George Orwell once wrote a curious article describing his ideal pub. The qualities of this fictional pub, which he named The Moon Under Water, were both specific and ephemeral. Reflecting his reactionary streak, “its whole architecture and fittings are uncompromisingly Victorian” and it has “draught stout, open fires, cheap meals … motherly barmaids and no radio.” It is also graced with an unexpected garden, from which “children tend to seep into the pub.” The beer is good and served in proper handled pint glasses, pewter tankards, or china mugs, but what recommends it above run-of-the-mill or even other good public-houses is “what people call its ‘atmosphere.’”
The exercise Malcolm Jolley and I have undertaken is not quite such a flight of fancy, but we have approached it in a similar spirit. I can’t speak for Malcolm, but in choosing my ten favourite restaurants, very good-to-excellent food is a given, but not the ultimate criterion; it is the “atmosphere” that really matters. Like Orwell’s pub, each has qualities that make it the sort of place you want to return to again and again, until one day find yourself, without initiation or acknowledgement, a member of that exclusive group known as “regulars.”
None of my choices is a true dive (one or two nearly made the list), but otherwise they range from family restaurants to the sort of establishment that, as Dennis Thatcher used to say, “charges like the Light Brigade.”1Don’t overthink it: it doesn’t make sense, but you know what he meant. I have dined at each of them at least twice, and usually much more often—in two cases, well over a hundred times. Some are nearly perfect neighbourhood restaurants, where you could dine several times in a week and still look forward to returning the next week (I speak from experience); others are the sort of place you might dine once every few years, and each time wonder why you don’t go more often (forgetting, briefly, that you live in another hemisphere). Such is the seduction of a great restaurant.
Top 10 (unranked)2Because the worst people in the world are those professional travel writers who expose hidden gems to popular audiences, ruining them for locals and fortunate foreigners alike, I have not include several of my absolute favourite restaurants. That would be telling.
St John, London
Many years ago, I was blessed to live a few blocks from the original St John. Working as a young lawyer in the City, I often found myself coming home late with no energy to cook, and so the high-ceilinged bar at St John became an extension of my kitchen table. A bone marrow salad, followed by a cold beef heart sandwich or an ox tail pie in bubbling brown gravy under a hot golden crust; a pint of Black Sheep or a couple of glasses of the house label wine; an Eccles cake with a generous wedge of sharp Lancashire cheese with a glass of madeira or a plate of warm madeleines and vintage port. You simply can’t eat better. As for the service, in those days I used to walk the city with my head bowed over a book and I once wandered, oblivious, into a private party for Anthony Bourdain. The staff were kind enough to clear space amid the loud and milling crowd to give me my usual seat at the bar anyway.
2Amys Pizza, Washington, DC
I’ve been eating pizza, usually Neapolitan style, every Friday for 16 years, in whatever city I find myself. The best is still the site of my first pizza night. The bar at 2Amys, with the day’s fresh small plates lined up on the bar top in front of you, the crush of a weekend crowd behind you, the perfect beer and wine selection for casual Italian food, and the pillowy blistered crusted margherita (add capers and fresh-sliced garlic) is my perfect restaurant experience. Not even a pilgrimage to Naples for the original came close.
Pilgrimme, Galiano Island, BC
A Brothers Grimm cabin in the woods, an ambitious—sometimes audacious—use of hyper-local ingredients in beautiful dishes, intimate service, and the feeling that, far from the madding crowd, you have found somewhere truly special. The menu shifts with the seasons, and so does the experience. Cozy inside in the winter with hot broths and preserved vegetables, or outside on the deck in the summer, drawing out the meal with digestifs as the sun sets through the tall cedars.
Vin Papillon, Montreal
Loud, crowded, and dark. Its older siblings Joe Beef and Liverpool House get the attention, but give me the next-door wine bar any day. The food is just as good (a simple dish of sliced ham drizzled in melted butter and topped with shaved cheese may be the single best thing I have ever tasted in Canada) and the selection of wines by the glass is better. I like to dine at a bar with a book, and even among the noise Vin Papillon manages to feel intimate.
Ask for Luigi, Vancouver
Just a perfect corner Italian restaurant. Small in all the right ways: a single room; a limited but delicious menu; and a short but thoughtful wine and digestifs selection. If you have don’t have a great meal and a great time at Ask for Luigi, it’s your fault.
Le Bernardin, New York
The décor may be dated and the carpet may need replacing, but as fads come and fashions go, this fixture of the New York fine dining scene remains consistently perfect. Dinner is special, of course, but I prefer a long lunch at one of the small tables against the wall,3As a summer associate at a midtown Manhattan law firm, I observed Henry Kissinger lunching five days in a row at one of these tables and decided that I wanted to do whatever he did. That was before I found out what he did. from the complimentary salmon rillettes with champagne through to a second—maybe a third—sherry, an espresso, and perhaps—why not?—a Bas-Armagnac, so that you waft out the door on a cloud of serene detachment, floating high above the midtown rush hour. Tip: For a last minute dinner, the bar doesn’t take reservations and serves the full menu.
Bar Von der Fels (closed 2021), Calgary
Quite possibly the perfect neighbourhood wine bar, which also just happened to serve the best food in the city including—and this means something in Calgary—the best steak. If it had a fault, it was how small it was, meaning even a regular couldn’t be guaranteed a seat at the bar. But that was also what gave it the welcoming buzz that made you want to come in so often. Opening the door on dark February night to be greeted with a friendly smile and a pour of “something interesting we just opened that I think you might like” was an essential antidote to the long prairie winters. Honestly, I don’t know how Calgarians survived last winter without it.
Lucas Carton (murdered 2005), Paris
There is a special place in hell for chefs who turn a beloved establishment (in this case, one with a history dating back to 1860, a stunning blonde art-nouveau wood and mirror interior, and decades of three-star Michelin accolades) into a bistro with sleek leather furniture and formless modern light fixtures. That is what the late Alain Senderens did to Lucas-Carton in 2005. On the other hand, for 20 years before that, Senderens’ kitchen turned out some of the best food—and the best young chefs—in France.4His most successful protégé was Alain Passard; others included Alain Solivérès, Christian Le Squer, and Christopher Hache; others who trained under the previous chef, Gaston Richard, included Jean-Baptiste and Marie Troisgros and Paul Bocuse. He was also the French first chef to take wine pairings seriously. I remember my shock on my first visit to Lucas Carton when, for each course, the paired bottle was left on the table to allow the guests to drink as little or (more usually) as much as they wanted. 1985 Salon, 1995 Verget Batard-Montrachet, 1983 Chateau Palmer … the bottles came and went with each new dish. Never seen that before or since.
al Moro, Rome
I know I will never be seated in the exclusive front room—that is reserved for regulars—but I am happy to continue settling for the second or third dining room for as long as I visit the Eternal City. Is there better food in Rome? Of course, though few individual dishes are better than the spaghetti ‘al Moro’ (a variation on the classic carbonara) with a jug of house red. But there is something about this third-generation family restaurant, tucked among dozens of Olive Garden-quality restaurants near the Trevi Fountain, that just makes me happy.
al Gatto Nero, Burano, Italy
Thirty minutes by water taxi from Venice proper, the colourful island of Burano used to be known across Europe for its intricate lace. Now it is known across Instagram for its preposterously photogenic streets. Al Gatto Nero, on one of Burano’s two main canals, is one of those places that could never be recreated from scratch. The art on the walls, the long-time waiters (be prepared to be startled by the Italian head waiter’s thick Scottish accent, a hangover from a stint in that country years ago), and the personal quirks of service are the stuff of tradition built up organically over time. Fresh seafood is the star, but the location would make it worthwhile even if the food wasn’t as good as it is. Especially canal-side in the early fall or spring, as the colourful houses shimmer in the canal, in your glass, and later in your memory.
Paley’s Place (closed), Portland, OR
Bar at the Tabard Inn (under unfortunate new management), Washington, DC
100 Maneiras, Lisbon
Gjelina, Los Angeles
Bao Bei, Vancouver