The first rule of Rochelle Canteen club is knowing how to actually find the damn place. After battling the chaos that is the current state of Old Street tube station, my dining companion texts me a plaintive ‘I’m lost’, as she attempts to find this extremely well-hidden restaurant, entry to which is strictly on a need-to know basis.
To save any faff, we’ll clue you in now. First, find the door in the brick wall on the south-east side of Arnold Circus. Next to it is a brace of buzzers, one discreetly marked ‘Canteen’. Press it. You’ll soon be whisked into a walled garden wonderland. In the spring and summer, it’s a verdant delight. In the colder months, it definitely still has its charm, but you’ll be dining in the plastic gazebo which is propped up against the Victorian school bikesheds where Melanie Arnold and Margot Henderson’s formerly daytime-only spot is based.
Low-key Hollywood gossip thrummed from the table next to mine
In its early days, Rochelle Canteen was purely a lunch place for the ‘creatives’ toiling in the converted Rochelle School hub. But it didn’t take too long for word of its sublime way with simple meals, elevated by outstanding ingredients, to spread. This was in no small part due to the presence of Henderson, who had previously run the kitchen upstairs at Soho’s French House with her husband Fergus, who in the mid-1990s co-founded that other London dining institution, St John. Since it opened in 2004, Rochelle Canteen has quite rightly become another of London’s most in-demand restaurants, even more so since it started serving supper and scored an alcohol licence.
When I visited on a chilly March weekday night, the buzz is what I noticed first – no mean feat for a place that’s been in business for almost two decades. At a four-top sat a giddy 20-something who was evidently introducing their parents to a new partner, while low-key Hollywood gossip thrummed from the table next to ours. Across the yard, under dainty festoon lighting, flamboyant fashionistas in outrageous outerwear sat brilliantly askance to the trad setting: battered wooden chairs draped with tartan blankets in case anyone wants to warm up their knees. It’s a welcoming kind of spot: come here in couture leather chaps, or come here in a Land’s End fleece, nobody gives a fig either way.
The trad touches keep to just the right side of Laura Ashley twee; water comes in chipped enamel jugs, and boxy cutlery is decidedly school-lunch-hall-like. Drinks are vintage too; I ordered a soothing glass of Black Velvet as I scanned a menu celebrating British classics, from devilled kidneys and parsnip soup, to lamb chop with lentils, and fish pie with peas. I plumped for a starter of veal brisket with pickled red cabbage, which came coiled and dainty with a fiery dollop of horseradish, while a main of braised rabbit with fennel and black rice was a magnificently murky beast of a stew. Picking from my guest’s plate, I tried the crispy John Dory starter: simple, perfectly battered fish dialled up a notch thanks to a sweet homemade ketchup. A vegetarian main of beetroot, white beans, rocket and goat’s curd was far more than the sum of its parts, akin instead to a stroll through a home counties allotment next door to a small working farm. But, like, in your mouth.
Which is to say that Rochelle Canteen is the ideal place to take some time off from the hectic pace of London city life – especially now you know how to get in.
The vibe An in-the-know hotspot for London creatives, media types and fans of straight-up stunning cooking.
The food British basics done extremely well, using the very best ingredients.
The drink St John wines dominate the menu, but there’s also a decent range of British beers and classics like Negronis.
Time Out tip Puddings are always deeply old school. If it’s a chilly day, order whatever's going with custard, and to beat the heat, the sorbet (hopefully blood orange) is your guy.