Some of my favourite restaurants in London also happen to be some of the top players for al fresco dining in London. Whether it’s a generous outdoor decking area overlooking the docks at Dock Kitchen, or a few modest tables cobbled together on the pavement outside of Morito, the summer may be short in London, but we certainly know how to make it pack a punch.
The River Café
What links these restaurants together apart from their al fresco offering is their rusticity, and their familial, casual vibe, that resonates very much with my own cooking style.
Even a restaurant as famous and famously expensive as the River Café has family rooted in its heart – they’re known for how long their staff stay for – taking the whole team on field trips to Italy, their chief inspiration, and making proper “family dinner”, staff lunch, before service, instead of just reworking bits of leftovers.
And this passion for doing things the right way, this commitment to their craft, really comes across in the food.
In the summer months, lunch or dinner on their Thames-side terrace is memory-making territory – going from course to course and experiencing their distinctive food style, which might be summed up as an English perspective on Italian food.
English, but in a very different way, is The Eagle on Farringdon Road, known as the “granddaddy” of gastropubs.
The gastropub may now seem like a dated term, but The Eagle was the first and is still going strong.
A pub, through and through, that happens to do really exceptional, fuss-free Mediterranean food, everyday The Eagle writes its specials (5 or 6 of them) on a blackboard, matter-of-factly.
Their steak sandwich, modelled on the Portuguese bifa ana, is legendary – a rump steak marinated in red wine, onions and garlic and served in a crusty white roll with chimichurri, a sauce of oregano, olive oil, red wine vinegar and chilli, is simple, delicious, and wonderfully messy.
Image credit: Quo Vadis, illustration by John Broadley
Soho stalwart Quo Vadis also falls firmly into my favourites for the al fresco dining in London category. With oodles of personality thanks to head chef Jeremy Lee, it’s quite a unique dining experience, with a tremendous amount of style and elegance.
I love that slightly old-school recherché feel about the place, found in dishes like their kickshaws (fried pastry parcels filled with chicken) – asleep on London menus for centuries until Jeremy brought them about again.
Quo Vadis’s Dean Street al fresco space is like a window onto Soho, and on a sunny day pairs perfectly well with their utterly seasonal menu.
Moving swiftly onto Spain (or round the corner to Frith Street), we find ourselves at Barrafina – a tapas restaurant I’ve been frequenting for 8 years.
Suckling pig, fresh fish delivered on the day, fino, the best croquettas I’ve ever had, sun splashing onto the al fresco tables – what’s not to like?
I’ll always remember bringing my aunt and uncle to Barrafina, who lived in Spain for yeard, and having all expectations of what a Spanish restaurant could be in London totally surpassed.
Based around ‘a place, a book, an idea or whatever grabs [their] fancy’, Stevie Parle’s internationally informed set menus for sharing make the Dock Kitchen a real destination.
In the River Café style, the Dock Kitchen’s team travels the world in search of inspiration, and then passionately, and with a real sense of generosity, shares this with the customer.
With the aforementioned large open deck space as an added asset, on a warm day, close your eyes and you could be in Fiji, Marrakesh, the French Riviera, or wherever else Stevie and the team feel like taking you.
Moro & Morito
River Café alumni Sam & Sam Clark are the minds (and hands) behind one of my favourite restaurants and spots for al fresco dining in London, Moro.
The Sams’ own, compelling blend of Spanish and North African, the food is captivating – with exotic ingredients like orange blossom, rosewater, saffron and sumac, forever changing, and delivered with a somewhat foreign sense of real humility.
Morito, too, is next door and much the same – serving tapas and mezze-style food. I would visit either for the bread alone – homemade, chewy and sour with a dark crust, which seems to constantly improve.
Hot, salty, sour, sweet Thai food cooked on a wood and charcoal-fired grill – bold seems an understatement for the “in-yer-face” flavour found at Som Saa in Climpson’s Arch, Hackney.
A pleasant contrast is achieved (though I doubt designed) through the punchy flavour and seemingly humble operation; with its corrugated iron setting cheered up with fairy lights, and orders taken and tracked on pen and paper.
When I visited, we were confined indoors (and, indeed, also to a two and a half hour wait), though now Som Saa have opened up outside for seating, which should further aid their laid-back holiday-style vibe that I detected on my last visit (and perhaps that weary wait as well…).
Newman Street Tavern
Serving delicious, honest food all day, with a seasonally focused menu from which I could eat everything – literally – is Newman Street Tavern in the heart of Fitzrovia.
Textbook fish and chips, with fish that comes from day-boats, the best Sunday lunch, breakfasts, and a healthy brunch exclusively for one of London’s top spinning cliques, head chef Peter Weeden does crowd-pleasing seasonal fare very, very well.
They have a few tables outside, but to try something different perhaps grab a lunch roll from their new hole-in-the-wall take-away service. A two-hour slow-roast Galloway beef roll with kohlrabi, apple and caraway slaw, or hand-picked Devon crab with fennel and radish, and a homemade cocktail sauce, to take to Soho Square? Not too shabby at all.
Created by Phil Owens & Media for Bespoke Menu Design