Monday, 1 June 2009

My Old Favourites

I am very lucky to be able to travel a great deal with my family and I must confess, one of the things I enjoy most when we are travelling is eating. I love tasting new things and visiting different restaurants all around the world. When you do travel as much as we do, one of the things that can be wonderful is to find restaurants you love, and to return to them whenever you visit your favorite cities. This is a great way to feel at home, even when home is thousands of miles away.

Of course, there is nothing like finding a good restaurant close to where you do live, one that you can go to fairly often, where you are recognized and the staff know you. It is lovely to walk through the door and be greeted with a smile and a handshake, and to be made to feel at home. My family and I have this experience every time at Piccolino in Heddon Street (just off Regent Street) in London. Developing this kind of a relationship with a restaurant takes time and effort. You need to be kind to the staff – don’t just reply to their questions, converse with them. Take care to remember details of what you discuss for the next visit. For example, one of the waiters who serves us at Piccolino is studying Mandarin – and is off to China in a few weeks time. If he is working when we visit at the end of this week, we’ll ask him how the plans for his trip are going. Of course, it is important to tip well too. No matter how you slice it, a good tip will get you remembered.

You can develop a relationship with a restaurant in a foreign city in much the same way. If you find somewhere that it takes you ages to decide what to eat because there is so much on the menu, make a point of returning during your visit. Engage with the staff, tell them where you are from and why you are visiting. If you are planning on returning, tell the staff when as you bid them farewell. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it can’t hurt to try. Also be sure to look into local tipping customs before you go – while a ten percent tip might be adequate in some places, in others (like the US, particularly in New York where fifteen percent is the absolute minimum tip for good service), it is an insult. You don’t want to be remembered for the wrong reasons!

Even if you only visit a place once every few years, it is well worth returning to old favorites. There is always a risk they will change, but the really good places – ones you make the effort to go back to – often do stay the same. Going back does make you feel at home (even if you are not recognized by the staff) because you are familiar with the surroundings and the menu. It’s a great way to connect with a city and a culture. One way to ensure a warm welcome is to call and book a table before you arrive in town. When you call, be sure to mention where you are calling from and that you have been to the restaurant before. A compliment never hurts either – as in “I’d like to book a table please. We visited your restaurant last year on holiday and enjoyed our meals so much we wanted to be sure we could get in when we visit again next week. “ Even if they are fully booked, it’s very likely a table will become available.

My family and I tend to return to our favourite cities at least once a year. New York, San Francisco, Paris and Toronto are always on our annual list of places to go, and in each of these locations, we have restaurants we love to go back to. In some of them, we are remembered even by name.

No visit to New York City is complete for us without a visit to the Russian Tea Room (150 W 57th Street). Whether for brunch, lunch, dinner or afternoon tea, this iconic restaurant is always a delight. The opulent décor and luxurious surroundings take you miles away from the hustle and bustle of the city outside, and you feel as if you are stepping back in time. The food is always scrumptious and the service is discreet and attentive.

Before we even arrive in San Francisco, I make sure to book a table at Harris’ Steak House. Located on Van Ness Avenue (at Pacific), Harris’ is old San Francisco hospitality at its best. Opulent surroundings and what I would argue are the best steaks in the world make it a real delight every time we visit. The first time we stumbled on this wonderful place we were hot and tired after a day spent exploring the Napa Valley. Despite the embarrassing realization that we were a tad under-dressed when we first walked through the door, we were made to feel incredibly welcome and enjoyed a delicious meal. We returned later in the week, more appropriately dressed, and our welcome was just as friendly. It was the first of many visits.

When in Toronto, we always head back to one of my favourite restaurants from my childhood. I introduced my husband and son to it a couple of years ago and now it is one of our family favorites. The Old Spaghetti Factory (56 The Esplanade) is casual dining at its best – delicious food, great service and excellent value for money. As suggested by its name, pasta is one of their signature dishes, but it certainly is not the only thing on offer. Set in an old warehouse, the décor includes an old trolley car (which you can eat in), antique furniture and even a carousel. It’s quite simply delightful, whether you are a kid or just a kid at heart.

Paris is another place we adore and not just for the food, although it is a very big part of this wonderful city. Chez Georges in the Rue de Mail is a wonderful family owned restaurant my husband used to go to with his parents when he was a child. When I went there with my husband and our son the first time he had been back in several years, he was welcomed with open arms – and we were even treated to a complimentary after dinner drink. Traditional French dishes are a specialty here, and when we visit we are often the only English folk in the place. You always know a restaurant is good if the local folk frequent it, especially in France. Much newer, but a place we equally enjoy, is the marvelous Libre Sens in the Rue Marbeuf. Their fresh and modern menu is consistently delicious. We also love going back to Fouquets on the Champs Elysées, where a cup of tea and “un petit dessert” is truly something special – not to leave out Ladureé just down the road, its iconic green awning welcoming you for anything from a delicious lunch or dinner to fabulous cakes and desserts.

Of course, there are lots of other places I love to go, but these are my all-time faves – those that have stood the test of time and which I hope to keep going back to for years to come. Wherever you go in the world, I encourage you to seek out restaurants you love and return to them whenever you visit. It evokes a connection with the place and the culture of your favourite cities in the world that absolutely nothing else can. And no matter how much you enjoy travelling, it’s always nice to feel at home.

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