my favourite haunt in Paris, and the Eiffel Tower. Why fine dining is back but different, or why Copenhagen’s Geranium might be the perfect restaurant on paper but I could care less about going back.
What does all of that mean? Nothing, it’s just an opinion. Twenty years of being this hungry and the more I know about food the less I know. I have no idea what the best restaurant is - nobody does.
My actual favourite restaurant is a secret. A tiny chicken place where you sit on plastic garden furniture. A place that doesn’t have a website, or any notion of animal husbandry or refrigeration. It will remain a secret.
I started putting this list together in London – a working week, like most of mine, tram-lined by tongue and tummy. If you have a favourite book, you haven’t read enough. The songs you love most depend on circumstance and mood. Restaurants are the same – there are always more to know, to revisit, to love.
Here are my top 10 favourite restaurants. For now.
A while ago, this list would have been heavy with London, probably weighted by my lunch in Bibendum. Bibendum is name of the Michelin man, it’s in Michelin House, so no pressure then for London and Lyonnaise - Londonaise - chef Claude Bosi.
I had the set lunch menu and added the tripe and a cep vacherin. It was outstanding, the cod Grenobloise a contender for dish of the year. For the first time in a long time this stunner - the halls, loos and ante rooms are even prettier than the restaurant with its stained glass, those posters, the twirly ironwork and tiles - has the food to match the space and the weight of its name.
The next day, I ate at the Quality Chophouse, where the food is as delicious - those confit spuds, that wine list - as it is precise, and the Clove Club, which is good enough to make every list too, and it does.
But one family of restaurants goes beyond lists or trends to do something that no other does for me - creating a place where I would eat every single week. That is Barrafina.
The Adelaide Street branch is lovely - they all are - but I first fell hard for this crowd in Frith Street, now moved and semi-married to the brilliant Quo Vadis around the corner.
The last time, and I go every time I am in London, I started and finished my lunch with their croquettes, with all I could manage in between, including the mandatory classic tortilla.
Beco Cabaret, Lisbon
Some towns have enough edible coordinates mapped by a single restaurateur to show you a good time, every time. Dine exclusively with April Bloomfield in New York, Nancy Silverton in LA or Christian Puglisi in Copenhagen and you’ll do great. Dine solely at José Avillez places in Lisbon and you are on to something extraordinary.
Avillez, a warm generous chef from Cascais, is best known for Belcanto, his fancy two-star that was the prize in the stable, until very recently.
Bairro do Avillez is a dinky Portuguese Eataly with real heart. That heart, Beco, is hidden behind a secret door that you’d walk past during the day. At night though, an out of place, top-hatted chap is the Mr. Tumnus to an all-singing, all-dancing show with fishnet stockings and tableside magic tricks all tightly fastened together by sensational two-star food.
Lisbon is on everyone’s list today. I’m not sure if that is a good thing. There may be custard tarts in Spar any day now, but Beco Cabaret is Portuguese food’s coming out party, and it is glorious.
The Sportsman, Kent
Years ago, teased by the lush reviews that Tom Kerridge’s pub’s grub was getting, I tried The Hand & Flowers. The food was smashing, but this was less a pub and more a swish restaurant in a pub.
After that lunch, I jumped on the train to Paris. Dublin to London and the Eurostar to Paris was a well trodden road for me, the eventual reason usually a restaurant that begins with A - Arpège, Astrance, Allard.
Except, pelting across the flats of south-east England in my smugness, I was blithely missing that island’s best restaurant.
The Sportsman, on a strip of estuary called Seasalter, really does look like a pub. Only a lick of paint and fresh flowers stop it from looking like a dodgy pub. You have to do a double-take to make sure they aren’t missing a fruit machine.
Except nothing is missing here. That is the whole point of The Sportsman. Stephen Harris’s cooking is about restraint - about keeping things off the plate. What remains is as close to perfection in cooking as I have seen. It’s not simple, and it takes a lifetime of knowledge and confidence to leave out what he does.
All new chefs should go to The Sportsman. The wilder the weather, the more compelling Seasalter is.
Eggs, toast soldiers and Champagne under a posh blanket rail-side at Searcys in St. Pancras station. Lunch in The Sportsman before boarding again. Roast bresse chicken in a copper pot somewhere in Paris for your supper - that is a proper day out.
There are some dining rooms that can bump your reservation from a two to a three - a static third party that can hold your gaze through dinner so completely, that you hardly remember what you ate, or who you dined with.
One such was the late Four Seasons in New York. The food wasn’t great, but it was like dining in season one of Mad Men. And usually with as many martinis. It’s The Grill and The Pool now and in new, capable hands, the talk of that town again. I am there next month, and I’ll be gutted if it is just the food that I remember.
Pre-theatre at Bennelong in the Sydney Opera House is worth travelling to the other side of the globe for. Take a table with your back to the copper bar and watch the sun slip down over Sydney. It is more spectacular than any show in the Opera House, or anywhere else on earth.
Russ & Daughters, New York
If a week is a long time in politics, it’s a lifetime in restaurant openings in New York. There is one newish room for an old idea that is unmissable though, and from the day it opened, it was hard to imagine New York City without Russ & Daughters Café.
On the Lower East Side, the café is minutes from the century-old Russ and Daughters deli, a living museum to local food culture. The café looks like a HD Hopper painting and feels like an Art Deco cruise liner staffed by real smiles in stiff whites.
It’s rammed with that most important food element of a great restaurant - the stuff you can’t make at home. The rye and the pick ‘n’ mix of smoked and pickled fish, the chilled earthy borscht, a cold soup made for cold weather, and the little knishes stuffed with potatoes and caramelised onions. Even just reading the menu aloud makes you feel more local.
FIVE MORE TO TRY
There are sous vide machines for sale in Aldi. Some brave soul should tell Victor Arguinzoniz. Arguinzoniz oversees a kitchen range of pulleys and levers and racks, fuelled by the three types of fresh charcoal he makes each day, to grill, smoke and char local things to a level that makes Extebarri one of the world’s most relevant restaurants.
The Fat Duck
The room is lame, but if paying big money for the most theatrical, delicious food while laughing your head off over dinner and exclaiming about flavours, textures and temperatures is your thing, then the Duck is your only man.
In a terraced residential area in Copenhagen, yet home to the best mozzarella that Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food has tasted, Baest shouldn’t make any sense. The mozzarella is that good and the pizza the best I’ve had.
Some of us dream of running away to the sun to set up a restaurant. The easy life. Nothing was easy for Erik and Maya Henry who escaped from New York to the Yucatán peninsula. No electricity, no roof, the tarantulas and a jungle that’s always trying to take the restaurant back. Now Hartwood’s story, food and fires are beacons that have drawn New Yorkers and half the food world to this tiny strip of Tulum.
Republique is not LA’s best restaurant, but it is the best example of the misconception of what the hottest new food city in America is about. We assume that Angelenos are made of egg whites and wheat grass, but actually they are obsessed with this new-fangled trend, bread.
In Republique you can watch in awe as skinny locals wait patiently for the signature starter of a fresh baguette with cold butter and lamb gravy.