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I had heard that meetingsbooker was compiling a list of “perfect meeting places” around the world, and this got me thinking and reminiscing.
As someone who loves moving to the beat of my own drum and actually needing my own personal space and time in order to unwind, catch my breath and regain energy, I really enjoy solo travelling, or at least travelling with people who won’t take offence if I need a day or two to myself every so often. Yet, I DO need company too, at least some of the time. This is something I realised when I spent about a year and a half working in the UK and travelling through Europe, mostly solo. After a while, I really wished there was someone there to whom I could say, “Wow, just look at that!”
There are many other reasons why it’s great to travel with friends, which I have previously discussed, here. But the single best thing about travelling with a bunch of like-minded people, I think, is to have someone to eat with.
In the epic solo travel movie Into the Wild (see trailer below), Christopher McCandless comes to the realisation that, “Happiness is only real when shared.” Whilst I agree with this sentiment, I think my personal philosophy is, “Food is best when shared.”
For this reason, although I don’t mind and even relish sightseeing on my own, watching a movie by myself and shopping in my own time, I just won’t dine in a fancy establishment without company. I don’t mind so much a quick lunch by myself in a cafe, but a fine dining restaurant? No, thanks. When I’m travelling solo, most of the time I end up foraging in local delis and supermarkets for picnic type foods that I can eat at a local park or even my own room, especially if it has a balcony from which I can people watch.
Whilst this is a very enjoyable pastime that I highly recommend, what’s even better is to have someone to regale with tales of your day’s adventures, not to mention someone to bounce ideas off as you make plans for the rest of your trip. The best kind of holiday then, in my opinion, is one where you can go about your own business during the day at least some of the time, yet have someone to meet up with for dinner. Here are 3 of my most memorable meet and eat locations around the world.
1. Dinner, London
Did you know London is actually a very small place? I’m not kidding! Or maybe it just seems that way to me because, clearly, Aussie tourists and expats hang around the same haunts. Take the trip I made to London in 2011. I was staying with my friends M+J, and we’d made plans one day to meet K+H at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the afternoon. M+J and I set off for the Borough Markets in the morning, and who should we spy on the top of an open top tour bus? Later, as we were taking the Tube to the V&A, we bumped into K+H again! I mean, I know we had made plans to meet at the V&A at a specific time, but it’s still pretty amazing that we ended up in exactly the same carriage on exactly the same train!
Speaking of trains, another day on that same trip, M+J and I were headed to Peggy Porschen for breakfast when we bumped into another friend of mine, JW, again on the Tube. This was the day after I’d had dinner with JW somewhere in Covent Garden, when who should come strolling down the very street where we were seated at in the al fresco area? Why, M+J! Of course.
Anyway, 2 years later, I returned to London, and of course made it a point to meet my good friend JW again. I’ve always wanted to eat at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck, but didn’t have the time to make my way to Bray. As an alternative, JW and I decided to dine at his London establishment, the unambiguously named but acclaimed Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.
As its name suggests, dinner at Dinner is nowhere near as fantastical as what you’d expect at The Fat Duck. However, the quality of the food and the service provided are every bit as outstanding as what I would expect from The Fat Duck. In fact, I would go so far as to say the service we received that night was amongst the best I have ever experienced all around the world.
The staff were unobtrusive yet completely attentive to our needs, like well trained butlers who can recognise when they’re required and seemingly appear out of nowhere. For instance, a handbag hook was placed on the table’s edge just as my friend took her seat. They anticipated a need and tended to it without fuss or drama. Yet, unlike many other restaurants where the staff are efficient but impersonal or even downright snooty, the superb service was matched by their friendliness. Our waiters asked us about our day and where our accents were from as the menus were placed in our hands. They seemed interested in us, and were patient in answering any questions we had about the menu. They were also incredibly knowledgeable about the food. Service with a smile? They’ve got that down to a fine art at Dinner.
I apologise for the lack of photos and my usual descriptive account for each course of the meals described in this post, for all were imbibed before I decided to start blogging about my experiences. Suffice to say that the service was matched by the quality of the food served. Hardly surprising, really, given that Dinner’s accolades include 2 Michelin stars and being ranked no. 5 in San Pellegrino’s 2014 list of top 50 restaurants around the world.
I ordered the famous meat fruit (£17.50) to start, a deliciously creamy but not overly rich chicken liver and foie gras pate shaped to look exactly like a mandarin. This was served with a nicely charred piece of toast. For me, there was far too much pate for just one piece of toast, but this wasn’t a problem as our waitress noticed that fact and offered to bring another piece just as I was running out.
I followed this with a fillet of Aberdeen Angus served with mushroom ketchup and fries (£42). The reason I chose this main dish was because I’d heard of Heston’s twice cooked chips. I recall the steak being perfectly cooked and the chips being delightfully crispy, though the ketchup was a tad on the salty side for my palate.
The highlight of the night, though, had to be my dessert. I absolutely couldn’t go past the ice-cream, made on the spot before your very eyes by mixing liquid nitrogen into the creme anglaise mix. Not only do you get a smoke and whistles fanfare, the result is a perfectly smooth ice-cream as the rapid cooling of the mixture means that ice crystals don’t get a chance to form. You get a choice of flavour and topping. I went for white chocolate ice-cream with a popping candy topping. It was like a mini circus show to end the meal, and so much fun!
Dinner is situated in the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge, London
Tel: +44 (0)20 7201 3833
Nearest Tube Knightsbridge
2. Stella Maris, Paris
Situated just a stone’s throw from the Arc de Triomphe, Stella Maris is a perfect little meeting place for lunch or dinner before or after a day of shopping along the Champs Elysees. If you make plans to meet not at the front door of the restaurant itself but instead at the intersection of rue Arsene Houssaye with the Champs Elysees, you also get a great vantage point of the Arc de Triomphe. This was where I met 2 friends from Singapore for arguably one of the best meals I have ever had.
Chef Tateru Yoshino, who trained under the likes of Joel Robuchon, serves classical French fare but with a subtle Japanese twist. I find the 2 cuisines to be a perfect marriage as both favour delicate portion sizes, precisely balanced flavours and a pleasing aesthetic. I wasn’t disappointed on all 3 counts.
We decided upon the lunch menu (menu dejeuner), where you get to choose from a variety of entree, main and dessert options. I started with a perfectly cooked white asparagus served with a beurre blanc sauce. This was followed by a duck dish, and I was amused to see that the jus was meticulously poured over the meat so as to simulate the appearance of a duck on the plate. It is clear at Stella Maris that every plate is carefully selected and every morsel deliberately positioned for the best possible visual appeal.
Again, the dessert was the highlight. I chose a strawberry, jelly and ice-cream concoction that was light, refreshing and immensely satisfying. We were given petite fours to finish. My favourite was the macaron, which not only had that perfectly crisp yet chewy texture that all macarons should aspire to, there was also a surprise in the form of an exploding strawberry jam centre. Divine!
4 rue Arsène Houssaye, Paris
Tel: 0033 1 42 89 16 72
Nearest Metro Charles de Gaulle-Étoile
3. House of Nanking, San Francisco
I went to San Francisco with a friend, but we were both on separate work conferences, so most days we were on our own, but made it a point to meet up for dinners. On one such night, we met 3 other friends, all from Australia, but one of whom was actually living in San Fran at the time. This friend recommended the House of Nanking, which suited us just fine as we’d been on the road for some time and were missing good Asian cuisine.
Its location in Chinatown gave us the opportunity to take an evening stroll through the area before dinner.
You’ll know you’ve arrived at House of Nanking by the long queue outside the door. It’s a small restaurant that doesn’t take bookings, so it’s first come, first served. We were intrigued to see what the fuss was all about.
As we’d planned to meet early, we were seated in reasonable time. Looking down the menu, we were somewhat disappointed. There wasn’t an authentic Chinese dish in sight! Not knowing what to order but also not wanting to seem rude by leaving since we were already seated, the best Cantonese speaker in our group asked the chef when he came by to take our order, “Seefu (teacher), what should we order?” Without a word, all the menus were pulled out of our hands and the plates and cutlery were cleared from our tables. Thinking we had offended the man, we looked at each other, speechless, not quite knowing whether we really should get up and leave.
Luckily, the chef came back not long after with bowls and chopsticks. He told us in Cantonese, “That menu is not for you. It’s for foreigners. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you.” And with that, we had unlocked the special menu. All we had to do was wait for one delicious dish after another to be brought out to us. I don’t remember exactly what we ate, except that it was a great balance of soup, different types of meat and vegetables, it all tasted wonderful, and the portion size of the entire meal was perfect. At the end, we were all full but not stuffed. My advice to you? Come here with a Cantonese speaking friend. Or at least try and butter him up by calling him “seefu”.
At the end of the night, the chef returned to check on us and make sure we were satisfied. My Cantonese speaking friend had her photo taken with him, after which he left us with some tea and fortune cookies to finish off. Here’s what mine said:
I’m not entirely sure if my fortune came true, but House of Nanking certainly became one of my favourite meet and eat memories.
House of Nanking
919 Kearny St, San Francisco
Tel: +1 415-421-1429
What other restaurants or non food related meeting places around the world would you recommend? I’d love to hear your suggestions!
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