“We are not likely to succeed in attracting tourists while England is thought of as a country of bad food,” wrote George Orwell in 1945 in defence of British cooking. The following year, the British Council, which promotes relations with other countries, commissioned Orwell to expand his essay in the hope it would draw more visitors to the UK.
The Council didn’t publish the work. Orwell failed to produce the roaring endorsement they had hoped for. “Coffee in Britain is almost always nasty,” he warned. “Fish fried in oil . . . is definitely nasty” and vegetables are typically rendered “almost uneatable”.
There are obvious parallels between visions of society in Orwell’s novels and ours under lockdown — the tabloids have even coined the phrase “Covid-1984” — but thankfully the flat culinary landscape he described remains archived in his brief foray into food writing.
Notting Hill, the west London neighbourhood where Orwell once resided, today lays claim to some of the best cuisine in Britain, and indeed the world. The noughties brought some of the top chefs in the country here and a surge in new restaurant openings over the past few years have led to a comeback of the area’s cool factor.
So the tourists come too. Each year, millions of people eat their way down Portobello Road, the street where Orwell lived, to visit its 300-year-old market. (Many don’t spy the blue plaque bearing his name — but they do queue for selfies by a blue door the actor Hugh Grant made famous in a romantic comedy.)
But there have been no tourists in these parts for the past couple of months. The watering holes and restaurants have shuttered. In the evenings, relieved to have escaped the confines of our one-bedroom flat, my partner and I — pulled by the remarkable strength of a miniature dachshund — walk these quiet streets.
We look longingly at the dark windows, each bearing a now-faded note: “Closed due to Covid-19, we hope to see you soon.” Likewise. Does the nicest Spring in years even count if the pubs were closed? So we plan for their reawakening, noting our local favourites to support and unexplored venues to try when life returns to some form of normality.
We head off on Westbourne Park Road near Caractère, a restaurant run by joint chef owners Emily Roux, daughter of Michel Roux Jr, and her husband Diego Ferrari, one of the few local establishments we haven’t yet investigated.
The FT’s restaurant critic Nicholas Lander would suggest we’ve done ourselves a disservice. As hospitality businesses may be some of the last to reopen, it could be a long time before we have a chance to tuck into the unconventional menu that’s pretentiously categorised using character traits, such as “curious”, “strong” and “greedy”. “Patient” may be one to add.
Nearby, black boarding covers the two-Michelin-starred dining room of The Ledbury, where chef Brett Graham pinned Notting Hill firmly on the fine-dining map in 2005. Many well-heeled Londoners will be clamouring for a reservation here once it reopens, keen to break the ennui of home cooking with a lavish post-lockdown tasting menu.
A few streets away, Core, Claire Smyth’s two-starred restaurant, will probably host similar celebrations. Her delicately cooked, immaculately presented food makes the average meal look like it was plated by Jackson Pollock.
Will these fine-dining establishments will fare better than other independent restaurants round here? They are already accustomed to serving a limited number of covers per day, can charge a pretty penny and their premises are large enough to accommodate social distancing.
However, sizeable spaces on these streets can’t come cheap and customer confidence has taken an obvious hit. It’s probably going to be very tough for everyone.
After weeks of lockdown, I’m also itching for an evening out: it’s about time to dust off my make-up, see if our iron still works and relearn how to walk in heels. I’d love to wobble over to 7 Saints, a small bistro with a short weekly menu based on seasonal ingredients. The wine list, too, is brief and thoughtful; the cocktails are classic and always well-executed.
The bistro is one of Notting Hill’s best-kept secrets, blissfully undiscovered by the Instagramming tourists who congregate on the surrounding streets. It was the scene of our last supper: a final dinner out in early March. I ate rabbit with morels and mustard sauce. We thanked our server and said we hoped to be back soon.
The restaurant closed a few days later, but has kept busy cooking meals for the at-risk and vulnerable people in the local community.
Notting Hill is part of the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which has the highest gap between rich and poor in the country. The neighbourhood was developed in the 19th century as a suburb for the fairly wealthy (the richest Londoners lived in Mayfair, Knightsbridge or Belgravia). When the middle classes no longer required large households with domestic staff, the grand Victorian houses were broken up into flats.
By the mid-20th century, the area was home to a poor working class and a large immigrant population, who suffered from dire housing conditions and exploitation. Following new housing legislation in the 1960s and 1970s, decades of gentrification, and the eponymous 1999 romcom starring Grant and Julia Roberts, Notting Hill became one of London’s most desirable neighbourhoods.
Anger and resentment over the inequality here was fuelled in 2017, when a fire at Grenfell Tower killed 72 people, including some of the borough’s poorest, mostly ethnic-minority residents. Grenfell-themed graffiti is seen across Notting Hill, more so now as boarded-up businesses provide new canvasses and higher death rates among black, Asian and minority ethnic (Bame) people raise concerns that Covid-19 has deepened disparities.
Orwell’s preoccupation with class and equality even permeated his writings on food. He criticised the upper classes for becoming too French with their preferences — and working-class restaurants for not. “Every restaurant in England should be either foreign or bad,” he wrote.
In Notting Hill, a microcosm of global cookery, we even have good English food. Recommendations include The Shed, a shabby-chic, farm-to-table joint that sources produce from the owners’ family farm in Sussex; chef Richard Wilkins’ 14-seat restaurant 104 (at 104 Chepstow Road) that may be London’s perfect date spot; and, dare I say, the best fish and chips in London at the cheerful Chipping Forecast.
And who needs to pay Mayfair prices when we have The Cow? This old boozer will serve you a better seafood dinner than the renowned hotspots of hedgie heartland.
To escape Blighty head to Notting Hill’s northern quadrants. You’ll find the area’s best wood-fired pizzas at The Oak, a very Italian trattoria with a surprisingly chichi cocktail bar hidden upstairs. There’s the French wine bistro Cepages, whose owner can romantically upsell any bottle of wine like the Byron of burgundy. And there’s the “Falafel King” — my liege — who runs a small, charmingly chaotic takeaway joint with his daughters on Golborne Road. It doesn’t matter that it takes three people to stuff one pitta. It’s worth the wait.
There’s so much more. We can indulge in the sweet, sticky and umami flavours of Asia at our local Vietnamese, Korean or Japanese joints. We have vibrant Mexican, Caribbean, Indian, North African, and all of the Levant within striking distance.
That includes starry Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi, whose flagship delicatessen we walk by each evening. With a Pavlovian gurgle in my stomach, I was delighted to find it has reopened for delivery and takeaway — innumerable ingredients, masterful meze, brilliant baking and all. With new glass barriers in place for hygiene reasons, it looks like a posh pastry prison.
Around the corner, we may stop for provisions at Westbourne Grove, a smart and lively shopping street now tranquil during the pandemic with only its food shops open. The prettily stocked shelves at Daylesford, an organic grocer and café, could make even the most ardent salad dodger want to eat their greens, though at great expense. (Enticed by the lack of a queue, I popped in for some asparagus last week and couldn’t believe they were charging more £1 per spear.)
Prezzemolo & Vitale, an Italian supermarket and my favourite new addition to the neighbourhood, stocks shelves of pasta in every shape you’ve never heard of, alongside a vast assortment of cheese, cured meat and olives. Time spent inside feels as close to a Mediterranean holiday as we’ll get this year.
We’ll also pass The Spice Shop off Portobello Road, a cosy emporium of fresh herbs and spices sourced from independent producers around the world. When Ottolenghi gives you recipes, you make your way to The Spice Shop, or so the saying should go. A fantastic local butcher, Provenance, is nearby. Finally, there’s Fabrique, a popular Swedish bakery; we’d be better set up for retirement if it weren’t for its kannelbullar.
The whole culinary route takes around an hour, largely dependent on stops and how determined the dog is to slowly snuffle street-level horrors along the way.
Each evening walk underlines how much we love Notting Hill. Hyde Park, Regent’s Park and Holland Park are within walking distance — all three have been lifelines during the lockdown (so much so that I’ve discovered spring allergies for the first time this year).
It’s hard to imagine now — or any time soon — weaving up to a bar for a round of drinks, bare hands pressed impatiently on the counter, or squeezing round a table at the neighbourhood osteria, rubbing elbows with nearby diners.
So, as the evenings roll on and their doors stay closed, we’ll keep walking, and working on our list.
Living in London under lockdown? Share your experience in the comments
With life under lockdown or heavily restricted, our focus has sharpened on the neighbourhoods we live in. See more stories like this at ft.com/globetrotter