The French Connection in London’s West End
By Olivia Pinnock
Thursday 25th July 2019
It’s estimated that around 300,000 French citizens live in London. These figures would make the British capital the sixth largest city in France and it’s affectionately known as “Paris on Thames” so, understandably, there’s plenty for Francophiles to enjoy in the West End. They may passionately argue that they are better chefs and have a better sense of style, but the West End is the best at bringing the best together. To experience the joie de vivre with a little je ne sais quois, explore these hotspots for a little bit of the French life on the other side of the channel.
Coq au vin, confit de canard, soufflé and tarte tatin, France has given the world some of its best loved restaurant dishes. If you still haven’t quite mastered the art of French cooking yourself, head out to some of the city’s finest establishments for a taste of the real deal.
Le Gavroche, on Upper Brook Street, has been one of the capital’s best loved, French fine dining institutions since it opened in 1967. It’s run by the well-loved Roux family. First opened by Albert Roux, and now in the hands of his son, Michel Roux junior, who received wider fame as a judge on Masterchef: The Professionals, the family has made a respected career of bringing their French heritage to British diners. With two Michelin stars to its name, Le Gavroche is ideal for those celebrating a special occasion. The white table cloths and ivy green walls covered in food-themed paintings and bouquets of flowers provide a traditional setting to enjoy your meal.
A delight for its history as much as the food it serves, L’Escargot is a Soho icon. It got its name from being the first place in London to serve snails on the menu when it opened in 1896 and it even had its own snail farm in the basement! Look out for the figurine outside the restaurant of its French founder, M. Georges Gaudin, riding a snail above the motto “slow but sure”. Today the restaurant is run by some of the top-trained chefs in London but, of course, l’escargot is still on the menu. It mixes the best of bourgeois French cuisine with a dash of eccentric Britishness for a feel-good evening.
Dedicated followers of the restaurant scene will know that anywhere bearing Alaine Ducasse’s name will live up to the hype. Alaine Ducasse at The Dorchester is one of the most luxurious hotel restaurants in the West End and boasts three Michelin stars. Ducasse was born and trained in France and is one of the country’s greatest restaurateurs. The executive chef Jean-Phillippe Blondet, grew up in Nice and has trained under Ducasse since he was 24 years old. Expect to be served French classics at a quality level you’ve never had before in a setting that’s modern and chic.
You don’t need to jump on the Eurostar to the Champs Elysées for some French retail therapy, just head to Bond Street. You’ll find an array of the best luxury brands from one fashion capital in another, many of whom have had a relationship with London for decades.
When it comes to fashion, is there a more iconic French luxury house than Chanel? Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel visited London frequently, particularly during the 1920s when she had love affairs with the Duke of Westminster and the Prince of Wales. Urban legend has it that the interlocking Cs found on the lampposts around the West End were commissioned by the Duke of Westminster to show his love for the feisty entrepreneur, though it’s been widely discredited. What is certainly true is that Chanel’s flagship on New Bond Street is their largest in the world, making it a mecca for fashion fans, covering three floors of prêt-à-porter, accessories, shoes and handbags. There’s even more Chanel to soak up if you head over to their beauty boutique in Burlington Arcade where you can immerse yourself in classic beauty pallettes, on-trend nail colours and their signature scents.
Bond Street has plenty more French luxury maisons offering looks straight from the catwalks of Paris Fashion Week. Dior’s ultra-feminine wears can be picked up at number 160-162 New Bond Street, among a distinctly French décor inspired by Louis XVI’s signature grandeur. France’s most famous luggage brand turned fashion powerhouse Louis Vuitton is situated at 17-20 New Bond Street and while we’re on the subject of leather goods, Hermès has had a shop on the street since 1975 which it recently doubled in size.
Perhaps you’re after something with a bit more sparkle though? Cartier has glittering boutiques at both ends of the street but head to their Old Bond Street branch for a taste of France’s jewellery and watch craft history with vintage styles available to browse to take you on a journey through decades of trend setting.
Fashion isn’t all that the French do well. Lalique in nearby Burlington Arcade has a stunning selection of decorative glass homewares and objet d’arts. Founder René Lalique was also a fan of the Big Smoke and studied here before founding his business in 1885. More like a museum than a shop, you’ll be truly blown away by the craftsmanship this brand still holds today.
The French know how to pair their food, and their outfits, with a refined drink. From their vast wine-growing heritage to being the only place in the world to produce champagne, they know how to enjoy the finer things in life. Luckily, so do Londoners. Whatever your poison, there’s a French bar for it.
A tucked away gem, Le Beaujolais is the oldest French wine bar in London and remains under French ownership. True experts in the terroirs of the country, they have a well-curated selection of reasonably-priced wines to buy by the glass or bottle, served alongside small plates of classic French dishes. A members’ club with restaurant is situated downstairs but anyone is welcome to explore their selection at the ground floor bar. Passionate about small producers and traditional recipes, Le Beaujolais prides itself on being a little piece of France in London.
If you’ve ever walked past the elaborately decorated Café Royal hotel on Regent Street and felt it had a distinctly Parisian vibe, you’d be right. Opened by a French wine merchant, Daniel Nicholas Thévenon, in 1865 as a restaurant and meeting place, it has seen numerous royalty and celebrities through its doors including Oscar Wilde, Princess Diana and David Bowie. In its early years, it was renowned as having the best wine cellar in the world and to this day they’re meticulous about providing an excellent selection with a particular focus on French regions. If you’re after something a little harder, head to the Green Bar and experience “le fée verte”, absinthe, and imagine you’re a bohemian artist in 19th century Paris.
As the name would suggest, Champagne + Fromage in Covent Garden serves exactly what it says above the door, alongside cured meats and sweet treats like macarons. Offering drinks and nibbles to have in or take away, it’s the perfect spot for a pre-theatre tipple. They also hold regular tasting events for wine and cheese lovers. Their champagnes come from award-winning growers and the food side of the business is handled by the family-owned Une Normande à Londres. Their champagne afternoon tea is a delicious French twist on the English classic and comes highly recommended for trying a top selection of everything they have to offer.