Eating al fresco is always a treat for the senses and when the sun shines on the capital, there are some truly magical spots for outdoor dining. From secret gardens to hidden oases and dreamy riverside haunts, we’ve rounded up five of our all-time favourite outdoor restaurants.
The Petersham, Covent Garden
Want. Want. Want. Want. That’s the word playing on a silent loop through my mind over a summer’s lunch at the Petersham, the slick, sun-kissed outpost of Richmond’s Petersham Nurseries in Covent Garden. It’s not just the menu: heritage radishes with spiced crab, saffron gnocchi with Cornish mussels, hazelnut sorbet – want want want – it’s everything I see around me from the pink and gold salt “pinch pots”, to the pastel ice cream coupes, the twisted branch side tables and the vast canvases that stretch across the walls. Want, want and want some more. Masterminded by Lara Boglione, eldest daughter of Francesco and Gael Boglione (who founded the original garden centre café in the grounds of their 17th century Richmond home in 2004), this “lifestyle destination” comprising delicatessen, florist, wine merchants, café, courtyard and restaurant is a showcase of the family’s impeccable taste. It invites us all to be a little more Boglione. I’m in.
It’s an experience to linger over, rose petal Prosecco in hand. The menu delights in everything the season has to say starting with quinoa, lovage and pea crostata, a nifty dinner party idea noted for a later date. There’s barely a restaurant in London that doesn’t do a steak tartar; the Petersham’s venison tartar is a superior beast, dusted with cacao and studded with smoky Sicilian almond nibs. The full Italian four courses would be hard work here (portions are ample) but do at least split a pasta primo such as half moons of buffalo ricotta and nettle casconcelli in a pool of melted butter.
Mediterranean fish stew is a polite version, minus any gnarly unidentifiable bits of shell and bone, but with all the flavour of squid, lobster and the South of France. Into late summer, look out for tagliatelle with girolles, grouse with late summer beans and Culatello di Zibello, and scoops of deep purple blackcurrant sorbet.
Meal for two (with wine): £160
Signature dishes: Petersham garden salad
What to drink: Rose petal Prosecco
2 Floral Court, Covent Garden, WC2, petershamnurseries.com
Of all that the new Annabel’s has to share with its lucky members – de Gournay wallpaper, golden swan taps, a life-size Pegasus and a 1937 Picasso, for goodness’ sake – the one feature that really sets the restaurant (and architecture) lovers’ pulses racing is the roof, the 22-ton retractable glass and steel roof by Waagner-Biro, the engineers behind the Reichstag dome and the British Museum’s Great Court. At the first drop of rain, this daring feat of structural engineering retracts in just two minutes, thus allowing guests in the 120-cover ground floor Garden restaurant to drink their DRC Montrachet Grand Cru undiluted.
Designer Martin Brudnizki (Sexy Fish, 34 Mayfair etc) drew inspiration for the Garden from an English country garden (he pursues a flora-and-fauna theme across the Grade I-listed Georgian mansion house’s four restaurants, seven bars and 26,000 square feet of space). It’s a richly realised fantasy, the sumptuous mise-en-scène incorporating fruiting lemon trees, plumped cushions, tasselled table lamps and lissom palms. Ex-Alain Ducasse chef Julien Jouhannaud resists the maximalist urge and allows the innate beauty of his ingredients to shine: there’s native lobster (in salad or with handmade cavatelli), organic Scottish salmon with watercress and caviar, roasted poulet noir with tarragon jus, black truffle risotto and foie gras au torchon. The Garden opens not quite around the clock (7am to 3am) delivering everything from cold press juices to Waldorf salad, A5 wagyu and tins of caviar. From dawn to dusk, Annabel’s has got you covered..
Meal for two (with wine): £315
Signature dishes: Annabel’s hamburger, lobster omelette, tiramisu
What to drink: Henri Giraud Champagne – Annabel’s Edition
46 Berkeley Square, Mayfair, W1, annabels.co.uk
Number Sixteen, Kensington
Londoners have busy, whirring minds, minds that need to hold a hundred “insider secrets” and off-the-radar gems at any given time and in any given postcode. Firmdale Hotels’ bewitching townhouse property, Number Sixteen, minutes from the V&A, has become one of my favoured South Kensington “go tos”. Naturally, the hotel itself, a bridal white Victorian stucco building decorated in Kit Kemp’s inimitably playful style, is a feast for the eyes, but it’s the garden, the hidden walled garden, that has me spellbound. With a gazebo at one end (containing a perfectly romantic stone table à deux), a fish pond planted with water lilies, and a handsome wooden arch, it is perfect for a tryst. Pebbled mosaic “carpets” and a Tom Stogdon slate arch give budding landscape architects something to aspire to.
Food is served at eau de Nil tables in the garden or in the art-filled Orangery, its French windows thrown open to the sun. The menu is super simple, which is just fine sometimes: think Loch Fyne smoked salmon, caper berries and lemon, Suffolk chicken Caesar salad and superfood quinoa salad. And at £19.50, the set menu is a snip, while afternoon tea, with or without Pommery – with! – is always a pleasure.
Meal for two (with wine): £80
Signature dishes: The afternoon tea
What to drink: Pommery Champagne, Garden Bellini
16 Sumner Place, Kensington, SW7, firmdalehotels.com
The Ivy Chelsea Garden, Chelsea
Follow your nose and you’ll soon find your way to the rose-scented garden and covered upper terrace at the back of the Ivy Chelsea Garden. On a gorgeous day, everybody, but everybody, expects to sip their cucumber cooler al fresco. And it’s cameras to the ready, as there’s not an antique planter nor curlicued trellis that isn’t #underthefloralspell. Though the Ivy’s best-known signatures aren’t exactly summer-ready – did somebody say shepherd’s pie? – rest assured “comfort food” takes many guises. Devon crab linguine with chilli and lemon, lobster and chips or crispy duck salad with toasted cashews and watermelon are your fair weather friends. Should Mother Nature declare the garden off-limits, one can still delight in the outside inside in the candlelit orangery.
Meal for two (with wine): £100
Signature dishes: Steak tartare, truffled chicken sandwich; frozen berries with warm white chocolate sauce
What to drink: Ivy Garden Kir Royale or Garden iced tea
The River Cafe, Hammersmith
Friends of mine who’ve worked at the River Cafe get all misty-eyed when they recall their enchanted summers at Ruth Rogers’ renowned west London restaurant. Shelling peas in the garden, picking basil for the pesto al Genovese, hulling strawberries in the dappled sunlight…it’s a rus in urbe vision straight from the pages of, well, the River Cafe Cookbook. And if even the hired help gets lost in reverie, you can only imagine how glorious it is for the pampered guest who doesn’t have to lift a finger (except to order one more fresh peach Bellini).
Don’t let on, but this stretch of the Thames is not actually that scenic, yet from the vantage point of the River Cafe’s shaded terrace fragrant with oregano and fennel, it feels quite magical. Let the seasons – and all that you see growing around you – guide you. Baking heat calls for cooling, raw ingredients such as slivers of wild sea bass with marigold tomatoes, golden oregano and chilli or Culatello di Zibello ham with sweet Charentais melon. Heftier chargrilled dishes wear their summer outfits: calf’s liver, for example, pairs up with Tuscan bread, tomato and black olive salad; sirloin with fresh borlotti and basil. For dessert? Sorbetto. Preferably strawberry.
Meal for two (with wine): £160
Signature dishes: Calamari ai ferri – chargrilled squid with fresh red chilli and rocket; chocolate nemesis
What to drink: White Peach Bellini
Thames Wharf, Rainville Road, W6, rivercafe.co.uk