Head East, Then Look Up: High-rise Dining in London
That said, I’m not a complete epicurean imbecile either. While I might not be a foodie-fangirl to the modern chef’s mad dash to banish bland, old English food from the city, I have my moments. I once dropped $120 on sushi for myself at Nobu in Old Park Lane and it was worth every penny. Then there’s my new obsession with eating my way down Brick Lane where you’ll find such intoxicating Indian food your nose will lead you in the right direction the moment you get off the tube. Then it will run the rest of the day after you’ve had too much spice.
So my not-so-finely tuned palette was piqued when I saw a top ten list of London’s highest restaurants—as in altitude—after I arrived for a real, honest-to-goodness holiday.
Until the mid-20th century, due to building height restrictions, London didn’t have towers to speak of. Its first “skyscraper,” built in the 1920s, only has 10 stories. But when the first construction that would resemble what Americans think of as skyscrapers went up in the 1980s, sky-high dining soon followed. I decided to do a little comparison-shopping and chose two from the list; both opened within the last year.
As a vacationer, there are not many obvious reasons to find oneself in the financial district of the East End. It tends to get overlooked as people bypass it for the Tower of London or Brick Lane and Spitalfields Market further east. But as I shot up the side of Heron Tower in a glass elevator to Duck & Waffle on the 40th floor, I gave myself an imaginary head smack (there were businessmen with me) for not having come here sooner—for the view alone.
|Let’s get this straight: if you are afraid of heights, this is not for you. |
Heron Tower, 110 Bishopsgate.
Though the Duck & Waffle is open 24/7— a novelty for a high-end eatery—the main dining room serves in structured shifts. As I wandered in between lunch and dinner seating the hostess was happy to seat me in the bar with the others there for a drink and the spectacular cityscape. No biggy, there’s a light bar menu that has most of their good stuff on it anyway.
I was browsing the lengthy cocktail menu when said hostess slid up beside me and informed me that since I was on my own she’d checked with the kitchen: They didn’t mind doing a single cover, would I like to move into the dining room?
Does a duck like water? Truly, things like that are half the reason I love traveling alone.
|Room with a view. The southeastern expanse.|
I was given a table so close to the window I could fog up the glass with my breath had the view not taken it away. I could almost reach out and touch the iconic Gherkin directly in front of me, and the red double-deckers rolling across Tower Bridge looked like a fairy tale dream. The roughly 300-degree view from the main room is broken by the kitchen, which is open, should you feel like peeling your eyes away from the panorama of the city to take in the action over the stoves.
|The Duck's open kitchen showcases friendly cooks.|
The menu is European, collectively, and lists small plates eaten tapas-style and big plates “for the table.” I didn’t know what to expect, since frankly, the Duck could rely on its tower-top location to lure people in and not have to deliver that much in the way of cooking. I ordered small plates of roasted octopus with chorizo, bacon-wrapped dates (at the recommendation of the excellent waitress) and a French white. And bread. Oh, the bread. Handmade onsite, still steaming when I ripped it open.
I can say with certainty: view or no view, the food is incredible. If this place were in a bunker two miles underground with little to no lighting, I would still go to eat. It actually does take your attention—momentarily—away from the vistas. And that’s saying something.
|The Duck's bacon-wrapped dates. |
After a second glass of wine and a smile from one of the cooks, I reluctantly pulled myself off of my thrown as the dinner waitstaff reset tables for the evening.
A short stroll due south across the Thames via London Bridge brought me to The Shard. Finished in 2012, it’s the newest addition of ultramodern 'scrapers to the city’s skyline and, for the moment, the tallest building in Western Europe. Earlier this year its answer to the Duck & Waffle was unveiled. Oblix (Ah-blicks) sits on the 32nd floor.
|The Shard, Joiner Street, atop London Bridge Station.|
Having already read a firmly mediocre review of its menu in The Guardian, in which the writer called it “International Fancy Hotel Safe,” I made up my mind to do coffee and dessert here after the scrumptious stuff at the Duck.
Like at the other place, Oblix was between seating, with dinner starting at 6:00. It was 4:30 so I let them shuttle me to the bar on the east side of the space, which was large and comfortable, full of business types in beautiful suits. No offer to let me swan into the big room here.
|Oblix's mod bar. No food, but high-end mixology and coffee.|
I sat at the bar facing away from the view since all the fluffy couches around low tables lining the windows were reserved for groups. This is obviously the flipside of traveling alone. There was a small stage with a piano in the corner. This was the place to be after dark when the city lights were twinkling. Unless the fog settled in as it did. In a matter of minutes the scene north toward Heron Tower and The Gherkin, Tower Bridge and all was virtually gone, the one unavoidable drawback to sky-high hotspots here.
The consolation was the opposite view—of the bartenders—wasn’t too bad either. I felt like I was back in L.A., where drink slingers are often hired for their looks. Albeit these guys were nicer. Though the calf-skin butchers’ aprons they wore seemed out of place; a rustic touch in an uber chic setting.
One seemed truly sorry when he told me there was no bar menu. No food service in the bar at all, in fact, unless I happened to have a reservation for lunch or dinner and asked to be served in the bar instead. He said I could ask one of the ubiquitous “res girls”—reservationists—floating through the space in black dresses for a spot for dinner.
I had a cappuccino; although I was worried they might not do coffee at the bar either. It wasn’t half bad, compared to most of the coffee I’d had in London, which was pretty crappy, really. (As far as I’m concerned good coffee is the only thing missing from this city.) I watched the barmen cut large ice blocks down to cubes by hand with a long-toothed hacksaw, the newest bar fad everywhere I go.
|The north view back to the financial district. Heron Tower |
in the far background left of The Gherkin.
As the movers and shakers drifted in and out, I sipped my coffee, had a nice chat with a handsome Danish bartender, and headed out as the fog began to clear.
|London fog: clearing. Tower Bridge and city hall (right) in Oblix's|
Though the staff was very kind, the level of service came nowhere close to Duck & Waffle. It may be worth going back to the bar at Oblix sometime after dark for live music and twinkly lights, which I was told were very twinkly. The views from each restaurant are similar, although Oblix is much closer to the river. But as for culinary concoctions, zooming the extra eight floors to the top of the Heron are worth it.
Duck & Waffle