On the one hand, it might seem a little crazy to be putting together our annual Hot Dinners Awards - a sort of 'fiddling while Rome burns' exercise. But given the year that restaurants have had, we want to commend those who've gone above and beyond this year to show us hospitality at its best.
Best new restaurant of 2020 - Sollip
The opening of this Bermondsey restaurant really was a triumph over adversity. An independent business, set up by a husband and wife team with their family roots in Korea but their professional careers in London, they opened briefly before Lockdown 1.0 and closed again before almost anyone had noticed. We say ‘almost’ - because Sollip came to our attention when chef Pierre Koffman (with whom chef Woongchul Park had worked with at The Berkeley) Instagrammed about his amazing meal there. When we finally got to eat there after Lockdown it was clear that Woongchul and his wife - super talented pastry chef Bomee Ki - were bringing something genuinely new to the London restaurant scene. Our meal there still stands as a highlight of an incredibly tough year. You should go.
Honourable mention - Fallow: When this nomadic supperclub turned up at the rotating residency space of 10 Heddon Street there were only supposed to be there for 12 weeks. With news that they’ve just extended that tenure till March and a slew of great reviews under their belts Fallow has set down roots now - with fans returning again and again for their sustainable and largely plant-focused menu.
Best use of a deep-fat fryer - Chuku's
Chuku's was one of the last meals we had before we plunged into Lockdown 1.0 and we held onto that happy memory for many a month. They graduated from supperclub and pop-up to this permanent Tottenham location, winning many fans upon the way. We enjoyed all of our meal there, but special mention goes to their ojojo - water yam and smoked mackerel croquettes with a dash of scotch bonnet jam on the side. We love a good croquette and since deep frying was a luxury over lockdown, we realised just how much we missed these. Special mention also goes to Chuku's wonderful chicken wings.
Honourable mention - Dak twigim sando at Jae. Don’t make the mistake we did and order this to share with anyone else. Jay Morjaria’s fried chicken sandwich with curry mayo needs to be fully appreciated in its entirety.
Best looking restaurant - Maison Francois
Maison Francois (Mayfair)
Designer John Whelan has spent much of the past few years commuting on Eurostar, endeavouring to restore Parisian brasseries to their former glory. But back here in London, he helped transform the old Greens site in St James into this glorious two-storey space. A homage to Euro brasseries that also celebrates the modernity of the space, it is austerely beautiful. You’ll almost be too happy gawping at the architectural details to enjoy that oeuf en gelee. Almost.
Honourable mentions: Carpentry nuts will go crazy for Pennsylvanian craftswoman Mira Nakashima’s furnishings at the Connaught Grill, while the earthy tones of the dining room at Akoko echoes the restaurant’s amazing ceramics collection. Over in Belgravia, Pantechnicon brought an old building back to life with nods to both Japanese and Nordic design.
Best scene - Noble Rot Soho
Surveying the happy diners at Noble Rot Soho, we couldn’t have imagined anyone else making a better job of taking on the iconic Gay Hussar site. There are those two lovely tables tucked in beside the door, perfect for bubbles and this catwalk shaped room has always leant itself to making an entrance. But don’t worry, if you're sitting in a seat with your back to the room, you can still check everyone out with those artfully placed mirrors. Even the room upstairs with its different, members club vibe, is a total scene.
Honourable mention - Joy at Portobello. As the name says, Stevie Parle and his team are dishing out plenty of happiness at his return to his old digs at the Portobello Dock and the addition of new section Spiritland at Joy means there’s plenty more fun to come in 2021.
Favourite dish (in a restaurant) - Townsend
We took way too long to get around to trying this Whitechapel restaurant but when we did, we just had to order this much-hyped dish. It’s a perfect example of why we go out to restaurants - we can’t speak for you but we don’t usually have sweetbreads in our fridge at home. This is a dish of beautiful balance and skill and one that really sang of what’s best in the seasonal British larder. We're trying not to weep into our keyboard as we prepare for who-knows-how-long-more of cooking for ourselves at home...
Honourable mentions - Sicilian red prawn tartare at Wild Tavern. We love a good scarlet prawn at the best of times, but this tartare at new Chelsea restaurant Wild Tavern took that supremely good raw ingredient and, well, made it better. The Tostada at Kol featured seared lamb leg, guajillo mayonnaise, wild herbs and corn crisp and that lamb was just perfect.
Best out-of-town visit - Birch
With so little opportunity to leave town, let alone the country, the opening of Birch just over the other side of the M25 in Hertfordshire felt like a major getaway. They bill it as more of a festival break than a hotel and they really are doing things differently here, from the pottery sessions and spoon whittling to the on-site spinning classes. And then there’s the food - Robin Gill (of The Dairy) has served up a blindingly good restaurant here in the Zebra Riding Club - while all the other bars and cafes here are well worth trying too. This would make a great first trip out of town in 2021.
Honourable mention: Mikro Nisi bar in Zante - enjoying an ice-cold beer at a table that was practically in the Ionian sea would have been lovely at any time, but simply managing to get away this summer at all felt like a particularly successful prison escape.
Best snacks - Jae
Our meal at Jay Morjaria’s long term Dalston residency is still a standout memory of the past year. Tucked into the back of Untitled on Kingsland Road the kitchen here is turning out a series of exquisite small plates. The devilled eggs were a good example; always a must-order dish on when we spot it on menus, at Jae's the stuffing was mixed with amazing kimchi and adorned with a layer of aonori. So good!
Honourable mention: The grilled plantain at William JM Chilila's Akoko comes as part of a trio of snacks at the beginning of the meal and the cashew and peanut covering adds a touch of perfection.
Best counter dining - Behind
Behind (London Fields)
We managed to slip a visit in to Behind in London Fields between Lockdowns 1 & 2 and were so glad we did. Our evening here managed to erase every sad lockdown TV dinner in one fell swoop. Chefs busied themselves creating tiny dishes of wonder in front of us in an evening of pure theatre and we couldn’t have been happier. Sure, it’s not quite the elbow bumping encounter they’d envisaged when they designed this all counter restaurant, but it still works remarkably well under strict Covid rules.
Honourable mentions: For winter they’ve moved to Flatiron Square but our encounter with New York’s Sushi on Jones came at their permanent restaurant in Goods Way by King’s Cross. It’s great value for top class sushi. Mei Mei was practically the first place we ate out at in 2020, braving the cold to bask in the warmth of chef Elizabeth Haigh and her team’s hospitality. The kaya toast was an added bonus.
Best reason to save room for dessert - Cows & Cornflakes at Muse
At Tom Aikens’ new restaurant, tucked away on a Belgravia Mews just an oligarch’s reach from Buckingham Palace, this concoction is plated in front of you at the designated dessert counter downstairs. There’s a hay-scented parfait, cornflake praline, popcorn ice cream along with some malty crumble and it manages to be both incredibly tricksy as well as harking back to simpler times. Clever stuff indeed.
Honourable mentions: The opera cake at Sola. Our return visit to Sola in Soho revealed a restaurant at the top of its game, exemplified by this twist on a classic opera cake with its layers of porcini and salted caramel.
Best moment - going to a restaurant again
When pub landlord Nick Gibson (pictured above - love this pic!) met us at the Drapers Arms in July, after nearly four months at home, with a distanced, masked welcome and a spritz of hand sanitiser we were totally giddy at the prospect of someone else cooking for us. Not only that, someone fixing a cocktail for us, serving us AND doing the bloody washing up. If the two lockdowns we’ve had so far have taught us anything, it’s to never take our restaurants and bars for granted again.
Most transformed area of 2020 - your own home
We saw a lot of our own kitchens
Normally for this category, we give a shout-out to an area that's been the epicentre of great eating during the year. But who could have predicted at the start of 2020 that the place Londoners would be doing most of their eating would be at home?
From the early lockdown days of banana bread recipes and social media sourdough sharing, we ended up with the heady changes that saw London’s most innovative restaurants switch to delivery to save their businesses (and our sanity). A side benefit to this - along with corresponding bank deficit - was the improvement of our crockery and table linen supplies.
Best development - the meal kit
The meal-kit transformed home deliveries
Breaking down London’s favourite dishes into their key components to make it easy to cook at home, the restaurant meal kit was both a huge innovation and a silver lining in the past nine months.
Burger companies were the first to spot the potential - with places like Patty & Bun and Burger & Beyond leading the field, swiftly followed by the likes of Pizza Pilgrims with their frying pan pizza. And then it really got interesting with everything from piping bags to help you construct Adam Handling’s cheese doughnuts to step by step videos to ensure the finished dish was every bit as insta-perfect as that at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Did we get competitive about it? MasterChef, step aside...
Our favourite at-home dishes of 2020
We had the great privilege to try a large number of restaurant home deliveries over the course of the year, so we could give you the scoop on where your next great home meal was coming from during the various lockdowns. Here's how that went.
The tapas delivery from Jose Pizarro remained one of our top at-home kits of the year. From pitch-perfect pan con tomate through to excellent red prawns it all came together really well - backed up by short, wonderful how-to videos from Jose himself. The high point was the at-home version of one of his signatures - Presa iberica. Yes, this just required a little reheating from us but we were VERy proud of the results all the same.
Adam Handling was one of the first to embrace the new meal-kit way of life with one of the early, intricate offerings. While the chicken butter was as good as ever, it was the cheese doughnuts that really impressed us. It allowed us to create these mini balls of wonder with minimum fuss. It was also the dish that made us think that we really needed to invest in a microplane for Parmesan...
This was, blessedly, a straightforward delivery rather than DIY kit. The dish of pressed sushi with seared wagyu topped with ponzu oroshi chives was one of the first at-home deliveries we tried in Lockdown 1.0. And it remains one of favourite from the year.
The Hoppers kit was another triumph, but this dish, in particular, stood out - letting us create one of the more complex dishes from the restaurant but with incredible ease. The sauce mixed with the roasted marrow was nigh-on perfect. And it looks very impressive when plated up, which always helps.
This is one of the Galvin brothers' signature dishes and, looking at it, you'd think this tower of fresh pasta served with a beurre Nantais & pea shoots would be way too hard to construct at home. However, it only needed a little light steaming and warming through of sauce before we were plating it up like a pro.
Often lauded as one of London's very best sandwiches, this at-home creation really showcased why everyone loves this sando from TOU/ TATA Eatery. From the elegantly designed packaging through to simple instructions that delivered the perfect katsu sando - this is absolutely one to order.
This dish required perhaps a finer hand with the piping than we were able to muster, but once annointed with a layer of blackcurrent dust and served with the intense game consomme, it was a stellar dish. Both this pack and James Knappett's box really showed how it was possible to bring the Michelin experience home (particularly when it came to the unboxing moment).
It's hard to put into words how freaking good this was. On the face of it, the dessert looks like a simple chocolate mousse. But, as Jackson explained to us, the simplicity masked the fact that it was actually layers of caramelised white chocolate, and lightly moussed dark chocolate topped with "very good cream" from the Estate Dairy.
Another example of something that you couldn't easily achieve at home - the Passyunk Avenue Philly Cheesesteak kit was an unexpected marvel. From the oh-so-soft roll through to the wafer-thin cuts of steak - and then finishing off with their cheese wiz, this was easily one of the most satisfying results we've had from a kit. Writing this is making us realise we have to order another kit asap...
The ability to order most of London's very best burgers - most importantly including the buns and cheese - has been one of our favourite developments in the delivery world. From the early days of Patty & Bun and Burger & Beyond through to the mighty Bleecker's At-Home kit, this is the only way we'll ever eat burgers at home from now on.
2020's most Instagrammed dish
The Basque cheesecake was everywhere.
Truly 2020 has been the year of the Basque cheesecake. Over the past few months, we’ve made them at home with a series of restaurant kits and enjoyed them in restaurants too. There was the one with extra virgin olive oil and summer berry compote from James Knappett with his Michelin-level delivery service from Kitchen Table. Nieves Barragan’s Sabor version came with a liquorice sauce and there were thyme roasted plums as an accompaniment for the cheesecake at Townsend restaurant in Whitechapel. Even Nigella has a recipe in her new book. Plus, we still really need to try the one from José Pizarro which comes with a heavenly sounding lavender honey.
Alongside the improvement in food delivery, London’s bartenders got in on the game. Innovations in packaging meant they were able to send out individual serves that could fit through your letterbox, as well as larger bottles. From the many, many we’ve tried this year (sorry, liver), the standouts included Trailer Happiness’ Trailer Daiquiri from Drinks Drop, the Moby Dick from Nine Lives Bar and Hawksmoor’s Ultimate Dry Martini. The common thread? Beautifully balanced drinks that exemplified the bar experience brought to your home.
Bong Bong's Manila Kanteen, Piebury Corner and too many more...
Obviously, every restaurant that didn’t reopen its doors in 2020 was a disaster for its own team and customers - and you can see a list of those that didn’t make it below. But, personally, we’re really going to miss the lovely folk at Piebury Corner with their puntastic pies and mash and (along with Matt Hancock, presumably) we’re very sad to hear about the closure of Bong Bong’s in Hackney.
Now we want to hear from you
Yes, it's time for our 2020 readers' vote. Vote for your favourite new restaurant of 2020 right here.
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