Some things we take for granted, never imagining they might one day disappear. It applies to all sorts. Le Gavroche is one. It is the restaurant that eased Britain out of its meat’n’two-veg addiction, that took Londoners’ choice for a meal out past workers’ caff or private club. Opened in 1967 by Albert and Michel Roux, both now gone themselves, the place was a revelation that started a revolution. It became a training ground, too: it taught diners how to eat, and chefs how to cook. When, late on an August Friday, Michel Roux Jr announced it would close come January, the reaction was bewilderment. How could he? But for Roux, the time was right; he’s had a good innings. It is a loss, but one that brings a reminder: nothing lasts forever. Gavroche may be saying goodnight, but there are other institutions to explore and support. hese are they.
The idea is from another time, when a smart block of flats in St John’s Wood could not be complete without its own restaurant. The execution is from that time, too: blue carpets, pink napkins. It's been here since 1982, but the menu is pre-Gavroche: Melba toast, steak Diane, veal schnitzel. Generosity is their calling card and as such, someone is usually celebrating a birthday. Hearing a diner reach three figures is not unusual. Perhaps inexplicably, it captivates.
London is short on Polish restaurants, and yet unlikely South Kensington has two. One is delightful Daquise, white tiles and tablecloths, and then there’s Ognisko, found on the ground floor of the Polish Hearth Club. It is an endless vibe, with a panelled dining room lit in such a way that meals at any time feel as though midnight beckons. Come for dumplings, chicken Kyiv, rabbit, duck. The Martinis rival any elsewhere.
Le Relais de Venise
That the Soho branch closed, despite being in stumbling distance of the French House, is reason enough to safeguard its Marylebone sibling. The thing here is entrecôte — steak served in that magnificent sauce, with a forest of chips alongside. There is not much else to it — reasonable wine, black-and-white clad staff — but nor need there be.
Randall & Aubin
That somewhere specialising in Champagne, oysters and caviar sits next to a sex shop rather neatly sums up Soho. What was once a butcher’s shop — its past does not hide — has, since 1996, been lively with the tap of crab shells and lobster claws on pristine white plates, and with corks going as more white Burgundy is poured. Prices, once high, have today settled. It is as its best for lunch; a piece of fish, a single glass, a swift coffee. Good posters, too.
Old Compton Street is one of London’s loudest, but Laxsa sits quietly behind its ever-splayed green awning. It is a rare thing: a cheap Soho restaurant (consider Poppies up the road, a chippie where curry sauce is £3.50). The food is Malaysian: the namesake laksa, fine, coddling beef rendang, noodles, rices. It is a plain-looking, but the food is beyond remarkable.
Perhaps not London’s first Italian restaurant, but close. The irony here is that Franco’s is perhaps busiest at breakfast, famed for its full English. It is a suitably well-tailored spot for its home at the St James’s end of Jermyn Street, where in the evening, marquee-name Italian dishes are plated — the headline act being the beef Rossini with fois gras and truffle. The crowd that come are in law, or finance, but fortunately staff make up for that.
It has been a year of French bistro dining, of comfort and Gallic classics. A year of triumphs, but pretenders too. Le Colombier, which has held its handsome Chelsea home for quarter of a century, is very much the real deal. It offers time travel, to a France that disappeared perhaps 20 years ago — of simple food and good sauces, île flottantes, an all-French wine list. In the cooking, skill is shown but flamboyance is ignored. You may spot celebrities from another era. Dedicated Francophiles should try L’Escargot and Mon Plaisir, too.