Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver

Is there a more powerful pair of syllables in British food circles than Saint and John? Opened by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver in 1994, St. John became a standard bearer for nose-to-tail cooking, influenced chefs around the world, and gave British food traditions their dues. “Being fresh and new is not an issue for us,” say Henderson and Gulliver. Although St John is the quintessential British restaurant, its founders appreciate and enjoy the many flavours that make up London’s cosmopolitan dining scene.

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We would like to begin by saying that we are both very lucky and grateful to have so many great places to eat and drink here in London. This is only a small selection of the venues we love. We could have happily gone on and on… which reminds us of lunch!

A Happy Gem Once More In The Heart Of Soho

We first met when I (Fergus) was a chef at The French House. We were introduced by our olive oil man and that’s how the whole thing started. The French House is a pub up on Dean Street in Soho. Still today it’s quite famous. There’s this kind of boho upstairs dining room, which is pretty small, and you look out and there is Soho passing on the street below. It’s just great. If there’s anything bohemian left, it’s probably The French House. When we opened St. John, Margot (Fergus’s wife) and her business partner Mel (Melanie Arnold) took it over. So, it stayed in the family and we of course have many fond memories of different times there. Neil Borthwick has recently taken over the kitchen and it’s just like the good old days. Neil’s great. He’s worked classically at some top restaurants in France as part of his education as a chef, and he cooks really great food. It’s just lovely  to see it back in such good form. It’s where the Free French Forces used to drink in the war and its proper name is the York Minster. It was renamed The French House after the Second World War because all the French used to drink there. It’s been a part of Soho and all the things around it long before the days of the Groucho (private members club) and saw the early and final days of The Colony Room Club. You know, when it was good old Soho. Naughty Soho. Sleazy Soho.

An Institution To Be Treasured

Sweetings is working chaos. We all love chaos, especially when it works. Just go with its flow. I (Fergus) first went there with my father when I was a youngish lad. The city has obviously changed since then. But as the city’s changed, it’s stayed where it is, backing its sails and rigging against all those behemoths of super tankers which just march through the financial world. It is overlooking the brand new Bloomberg building, which is the most expensive building in the world kind of thing, and it’s still there. It’s comfortable in its own skin. Serving as it does serve. That is classic British food with an emphasis on fish. We always keep a weather eye on it, making sure they’re all happy. And of course, we go as often as we can. It’s stood the march of time, but it’s there and it must always be there. It’s an institution to be treasured. 

Our Favourite Dim Sum Restaurant

Others come and go, but our first choice for dim sum is Royal China Baker Street. It’s been there for a long time. It’s big, noisy, bustling. Staff are quick. They put down your order slip, tick those items off the menu form and away you go! There’s lots of round tables, lots of those red, plush seats. Like all places, it can have its good days and bad days. Well, actually, it’s never bad, just great. It’s an everyman’s kind of place. It’s great for taking the kids or just because it’s Sunday. And when you’re single, just going with your mates for beers and dim sum. We always order too much. The usual suspects? Of course, there’s various steamed dumplings, well most of them, including minced pork and shrimp. There’s glutinous rice, roast pork buns various cheung fun [rice flour rolls] – we always get the prawn. Sometimes we’ll take the sesame prawn rolls. The Vietnamese spring rolls may appear. One must think of others. Deep fried prawn dumplings, gyozas, turnip cake… that’s enough, stop now! Green tea, Tsing Tao beers and a white wine; always dry but in a tall bottle. When it comes to dim sum, sometimes you think, “Shall we go here, shall we go there?” But then one of us will ask, “How bout the Royal China?” and you smile because it’s the big old, same old, happy old place.

London’s Finest Spanish Cuisine

There’s no finer Spanish cuisine with true sensibility for origin and ingredients in London than that at Sabor. Its run by José Etura and Nieves Barragan. Nieves worked alongside us at St. John Smithfield while she waited for the kitchen she had come to London to run a few years ago. Now Nieves and José are at the helm of their own place which happily bustles.  

A St. John Alum Singing In His Own Voice

One of the strengths of St. John has always been in its people. Sometimes people forget the great chefs that have run our kitchens. The influence of these folk, girls and boys, is great. And our bond is strong amongst us all. And for that we are delighted. We’re very lucky to have that. When they leave St. John, they’re still family. They come back and we see them often. But we love that they go and sing, and they sing in their own voice. And no one sings with a more unique voice than chef Lee Tiernan of Black Axe Mangal. Mate, it’s out there. It’s all that Mission Chinese Food meets a bit of Dave Chang meets a bit of the Turkish kebab that everyone loves to get on the way home but never remembers eating. It’s all that stuff. And Lee does it brilliantly. Mind you, I (Trevor) can’t stay in there too long. I try and avoid Jamesons, and per square foot it’s the biggest purveyor of Jamesons whiskey in the country. I’m older and wiser these days.

Another St. John Alum Singing In His Own Voice

We both really liked Flor from James (Lowe) and Jonathan (Ogier) of restaurant Lyle’s. Those boys, they’re good. And we don’t use that word lightly. The project started with a great space in Borough Market. It was tight and busy with people cooking in front of you, serving you all kinds of different, intriguing and delicious things. It had that lovely dynamic of counter eating. There was a good chef-people relationship. It had a kind of immediacy but with great craft and skill. Provenance is very important to them. For example, there was a shrimp carapace which they cooked and it becomes a starter rather than the shrimp itself. James was definitely singing with his own voice, too. With Lyle’s, the boys have been down the path of The World’s 50 Best, which is a bit like the Michelin guide, I guess. They did all the right things to get on that circuit to be considered, if you will. But people learn on the way through that there is more. If you distil everything that you’ve learned, you deconstruct all those silly things, the machinations, and you come out on the other side knowing all of that and your appetite is still intact, then you end up with something like Flor. Which is just lovely. Flor was not a theme restaurant. Food and theme don’t go together. Theme is just pop music that changes from year to year, it’s like fashion. We sensed right away that Flor had its own identity. It has sadly closed in Borough Market but they’ve opened Flor Bakery at Spa Terminus.

Keeping It In The Family

Rochelle Canteen is always a pleasure. Okay, admittedly there are family ties, but it’s good cooking, good people and a good space. It’s an oasis through a schoolyard door in East London. Highly recommended! 

One Of London’s Best Set Lunches

Le Gavroche is almost a time capsule these days. It’s sat for many years in Mayfair. Folk should know that it is always one of the best set lunches in London, however we always stray. It’s this whole idea of extravagance. Take for example, the chicken: they’ll carve it right in front of you. Do you want your fish deboned? It’s all the classic dishes. All the classic silverware. Those great domes. The chariot. The cheese. The puddings. And it’s absolutely a fixture. At its heart is a good kitchen and a good restaurant. It’s that whole kind of deluxe idea. It’s the same in Paris in the Eighth (arrondissement). The Roux brothers Michel and Albert created it. It’s been passed down to Michel and now his daughter works there and the influence of Silvana Giraldin, one of the greatest Maître d’s in London, still pervades. In fact, he’s almost timeless himself. Going to Le Gavroche is almost like walking onto a set except the textures, the food, the smells and the people are all real.

Old-School Italian

Ciao Bella is my (Fergus) long-standing, old-school Italian favourite. It’s the sort of restaurant you want to live around the corner from. A home away from home. It’s wonderful in the same way that Sweetings is. You wouldn’t want to change it. The city’s changed, but they go nowhere. And the jokes are still the same. One of the guys will fix us up with some Grappa and cheekily leave it on the table.

Newer-School Italian

Trullo is a lovely Italian restaurant in Highbury. Chef Tim Saidatan was one of our very first chefs. It’s become this happy, local restaurant with a good wine list and again, very local. I think that’s quite important. There’s a couple of other good restaurants just nearby Trullo, which means it’s quite a nice, little spot to go to and explore. Tim’s also gone on to open Padella in Borough Market [there’s another one in Shoreditch now]. It’s very busy and always has a queue, but that’s fine. Good pasta. Good space. Good vibe. Good folk do good things.

Our Favourite Curry House

Everyone in the UK has a favourite curry house. But the pedigree in the kitchen at Dastaan makes it a regular necessity for us. It’s somewhat in the Boondocks, but that hasn’t stopped the secret from getting out. It’s where my (Trevor) family seem to eat most together when it’s not around the kitchen table.

“We Always Smile While Walking To Our Table”

The River Cafe is a timeless classic. It’s home to so many happy memories. Just to walk into the room is a pleasure in itself. We always smile while walking to our table. You just know you’re going to have a good time. And particularly at lunch time, you know you’re going to have a very good lunch. It’s very London metropolitan but clean, airy, spacious. The architecture itself is all part of a time and it’s just as fresh today as it ever was. It has a great Italian wine list. It’s really about the chefs, the people. The people who have been through it; the way they cook, the way they care, the way they source ingredients. It’s a place that you tend to not go to that often, which almost makes it a thrill when we do. 

Japanese Hospitality And Cooking

This list would not be complete without Japanese restaurant Ikeda. Stepping through the doors, you enter the real thing where, as in Japan, the hospitality is just as important as the food, which of course, is also a joy.

A Pub Locals Drink At

Sometimes it’s hard to find a decent pub and you start scratching your head, but The Canton Arms is always worth the trip. It has a great big dining room. It’s got good beer, it’s busy, it’s always full of locals. One of the owners, Jonathan Jones, used to work for me (Trevor) at The Fire Station. He went on with a couple of others from St. John to open up Anchor and Hope, which really became the best of gastropubs, although we hate the term. So, The Canton Arms has come through those ranks and it’s another really good local. For us, it’s an easy one and one that we’re happy to send people to. This is our town, we want to make sure people enjoy it.

Why St. John Exists

We were two different people when we met, but we agreed that we wanted a sense of permanence. There’s never been an issue or disagreement about the approach to food or cooking. When we first opened St. John we were stubborn, and we had the patience to know that it was about the people that came back. The people who returned for what we’d served them and how they’d enjoyed it. We knew that they would always be the best customers. And that took us a lot of time. It was difficult for the first five to seven years, but that gradually changed. People come to St. John for St. John. Some come very often. Some come only when they’re in town. But they’re still regulars. It can be a safe haven perhaps for people when that’s required. It has rituals. It has familiarity. People hopefully smile when they walk in. We are delighted if those things are all true today. And we still think being fresh and new is not an issue for us because it happens every day, twice a day, when we change the menu. The true sense of St. John is in the people. The people that are St. John in terms of its work and the people that come to it, our customers. For us, that’s what delights us most. And we’re very lucky to be able to say that, and we know that. And we hope that people will be joining us at St. John, and indeed all those other restaurants, for a long time to come. You know, because maybe ahead of us is the time to properly enjoy that!

Profile Photograph: Courtesy of Sam A Harris.

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