ood truism number 476: unless absolutely forced to by geographical remoteness, French cuisine doesn’t really do ‘fusion’ and is usually a tad on the coy side when it comes to ‘modern’ too. What France really still excels at is making us remember why it hit its culinary high watermark in about 1910 – and has no desire to relinquish that epoch anytime soon.
So here are the best traditional French restaurants in London. Expect organic wine, plant-based, keto and paleo-free havens that are more Gallic than Serge Gainsbourg seducing Simone de Beauvoir in a pool of bouillabaisse while wearing a kepi hat and whistling the Marseillaise.
Brasserie Zedel, Soho
Five-star dining at youth hostel prices is what Brasserie Zedel excels at. You simply will not find a better way to spend £12 in the whole of London than on its two-course prix fixe meal which, at the time of writing, will give you chopped steak with peppercorn sauce and French fries followed by a Manjari chocolate tart. You could spend more money in Nando’s without blinking and you wouldn’t even get the joy of dining in Zedel’s vast subterranean Art Deco homage that genuinely succeeds at bringing that elusive bohemian fin de siècle vibe of atavistic Paris to the West End.
Casse Croûte, Bermondsey
Just as the finest French novels by Camus and Gide are notably brief, so the menu at this rustic slice of provincial France is one of admirable brevity. Scrawled on a blackboard (in French only) each day, the adjoining red and white checked table clothes, curved rattan chairs and vintage liqueur signs at Casse Croûte may sound cliché but here, somehow, it works. Rich and glorious coq au vin, frothy glasses of cremant and a charcuterie slicer that isn’t just there for show all make for a winningly Gallic haven buried deep on Bermondsey Street.
Pique-Nique is Casse Croûte’s glammed-up older sister restaurant; they’re located just the skilled throw of a croissant from each other. The menu fair heaves with unrestrained Gallic culinary bloodlust; pâté en croute, sweetbreads, côte de boeuf and, on occasion, a whole lamb shoulder for two with aubergine caviar, runner beans and jus. There are ceramic roosters on top of the wide marble top bar for a truly unrestrained touch of defiant French-ness and, somehow, despite the building being a mock Tudor oddity next to a depressing-looking playground, the atmosphere is permanently one of a sun-drenched afternoon in Toulouse. Magnifique.
Le Gavroche, Mayfair
You don’t go to a Gordon Ramsay restaurant and really expect old McSweary himself to be sweating it out in the kitchen do you? Yet Michel Roux Jr., arguably Ramsay’s superior in almost every way, is regularly to be seen working a shift in Le Gavroche; the absolute last word in double-Michelin-starred traditional French fine dining this side of the Channel. Founded by Michel’s father Albert Roux back in 1967, the velvet-lined, basement cocoon of a dining room feels like you’re in the captain’s quarters of a White Star Line ship of yore. The only destination, however, is the calorie-laden, wistful heart of the France of your dreams. Prepare for a four-hour-plus cavalcade of the finest soufflés, tartares and pavés you will ever experience short of getting in a time machine to eat at Auguste Escoffier’s house. The only sadness is that the outstanding value set lunch menu is no more – the restaurant is now, post-Covid, only open in the evenings.
Does it matter that one of the finest classic French dining experiences in London is the creation of a Bavarian? As far as Otto’s is concerned, we’re inclined to say, not really.
For what Otto Tepasse has done is take one of the most decadent and excessive culinary inventions ever created – the duck press – and revive it without turning the experience into a fusty piece of recherché dining historicism. The full experience takes one duck and turns it into three courses for two people with virtually nothing wasted (the same can be done with lobster for a seriously decadent meal), while the full menu features classics including salmon fumé, tournedos Rossini and poulet de Bresse.