New Year resolutions — what in any other month would just be called “good intentions” — are too often equally admirable and anaemic. Self-improvement is all very well, but does it have to be such a slog?
Beginning again, going for runs, eating a little better and taking it easy on the drink should be saved for the haze and heat of summer, when it’s easy to head out into the blissful breeze and stick to white fish in drizzles of oil. January — especially this one, with its seemingly endless run of frostbitten mornings and gnashing nights — is for curling up by pub fires, for midweek wine, for taking refuge in restaurants that specialise in comfort.
Such places are not places of mid-century cool and slight portions and racing towards the bill. They are warming, cheeful operations, ones always offering another drink and explaining that another half-an-hour out isn’t going to kill you and besides, you’re an adult now.
Fun is no excuse for sloppiness, though. Below are nine of our favourites where expertise is in ready supply, but the instinct to show it off is hidden behind a preference for generosity in great supply. What marks them all is brilliance in the kitchen and a dedication to conviviality among the staff. These are places for lingering in, so do.
There is indulgence, and then there is Otto’s. An old-school French restaurant might seem an unlikely place to be at the vanguard of London’s restaurant scene but in its way, it is; not only has it revived pressed duck and pigeon — now served at the Ritz — but its critically-adored approach to spectacle seems to caught on at places across the capital. Owner Otto Tepasse and his team are always pouring Champagne, carving at the table, and setting things alight (usually not the customers). The food, which is done with ever-increasing expertise, is indulgent stuff, usually cooked with about seven types of booze, but there is art and skill in it all, too. Hangovers may occur; a sense of wonder almost certainly will.
182 Grays Inn Road, WC1X 8EW, ottos-restaurant.com
Fish Wings & Tings
Anybody who has rolled into Brixton Market for a portion of codfish fritters at Fish Wings & Tings will know of the restaurant’s prowess in cultivating wicked behaviour. Salty fritters — and a mound of hot, guava-soaked wings, by the way — pair so tenderly with one of owner Brian Danclair’s famous rum punches (Danclair pictured above), made generously with Wray and Nephew overproof rum. Experts will move onto rum and Ting, more salacious still, and a sure-fire vanguard in combatting the unrelenting nonsense that is Dry January.
3 Granville Arcade, Coldharbour Lane, SW9 8PR, fishwingsandtings.com
Despite its fine cooking, Andrew Edmunds — the place, not the much-missed proprietor — has long had a reputation for a louche sense of the Bohemian, and for its top tier wine list. It is, as I’ve written elsewhere, “a restaurant of first dates, of anniversaries, of affairs”. It offers atmosphere by the carafe, a tremendous sense of fun and some expert cooking, the kind of French bistro thing that is being deployed to devastating effect at Racine. But it is the wine that leads guests gleefully astray: a list of keenly chosen vintages, priced with kindness, suggested with sideways smiles that are hard to ignore. A haven, a heaven.
46 Lexington Street, W1F 0LP, andrewedmunds.com
Noble Rot Lamb’s Conduit
The sophisticated confines of Noble Rot need not deter those who have designs on inebriation. Visitors who are as much about wine as food should sit in the bar in lieu of the dining room, because there they will find snacks and small plates — yes, small plates, relax — which sit so comfortably alongside any number of lesser-known vintages. The point is, Noble Rot appears and begins timidly but is perfectly set up for a dose of delirium.
51 Lamb’s Conduit Street, WC1N 3NB, noblerot.co.uk
Though closed for a refit — the Standard understands it will return later in the year — L’Escargot is one for the list. With its origins tailing back to the last days of the 19th century, it is perhaps not such a suprise Brian Clivas’s restaurant is charmingly old world. All these years later, it still glitters, as golden and lovely as Champagne. There is a winking sense of fun here among the upscale surrounds; between the courses of grand Parisian brasserie cooking, between the slices of fillet steak slathered with truffle and foie gras, there is soft, whispered encouragement to order another round, to have a bone-dry martini before indulging with fine wines from the old houses. Come smart and slowly, joyfully, unravel.
48 Greek Street, W1D 4EF, lescargot.co.uk
St John Bread and Wine
St John’s casual sister on Commercial Road is a regular outpost to so many faces of the food world. But don’t be put off, because there are few better venues for one of those feted long lunches, which rattle one’s senses and are always a favourable idea. The space the restaurant affords, cavernous and relaxing as it is, unremittingly commands necessary excess. Consider a plate of smoked sprats, another of ox tongue in caper sauce, and there is nothing left to do but drink. Remember also to order the sorbet in vodka: one of London’s very best desserts.
94-96 Commercial Street, E1 6LZ, stjohnrestaurant.com
JKS opened its latest restaurant at the end of last year, a homage to Bangkok’s lively Chinatown bars. Diners who complain of proper heat should stay away; the more enjoyable among the population might head upstairs for a game of pool over a glass or two of Jelly Bia, an inviting and frozen blend of ginger, calamansi, and Singha beer. After, any number of excellent dishes and a tower of lager will be the proposition. And yes, lager towers are easily refilled.
30 Rupert Street, W1D 6DL, speedboatbar.co.uk
Drink enough at Darby’s and the body of water that drifts between two towering residential blocks in Stockwell will become more impressive still. It’s a feat of engineering, isn’t it, the Sky Pool? And below it, tucked away in Embassy Gardens, is something of an oasis: a ludicrously well put together restaurant that wants nothing more than to send Guinness, champagne and oysters any which way. Preferably into the mouths of interesting people.
3 Viaduct Gardens, SW11 7AY, darbys-london.com
Upstairs at the French House
Gastro-pub? Don’t even try it. The French is the faintly aristocratic one of Soho’s shaggy, shambling pubs; there is a certain gentile touch to the whole thing. The restaurant, where Neil Borthwick is at the helm, is a rattling room where food changes daily but brilliance is a given. Oysters and confit garlic might come to start, aligot is often on as a side, mains usually include brill or perhaps a skate wing, or perhaps ox cheek. The wine list is concise but careful; they always seem to have Fernet Branca around. The room, with its staring windows and countless paintings, is one to spend hours in; fortunately — and to their eternal credit — no-one seems in any hurry to shoo anyone away. Afterwards, the pub downstairs, for that final half.
49 Dean Street, W1D 5BG, frenchhousesoho.com