Put simply, a meal can be too much: too much pressure both on digestion and on the person you’re with. Europeans understand this, which is why they have such an exquisite pre-dinner offering – aperitivi that can extend late into the night, where non-committal drink follows non-committal drink and a lovely slew of small bites keep the hunger at bay. Aperitivi is also an opportunity to try some of the nicest drinks on offer, at least if you like quirky fizzy local wines, delicate roses, and homegrown cocktails. Can the bliss of aperitivi hour – or hours – be replicated in London, somewhere between pubs and restaurant meals? The answer is yes, and the capital offers varying degrees of decadence both of food and small plates. And because we don’t have a drinks and small plates culture per se, as they do in Italy, Spain and France, we aren’t limited either, and so the range of available options is far superior.
High Timber – City
This City favourite features the very best South African wine and meat, including home-made droewors and biltong, and some of the best steak in London. This alone is an intoxicating combination but the High Timber aperitivi experience comes together courtesy of proud Johannesburg-born owner Neleen Strauss, a splendid character, crackling wit and restaurateur with a preternatural sense both for what is delicious and for what people want – for this, plus her daily uniform of jeans and her daring zingers, she has become something of a cult figure amongst otherwise stiff bankers. There’s a magical balcony overlooking the Thames towards St Paul’s, which is an ideal spot for that first glass of wine – perhaps a glass of South African Grant Beck blanc de blanc. For an aperitivi hour both merry and refined, nibble on home-made biltong, biltong croquettes or a charcuterie plate, fried squid and mushroom and chestnut pate. For wine, try Neleen’s pick of the best with glasses of Jordan Chardonnay 2018, Lismore Pinot Noir 2017 and Kanonkop Cabernet 2015. As aperitivi became dinner (as it ought to when the night is going well), glasses of Southern Right Pinotage and Klein Constantia vin de Constance 2015 arrived to go with a massive cote de bouef for two. If you want to meet for a drink in a beguiling location it’s hard to imagine a nicer combination than a Stellenbosch red and a bowl of biltong.
Broken Wharf House, 8 High Timber St, London EC4V 3PA, www.hightimber.com/food
Luca – Clerkenwell
Easily one of the most attractive restaurants in London, Luca – from the people behind the impossible-to-get-into Michelin-starred Clove Club – has a multi-room, multi-level and exceedingly elegant dining room of wood, marble, leather, beautiful lamps and hidden recesses for more intimate eating plus an enchanted terrace. There is also a bar, very cute and hip, lit by vintage-y upside down goblet lamps, and this is a truly discerning spot for aperitivi. We sat in a booth, and began with a glass of Franciacorta, the Champagne-method fizz from Lombardy that is hard to get outside Italy and with it, the famous parmesan fries – hot melting cubic rectangles demanding a repeat order the moment they were finished. It’s a refreshingly concise menu: basically consisting of a plate of salumi, home-made bread with lovely aromatic olive oil, and a seasonal burrata with broad bean pesto. Lured on by the quality of the small plates, we also had two beautiful pastas off the dining room menu – a tortelli of sheep’s milk ricotta, italian peas and jersey royals, and conchiglie with stracciatella, wild garlic and pistachio pesto. You can stick to an Italian-style aperitivi with the great wine list, but the cocktails here are delectable, particularly the house-style martini with white tea vermouth, the Manhattan with blood orange, and the Paper Plane with rum, aperol and forced rhubarb.
88 St John St, London EC1M 4EH, luca.restaurant
Carousel – Fitzrovia
Fitzrovia’s airy restaurant and wine bar has lit up Charlotte Street since it opened, featuring a guest chef each week with recent spins from cooks from Thailand, Mexico, New York, France and Germany. Peering at the punters in the pub opposite lends Carousel an even more intense feeling of being in the right place for a better class of drink. There’s a quirky, fun list of wines by the glass from surprising places (I particularly enjoyed some red German fizz – yes – red, called Ruby Soho) and a more serious offering by the bottle, plus an unctuous array of small plates and lovely, helpful staff. Guided by them, we had glasses of chestnutty Mongarda Prosecco, Uva de Vida, a Spanish temperanillo, and a fruity Spanish white called Artigas La Rumbera. To go with, we had plates of fried chicken, artichoke fritti, anchovy crisps, wild bream crudo, a plate of salami and comte and a superb bowl of crispy jersey royals with spiced cream. Each dish was a small, dense, playful explosion of umami delight. If you're in Soho or Fitzrovia, Carousel is an ideal place to come for low-commitment but delicious food, interior elegance and affordability.
19-23 Charlotte St., W1T 1RL, carousel-london.com/whatson/carousel-wine-bar
Galvin Bistrot and Bar – Spitalfields
I was a fan of the now-closed Baker Street outpost of Galvin, called Galvin De Luxe, as it was at the vanguard of the first wave of new, chic, snappily-run French restaurants in the capital. The Galvin brothers operation has now moved to Spitalfields, with gourmet restaurant Galvin La Chapelle next to the Bistro and Bar. It’s a retro bistro look in a sleek modern build, which is a touch disconcerting, but the Galvin grip on excellent food and wine hasn’t slackened one bit. We dove in with glasses of Champagne and lovely big oysters with shallot vinegar, then a glass of elegant Muscadet with house-marinated Gordal olives, duck and pistachio terrine with celeriac remoulade, and a plate of charcuterie artisanal which was well-textured and subtle. Having supped on aperitivi fit for kings, we finished off affairs, in a somewhat unorthodox manner, with a margarita, and headed out into the night not exactly in need of dinner, but open to it.
35 Bishops Square, Spital Square, London E1 6DY, galvinrestaurants.com/restaurant/galvin-bistrot-and-bar
The Library Bar at the Lanesborough – Mayfair
Any excuse to go to this refuge from the unfriendly mayhem that is Hyde Park Corner should be taken. Overlooking Apsley House and the London home of the Dukes of Wellington, it is a very English place to take your pre-dinner tipple. Originally St George’s Hospital in the 1770s, Lanesborough House fell into disrepair and became another hospital until the 1970s when it was converted into one of the finest hotels in London. The Library Bar is legendary, a soft cocoon of luxuriant armchairs and bookshelves, and possibly the most creative cocktails in London. For a more traditional aperitivi with wine, try the brilliantly balanced Hampshire white wine, Still by Hattingley, along with abeautifully presented plate of charcuterie with spiced coppa, air-dried beef, King Peter ham & Westcombe pepperoncino. Really, you ought to have a cocktail or two: the martini comes with a DIY thimble of onions, olives and two twists which you can add as you go, while the Champagne cocktail is done with judicious discipline and flair – as it should be. The puce Negroni blew my guest away: it came with a side of popping candy and roobois-flavoured ice. Also astonishing was the Upside Down Fizz, a drink presented in two octagonal glass layers, the first with Hendrick’s gin mixed with elderflower liqueur, lemongrass, vanilla, fresh lemon juice, the second with vegetable crisps and ginger foam. It all goes well with the endless supply of plump green olives and oversized almonds.
Hyde Park Corner, SW1X 7TA, www.oetkercollection.com/hotels/the-lanesborough/restaurants-bars/the-library-bar
Magritte at the Beaumont Hotel – Mayfair
This luxuriant den is perfect for a reconnaissance on a cold evening, and – perhaps because of the name – evokes the glamour of a Poirot-era London or Brussels. It manages to skirt naffness and stay with playful opulence even with Magritte-inspired paintings and cocktails to match. There is an elegant wine list, and the cocktails come in coupes and splendidly balanced: I recommend the Pilgrim, with pisco, chartreuse, lime and passion fruit – the barman will also make cocktails bespoke if you say what you like. One of strengths of the Magritte is that it has a small but lovely non-alcoholic cocktail section – my pregnant companion loved the Six Elements, a jasmin and rose infusion with lime juices, agave, pineapple. The snacks are ideal for aperitivi, Mayfair-style: we had whipped smoked cods roe (posh tarama) with seaweed cracker, a nifty pair of corn dogs, and a white pizza topped with truffle. But the juicy globular olives and almonds are enough to keep you going if you just want a pre-dinner drink.
The Beaumont, 8 Balderton St, Brown Hart Gardens, London W1K 6TF, www.thebeaumont.com/dining/american-bar