For us, travel is mostly about the food.
2016 was another stellar year for eating. We ventured around the UK, Europe, and the US for some amazing eats, from casual brunches at our favorite neighborhood spot to fancy, Michelin-starred tasting menus.
We had a few duds along the way (that’s bound to happen at the rate we dine out!), but the highlights greatly outweigh the lowlights. Overall, I think we may have eaten even better this year, which we didn’t think was possibly after last year (check out our 2015 restaurant picks here).
So before we flip our calendar into 2017, here are our favorite meals of 2016.
The “Best Way to Start A Year” Award: Fera at Claridge’s, London
2016 got off to an epic start, with possibly our favorite restaurant experience of the year, at 1pm on January 1st.
We don’t waste time.
Fera at Claridge’s is a one Michelin star restaurant from Simon Rogan that highlights unique, locally foraged herbs and vegetables, with the best seasonal products, all dished up with a modern twist. It’s expensive (£110 for an extended tasting menu, but a more reasonable £42 for a 3-course lunch) but worth every penny.
The service was especially noteworthy, as the staff was extremely professional without being cold, and handled my gluten allergy as smoothly and effortlessly as any restaurant I’ve dined in. If you are in London, and are okay with dropping a few hundred pounds, Fera is worth your consideration!
The “So Nice We Did It Twice” Award: L’Enclume, Cartmel, UK
After crowning Chef Rogan’s Fera in London as one of our favorite restaurants, we knew that during a trek north to the Lake District for a holiday weekend, a visit to Rogan’s first restaurant, L’Enclume, was a priority.
Like Fera, L’Enclume is Michelin-starred and pricey, but the £55/person 6-course lunch provides a major value for the quality of food and service. They handled my gluten allergy with ease, and actually served some of the best gluten-free bread I’ve ever tried, a perfect vehicle for dipping into the ramekins of whipped ham fat!
The “Unique and Budget Friendly” Award: Hoppers, London
Hoppers opened this year with a bang. Its owners have been behind some of our favorite restaurants in London (Gymkhana, Bao, Kitchen Table, among others) and they nailed it right out of the gate. Hoppers is a Sri Lankan restaurant, a cuisine that is not overly represented in most culinary circles. The decor is funky, the staff is happy to explain the many unusual Sri Lankan dishes, and the food is spicy and vibrant. Plus, most dishes are under £8, offering a fantastic value in a city not known for deals.
The hot buttered deviled shrimps was one of our Top 50 Dishes in London, packed with heat and spice. The hoppers, a classic Sri Lankan dish made with a coconut milk based crepe and filled with your choice of curries, are the namesake dish for a reason.
We tend to not revisit many restaurants, especially in London. We went to Hoppers four times. Enough said.
The “Blow Your Face Off Spicy” Award: Somtum Der, NYC
This summer, our NYC friends took us to their favorite Thai restaurant in the East Village, the perpetually busy Somtum Der. They took charge of ordering, and since we all share a love of eating, our table was quickly cluttered with too many dishes.
For those in love with authentic “Thai spicy” dishes, Somtum Der is for you. The larb moo, a spicy salad of minced pork with chiles, and the tum thai kai kem, a papaya salad with salted egg, had us crying at the table and reaching for the refreshing (and cooling) Thai iced tea. Not all the dishes are spicy, but everything we had was delicious and not overly expensive, especially by NYC standards.
If I lived near Somtum Der, I would never order pad thai again.
The “Best Middle Eastern BBQ” Award: Berber & Q, London
Berber & Q is in the heart of hipster East London, situated in a converted archway, meaning it is quite literally underneath the train tracks. They don’t take bookings and it’s always packed, but the food is worth the wait and the occasion rumble from a passing train above.
The food takes influence from the Middle East and North Africa, offering unique dishes like cauliflower shwarma with tahini and rose, and dirty fried mejadrah with smoked venison, an Arabic rice and lentil dish. The heart of the restaurant is the grilled meats, with are served on large trays with pita, harissa, and any other mezze dishes you order. There are lemon and saffron chicken thighs, lamb chops, and smoked pork belly with pomegranate bbq sauce.
The food is heavy and intense, but worth the caloric intake!
The “We Went There Before It Became Famous” Award: Hisa Franko, Slovenia
We booked a table at Hisa Franko this spring after we decided to spend a few days in the Soca Valley of Slovenia. I ran across this restaurant in a few articles, and was floored by the look of their tasting menu, the cheese cave, wine program, and the surrounding landscape. Shortly after making a reservation, the Netflix series “Chef’s Table” announced that Hisa Franko was going to be featured in the upcoming Season 2 of the acclaimed show.
What good timing.
The meal at Hisa Franko was full of surprises, from obscure Slovenian wines, to fermented cheese shaped into a lollipop. The gardens around the property provide much of the produce and herbs, and the river and fields contribute the rest.
I’ve since read that they have increased the number of tables that are available each night, to satisfy the surging demand.
The “We Are In Italy Now” Award: Trattoria Pomposa
We stumbled upon Trattoria Pomposa while strolling through the center of Modena, a city in the heart of the food-centric Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Julie wanted some authentic, regional Italian food at a restaurant filled with locals, not tourists. It had to be busy, but not too busy. Thankfully, we walked right by Trattoria Pomposa at the perfect time.
It was casual, but nice. Within twenty minutes of sitting on a weekend afternoon, the compact dining room was full of families and groups of friends, all chattering in Italian. We fumbled with our poor Italian skills, but managed to order tortellini in brodo, tagliatelle al ragout (Bolognese-style meat sauce), and calzagatti, a fried polenta and white bean cake, served with freshly made ricotta.
When the food hit the table, we knew we had made the right choice. Like the best Italian restaurants, the dishes all appear simple and straightforward, yet pop with flavor in a way you just can’t recreate back home.
Only in Italy.
The “I’ll Miss This Neighborhood” Award: Sunday, London
We left our beloved home of London in September, for adventures in a new home that we STILL haven’t nailed down. And one neighborhood spot in the north London neighborhood of Barnsbury that we will miss the most is Sunday. Now, shame on us, it took us literally years to venture down the block to sample its famous breakfast. The tiny restaurant is perpetually packed, with queues forming before it even opens.
When we finally braved the queue, we weren’t disappointed. The breakfast/brunch menus are eclectic and fun, and the portions are obscene. Courgette fritters with avocado, bacon, arugula, yogurt and a poached egg. Huevos rancheros with black beans, avocado, chorizo, and crispy fried poach egg (yes, that’s possible). Welsh rarebit with smoked haddock, poached egg, and bacon. The list of tempting dishes just goes on and on.