Whenever I travel the first thing I think about is what I’m going to eat at my destination. You may assume that beer comes before that, but you’d be wrong. Good food excites me just as much as beer and eating isn’t cheating in this town.
A recent trip to Leeds provided me with a good example of this. I’m always excited about an opportunity to dine at one of my favourite UK restaurants, Bundobust. Quite often I’ll head straight to this Yorkshire mainstay the moment I alight at the station, such is the joy I take from an opportunity to eat there.
At Bundobust they serve immaculate Gujurati-style Indian food. Think chaat with layers of crisp pastry interwoven with rich yogurt, and sharp, tangy tamarind relish, endorphin-triggeringly spiced bhajis and grilled-to-perfection paneer and mushroom kebabs dressed in chilli sauce and spinach chutney. I can’t get enough, but don’t just take my word for it—food critic Jay Rayner gushed about the chain when he visited its Manchester branch back in 2017.
As is often the case with the beer I drink, my enthusiasm for restaurants like Bundobust that are ever-so-slightly out of everyday reach makes them all the more appealing. This doesn’t give me the opportunity to take them for granted in the same way as I might with a preferred spot at home in London.
I also know that visiting London can be a minefield of choice for out-of-towners. There’s so much to see and do here, finding a spot to relax and refuel with some great food can all too often be an afterthought.
With this in mind I’ve put together a shortlist of some of my favourite places to eat that I think beer lovers will enjoy. Places that—importantly in this context—aren’t pubs. We know pubs are great and often their food can be too! However, there are some stunning restaurants in this town that are increasingly dedicated towards ensuring that their beer offering is on par with the dishes they serve. And these are some of the best.
Beer and Burger/Bleecker Burger
The easiest way to judge the food in any city is by the quality of its burger. Sadly in London, most burgers are trash and you’d honestly be better off hitting McDonald’s. Thankfully however, things are changing somewhat.
In fact they’re changing so much that I can’t pick between my two favourite burger purveyors in town. They both offer a slightly different experience, with an incredibly delicious burger at the focal point of this.
Bleecker has evolved from a simple burger van to having a few locations around town. My favourite of which is a toss up between the bustling counter at Spitalfields Market or the relative peace found at its restaurant just outside Victoria station. You need to order the double cheeseburger (because the greater the surface area of meat, the greater the deliciousness) and a side of angry fries. A pint of Kernel or Brew By Numbers IPA on tap is the perfect accompaniment. Do not speak to anyone or look at your phone while you enjoy this moment.
Beer and Burger have created an environment that should be all the more familiar to beer fans: a multi-tap wall, booth seating and plenty of neon. They’ve recently followed up their original Willesden and Dalston locations with a much larger and more ambitious project in Kings Cross. Where at Bleecker the burger is all about the patty, here it’s about sauce and meat juices oozing down your wrists as you eat the generously sized portion as quickly as humanly possible. Animal style, you might say. And as for beer, they’ve got 20 taps and about 150 bottles and cans, so take your pick, I’m not your mum.
What’s better than Thai food? The kind that’s cooked over hot coals, and is so well-spiced that it makes your eyeballs sweat while simultaneously leaving you in raptures. And that’s the kind of food you can expect at Shoreditch’s Smoking Goat.
I’m talking deep fried chicken wings coated in an almost resinous helping of umami-rich fish sauce and chargrilled mussels the size of your fist dripping in a hot lemongrass, coconut and chilli broth. The kind of broth that hurts but tastes so good you won’t care. And there’s great beer to drink if you can make it past the well thought out list of wines and cocktails. Beavertown Neck Oil will do, but you’re probably better off taking a friend and splitting a bottle of Burning Sky Cuvée.
Once described to me as a “Hawksmoor for everyday,” Blacklock is a meat-lovers paradise. And one that won’t break the bank. At each of this small chain’s three locations they specialise in pork and lamb chops along with various cuts of beef. I recommend going “all-in” where they serve you all of these atop flatbreads on a massive platter. The highlight being enjoying the dripping soaked bread washed down with a beer or two.
Your choice of beer at Blacklock should be a simple-ish one too. It’s a bit of a secret that these lucky devils have first dibs on pours from Harbour’s Hinterlands wild and sour beer project, headed up by former Redchurch Urban Farmhouse brewer James Rylance. Trust me when I say the cherry sour provides you with a harmonious combination of tart and salt when paired with the pigs head on toast.
Four Hundred Rabbits
Let’s not beat around the bush here, pizza is the food of the gods themselves. This is my guide to pairing beer with pizza: 1) get a pizza, 2) get a beer. Congratulations you are now a beer and food pairing genius and your book deal with Penguin is in the post.
But seriously, 400 Rabbits gets beer and pizza spot on. From beautifully simple toppings, to more adventurous slices like chipotle rolled goats cheese, rhubarb and piquillo peppers, they have a range to satisfy almost anyone. The beer follows suit, with a rotating menu made up of delicious beers like Lost and Grounded Keller Pils and DEYA Steady Rolling Man. A visit is the perfect excuse to begin your exploration of South London’s booming beer scene.
[Disclosure: I hosted a beer and food pairing event with Four Hundred Rabbits on behalf of Good Beer Hunting last year.]
This Michelin-starred institution founded by Trevor Gulliver and Fergus Henderson in 1994 not only jump started London’s gastronomic revolution but shook the entire culinary world. And they achieved this without publishing one hyperbolic press release, or throwing a single kitten out of a helicopter.
But what can be said about St. John that hasn’t been said a hundred times already? Perhaps that, despite being known for its nose-to-tail menu and tremendous selection of wines and spirits, is that this is a restaurant that takes its beer selection far more seriously than most. On the bar you’ll find beers from Siren, Wild Beer Co, Thornbridge and many more, including some expertly cellared cask ale. What could be better with your mandatory order of bone marrow and parsley salad? Nothing, that’s what.
Chef Tim Anderson is a goddamn hero. Why? Because he’s been talking about the joys of matching great beer and food since he won some TV chef thing in 2011 and that was a big deal apparently. But seriously, Nanban is a wonderful restaurant—hell I’m going to go as far as saying that it’s the London equivalent of somewhere like Bundobust, because unlike most restaurants it’s run by someone who legitimately gives a shit about great beer. And in 2019 people like this in the food business are still few and far between.
The ramen here is good, and not because it’s conventional—but because it’s fucking weird man. My go-to here is either the face melting curry goat ramen or the so-intense-you’ll-be-burping-garlic-for-weeks leopard tsukemen, so get both. Then make sure you get some chicken karaage for good measure and wash it all down with a Pressure Drop Nanban Kanpai yuzu IPA. But be quick. Rumour has it that it’s about to be dropped so the brewery has the capacity to crank out more DDH IPAs. For shame.
If you’re feeling f a n c y then why not check out London’s latest Indian food sensation, Brigadiers. Honestly, the fact that the beer world isn’t making fuss about a restaurant stocking great beer with 32 taps is a little baffling. That’s more than most beer bars in town! The reason is because sadly, London’s beer and food worlds still, for the most part, occupy different universes.
Perhaps though, spots like Brigadiers will be the ones to change that. Sure, it’s not cheap, but the chops are to die for and even better when smashing back a jar of Siren Soundwave or Thornbridge Lukas while you enjoy them. Restaurants that claim to be serious about serving good beer could learn a thing or two from a visit to Brigadiers.
Market Halls Victoria
What’s better than visiting a restaurant with an exceptional beer selection? Visiting a food court hosting 11 different traders, many of which already have an exceptional restaurant pedigree where there is also an excellent beer selection, of course! I’m talking the likes of Koya Bar, The Marksman, Roti King and Monty’s Deli. Market Halls presents visitors to Victoria with an opportunity to taste dishes from some of the finest restaurateurs in town and get a decent pint in the process. Often without waiting for a reservation or queuing down some rainy Soho backstreet for needless hours.
Enjoy, perhaps, a pint of Magic Rock Saucery, or the Market Helles, brewed by the folks at Harbour. And, due to the fact there’s literally no other reason to visit Victoria other than catch a train, you can go and eat a Bleecker Burger when you’re done. Because honestly, why wouldn’t you?
This Clapton wine bar is a spot that any die-hard beer lover should visit at least once. Why? Because of two reasons. Firstly because I swear that if you’re into your saisons and funky ales you’ll find a wine that’ll alter your expectations of what good wine can taste like for good.
The other is because you’ll receive the kind of service you want when you’re dropping £7.50 on a third of imported New York juice but don’t receive. Instead of queuing three deep at a crowded bar you get to sit at AN ACTUAL TABLE and have a CONVERSATION with someone about the flavour of what’s being poured into your glass, and maybe who made it. This is the kind of added value that’s so simple to create that’s missing from so many specialist craft beer bars at the moment.
And the food! The kitchen usually only opens in the evenings from Thursday through to Sunday, but the resident chef—currently Anna Tobias formerly of The River Cafe—produces well thought out range of small plates that pair perfectly with what’s in your glass. Beer could learn a lot from places like P. Franco. Let’s hope it does.