London’s Sky Garden Restaurants Play It Safe—Too Safe
There is a theory that the higher the restaurant and the better the view, the worse the food.
With Sushisamba and Duck & Waffle atop Heron Tower; City Social 24 floors up at Tower 42; and Oblix and Hutong in the Shard, it's an idea that is clearly mistaken. These are all fine places to eat and none is diminished by its elevation.
Over at 20 Fenchurch Street—the latest skyscraper in London's City financial district—things are less cut-and-dried. The developers have handed over the top of the building, popularly known as the Walkie Talkie, to Rhubarb, a catering-and-events company, rather than to a dedicated restaurateur.
The results are mixed.
The view is certainly dramatic from the so-called Sky Garden, three tiers of landscaped space that are open to the public during the day (provided you don't mind going through airport-style security to reach them).
At night, especially, the Sky Pod bar is a dramatic place to go for drinks. It's better than the Shard, where you have to buy a ticket to travel to the top and there's not much there when you arrive. If you've got visitors coming to London, take them to the Sky Pod for a drink and you are almost sure to impress.
The Darwin Brasserie is up here, too. This is an informal place with friendly staff and an accessible menu. The prices are not much higher than you would pay on the ground, and the standards are a little higher than elsewhere.
A chunky prawn cocktail with Bloody Mary dressing costs 13.50 pounds ($20.76). It's generous, with just the right amount of edgy sharpness. It is also a thing of beauty—the glass bowl a cacophony of colors as eggs, leaves, and seafood squabble for attention. It's crispy and lush, light yet substantial.
The fish and chips (16.50 pounds) are also to be recommended. A whole British line-caught haddock stretches out across the plate, the moist fish encased in a golden batter so light and crispy as to be like tempura. There's a bright green splosh of mushy peas. The chunky chips, in their own metal pot, are less appealing. I've never understood the brutal appeal of chips that are too fat for finesse.
The beef burger, in a toasted brioche bun with house slaw and chips (15.50 pounds) is all right without being memorable. I'd tell you more about the meaty flavor if I hadn't forgotten. Perhaps you would prefer the tuna niçoise, or the braised ox cheeks, or the pork belly, or the lamb rump.
In other words, this is unchallenging fare with an everyman (and woman) appeal. There are vegetarian dishes; there are half-portions for children; there are smiling waiters. Darwin is entirely unobjectionable so long as you are not looking for innovation.
It's the flagship Fenchurch Seafood Bar & Grill where things go a bit pear-shaped. Not that the food is bad: The ingredients and cooking are fine. The problem is that many tables have almost no view: Diners look out at the canopy that tops the Walkie Talkie.
Some seats at the side have a view. The private dining room has an excellent view. Even the chefs in the kitchen have a view.
I'm not sure that I want to put my mobile phone through an X-ray machine, submit myself to a scanning, travel 35 floors in a lift, then walk another two levels up a staircase to see nothing more than the occasional workman clambering over a canopy.
It's not as if the menu—featuring only two fish dishes among the mains—has much to offer that is unavailable at street level. For meat, it is difficult to beat Goodman and Hawksmoor. For fish, Angler has things covered.
Fenchurch is a perfectly decent restaurant: It's bright and attractive. While the wine list and menu aren't cheap, you can eat and drink well. It is hushed, something that can't be said for many London establishments. You might have a business meeting up here and leave well-satisfied. It's very safe.
The top of the Walkie Talkie will be a great place for weddings, funerals, and bar and bat mitzvahs. But it's more exciting for drinks than for the restaurant experience.
Sky Garden, Darwin Brasserie, and Fenchurch Seafood Bar & Grill are at 20 Fenchurch Street, London, EC3M 3BY; +44-33-3772-0020 or skygarden.london.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.