The Swindian explores: London Christmas dinners

The concept of the British Christmas Dinner, which I will henceforth refer to as BCD, remains something of an enigma to me. Ever since I moved to the UK in 2008, I’ve always headed home to Switzerland for the holidays, where the traditional meal on 24th December is Fondue Chinoise (it translates as Chinese Fondue, but is seen as ‘typically’ Swiss!).

This year though, after five years in London, I decided to embrace the Christmas spirit a little more than I usually do, and this included trying a few traditional BCDs around the city throughout December. I’ve previously found them hugely over-indulgent, with what seems like a million moving parts: turkey, pigs in blankets, roast potatoes, brussels sprouts, gravy, wine, chocolate, stuffing… the list goes on and on. This is in contrast to Fondue Chinoise, where you have self-cooked meat, some rice and salad, and a few sauces, and the fun is in the dipping rather than the extreme gluttony!

BCDs are available everywhere in London throughout December. They get bundled up and put in a sandwich at Pret, the fanciest restaurants offer them as a special menu with high-end ingredients, and most pubs have a hearty version on the menu in addition to the usual pub grub. As I simply didn’t have enough time or stomach acids to make this a huge experiment, I was only able to try three BCDs, but these are my (very humble, non-British) impressions.

One to avoid: Coopers Arms, Chelsea

87 Flood St, Chelsea, SW3 5TB

This is where we had our team Christmas lunch, and it’s one I wouldn’t normally write about, as, quite frankly, it’s nothing to write about. The pub itself is nice and airy, but the food was very average. In the BCD main course, a particular bugbear was the bread sauce, which was stuffed full of cloves and barely edible! I liked the addition of chard to the side vegetables, but the turkey slices were dry, and even my smoked salmon starter severely lacked flavour. All in all, not recommended. It’s also in Chelsea, which is a bit of a trek from where I live, as well as being a 10-15 minute walk from the nearest tube station. Just not worth it.

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A disappointing BCD

Decent food, lacking service: The Grafton

20 Prince of Wales Rd, Kentish Town, NW5 3LG

We visited The Grafton on a pub quiz night, and although we didn’t participate, it seemed like great fun. However, this did mean that the service was a bit slow, and we were first put at a crooked table that blocked half the room, before being moved to a more adequate setting. Then, after we ordered from the provided BCD menu (our reason for visiting), we were told we couldn’t have it, as we hadn’t pre-ordered. Why give us the menu in the first place, then? ‘To show you what the Christmas menu is like, for when you’d want to pre-order.’ We looked at our waitress incredulously, and after some discussions with the kitchen, they generously let us have the BCD after all.

The food, after all that preamble, was pretty good. My salmon starter was far better than at Coopers Arms, with a lovely frothy creme fraiche and fresh dill accompaniment. Our main course of turkey with all the trimmings was, to overuse the previous term, pretty good. The additional bacon was crispy and crunchy, and whilst the candied red cabbage was too sweet and sticky for my liking, my dining companion was a big fan. Good roast potatoes and brussels sprouts – all in all, a pretty decent meal, especially for a pub, and a generous portion to boot. However, if The Grafton wants to become better known for its food (a recent visit to The Royal Oak springs to mind, which has made the successful transition to a gastropub), it still has a bit of a way to go. It took us forever to flag someone down for dessert, and the fondant was, for want of a better word, decent. Then again, after you’ve had chocolate fondant at Galvin at Windows, everything else pales in comparison!

My main issue with The Grafton was that our meal took around 3 hours, and a lot of that was us waiting around. Having said that, the food was decent, the wine list more than adequate, and for a casual evening, it’s worth going a la carte and joining the pub quiz. I liked that it was just around the corner from my flat, and their set menu, priced at £33 for three courses or £28 for two, was in line with most BCD prices.

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Smoked salmon starter at The Grafton

Fantastic food and setting: Hunter 486

50 Great Cumberland Pl, Marylebone, W1H 7FD

The occasion was Christmas dinner with the flatmate, but more importantly, this meal was the precursor to seeing Nelly (yes, the ‘Hot in Herre’ one) live. The menu was actually a Thanksgiving one, but as it shares many ingredients with the BCD, we used it as our Christmas celebration. And what a celebration. We started off with home-made sourdough with chunks of olive inside, which was crisp yet pillowy. The pumpkin soup was full of warmth, and our main course of turkey with trimmings surpassed all expectations. Gorgeously succulent meat, perfectly tender beans wrapped in bacon, and a chestnut stuffing to die for. What was inside (besides chestnuts), I’ll never know, but all stuffings shall henceforth be compared to it!

Hunter 486 is located inside The Arch hotel in Marble Arch, giving it a luxurious and upmarket feel. The service was superbly attentive throughout the evening, and the price of £35 for a 3-course menu was more than justified. As expected, they sting you a little on the drinks, but the cocktails were lovely, and the Argentinian Malbec complemented the food wonderfully, so I didn’t mind paying extra. The petits fours rounded off the meal in style, and we then proceeded to party it up, Nelly-style, so it really was a perfect evening!

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After these various experiments, I headed home to Switzerland for the holidays, as I usually do, and enjoyed Fondue Chinoise on the 23rd of December, with a snowy mountain walk, simple ‘tuna melts’ and a marathon of The Crown on Christmas Eve. Simple pleasures…

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A gorgeously sunny and snowy Christmas Eve walk in Hoch Ybrig

Did you try any BCDs in London this year? What were your thoughts, favourites, and disappointments? 

The Grafton:  The Grafton Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Coopers Arms: Coopers Arms Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hunter 486: Hunter 486 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

I was a guest at The Grafton, and was lucky to have my company pick up the cheque for Coopers Arms. Hunter 486 was out of my own pocket, and I was more than glad to pay for their quality. As always, all opinions are firmly my own.

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