Two decades on from its founding, this minimally decorated Clerkenwell pioneer is as good as ever: gutsy but sophisticated British cooking, puds a strong point.
Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver’s restaurant – now the heart of a mini-empire with branch, bakery and wine dealership – has been praised to the skies for reacquainting the British with the full possibilities of native produce, and especially anything gutsy and offal-ish.
Perhaps as influential, however, has been its almost defiantly casual style: a Michelin-starred restaurant for people who run from the very idea. The mezzanine dining room in the former Smithfield smokehouse has bare white walls, battered floorboards and tables lined up canteen-style; the downstairs bar, with superb snacks, is equally basic. The staff are able to chat without allowing anything to go off-track.
St John’s cooking is famously full-on, but also sophisticated, concocting flavours that are delicate as well as rich. Black cuttlefish and onions was extraordinary, arriving in a supremely deep-flavoured ink-based sauce with a hint of mint; ox tongue was perfectly cooked to bring out every taste and texture, and served with fantastic horseradish. This is powerful cooking, so if you go for a full dinner, including the great neo-traditional puds, leave time for digestion.
Wines – all French, many under St John’s own label, are on the pricey side, but you can also order good beers from the attached bar. Many diners prefer the no-bookings bar for its more casual vibe and reasonable prices.