THE GORING HOTEL
Chef: Derek Quelch
What to expect: Classic dishes, modern twist
The 100-year-old family-owned Goring Hotel has played host to the Crown Prince and Princess of Norway and the Crown Prince of Sweden as well as a young Winston Churchill and the Queen herself, among other titled notables.
The hotel's chef, Derek Quelch, is very much a classicist, working with traditional dishes and updating them with modern techniques and the best local ingredients. A more classic British hotel dining room would be hard to imagine. There are beef Wellington trolleys, champagne carts and petits fours towers.
The menu is particularly British of late: As chef Quelch explains, "Because of the hotel's centenary, we went through the archives and looked at different dishes and when they were popular and built a menu around them." Consequently, you might find Peterhead cod and chips representing the Edwardian years, smoked fish pie as a tribute to the Roaring Twenties and fresh shrimp cocktail from the Swinging Sixties.
A simple steamed syrup sponge with custard represents the war years and rationing and is a touching tribute to how much people were able to do in difficult circumstances.
THE GRILL AND THE DORCHESTER
Chef: Brian Hughson
What to expect: Extravagant Scottish decor and phenomenal people-watching.
Where the Goring is understated and discreet, the Dorchester is extravagant and conspicuous with Bentleys and Maybachs parked in the driveway and diamond watches for sale in the lobby. It has long had a reputation among the world's nobility as a good place to party. It was from this hotel that the news was announced of Princess Elizabeth's engagement to Prince Philip and it was here the Prince held his stag party in one of the Park Suites in 1947.
Of the five-star hotel's three restaurants – Alain Ducasse, China Tang and The Grill – The Grill, under the direction of chef Brian Hughson, is the most British of them all. It is also a showstopper of a room with acres of plaid, deep yellow walls, tall banquettes and larger-than-life portraits of Scottish heroes. It looks like Robert the Bruce's throne room as designed by Colin and Justin. Try to get a seat facing out to the aptly named "promenade" lobby as the people-watching is phenomenal. In addition to a possible royal spotting there are plenty of Japanese fashion obsessives, Russian plastic-surgery addicts and a never-ending parade of dapper tuxedo-sporting gentlemen and beautiful women in couture gowns.
Start with lobster ballotine: complex and herbaceous and light in its cool tomato water broth and move on to veal sweetbreads with Scottish chanterelles, crayfish and spinach. It is shamelessly rich and ultra-decadent and completely in keeping with the general ambience. Save room, though, as it would be a pity to miss the wild English rabbit and brawn terrine (brawn, of course being jellied pig's head, a local favourite) paired with a deconstructed piccalilli relish and a parsley purée. Held together with gelatin from the pig's feet, the dish has a surprisingly light, clear flavour and smooth texture.
AXIS AT ONE ALDWYCH
Chef: Tony Fleming
What to expect: Sophisticated updates to old English cuisine.
A few blocks away at the chic One Aldwych hotel in Covent Garden, the young chef of Axis, Tony Fleming, is renowned for his sophisticated take on his country's traditional cuisine. Start with the Welsh rarebit, which is presented on a fan of thinly sliced tomatoes with a small gravy boat of Worcestershire sauce on the side, with cheddar cheese that is darkly caramelized, softening the hearty slice of bread it has been baked into.
Fish and chips with mushy peas is about as British as it gets: In Axis's version, a delicate batter casing, as light and cleanly flavoured as the best tempura, protects a glistening piece of fresh halibut. Thick-cut chips with sides of savoury mushy peas and a vibrant tartar sauce complete the dish. The only thing missing is yesterday's newspaper to wrap it all up in.
MARCUS WAREING AT THE BERKELEY
Chef: Marcus Wareing
What to expect: Regional ingredients, international inspiration.
Chef Marcus Wareing's eponymous restaurant in the ultra-posh Berkeley hotel is one of London's finest. The room with its Burgundy velvet walls, matching parson's chairs, illuminated wine cellar and double shaded sconces resembles the kind of sophisticated bachelor pad that might suit a prince and it has the service to match.
A meal there recently consisted of nine courses served over four hours: At the beginning, they placed a stand on the table with a menu inserted so we could follow along. With Dorset crab, Orkney scallops, Cornish lamb and Aberdeen beef, the so-called Menu Prestige is a veritable tour of the British Isles.
While the ingredients may be strictly regional, the inspiration for the menu is decidedly international. We start with an amuse-bouche of fried chicken with mango chutney. Next there's a take on taramosalata, bright, creamy and saline. Thai basil is incorporated into a field mushroom soup and coriander supports the quail. There is lamb smoked in hay, an ancient method that imparts an earthy sweetness to the meat, enhanced by a purée of porcini mushrooms. Aberdeen Angus beef, my new favourite, is unbelievably tender and flavourful: luscious without being unctuous. It takes a brave and talented chef to pull off a dessert of chocolate, mint and cucumber, but Wareing does just that.
Special to The Globe and Mail