I have enjoyed lots—and I mean lots—of outstanding meals around the world. I still can almost taste the best strawberries, chocolate, collard greens, nectarines, wild boar, cheesecake, and green beans I’ve ever had. Just as important, I clearly remember where I had them. Although the food is always the star of the show, the ambience of the place where you’re enjoying it plays a hefty role in the entire dining experience. From a sumptuous buffet breakfast in the Palm Court Restaurant in the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza Hotel, to high tea at New York’s Plaza Hotel, to a three-course lunch at an Argentinian winery, to dinners around a campfire on an island in the Kemi River in Finland and in a beachfront restaurant in Grand Cayman, I’ve dined amid surroundings that truly made my meal unique. Restaurants with one-of-a-kind ambience or history will undoubtedly be the ones you’ll remember best. These are my favorites.
#1 The Old Weavers Restaurant (Canterbury, England)
It was a dark and stormy November night when I sought shelter in The Old Weavers Restaurant way back in 1997. The mood had been set early, when I arrived in Canterbury from London and spent the gloomy, rainy day plodding along curvy alleys shrouded in fog and mystery, exploring the deserted ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey and Canterbury Castle, and stepping around cold and damp Canterbury Cathedral, receiving an extra chill when I approached the spot where Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in 1170. Battling the rain and wind, The Old Weavers Restaurant, beside a narrow branch of the Great Stour River, beckoned me with the amber glow of lights behind the windows in its half-timber Tudor façade, roof gables, and suggestion of a warm, welcoming fire hinted at by the tall chimneys. I ducked to enter—the low doorway was clearly made for people from 500 years ago who were shorter than 5’10”, when Canterbury was made prosperous by the weaving industry. Inside, it felt like nothing had changed in half a millennium. The low beamed ceilings, wood floors, copper vessels, and wall tapestries conjured up a Middle Ages vibe. The menu was hearty, dishes to satisfy even the most voracious trenchermen, exactly what I wanted on a night like this—lamb shank with mashed potatoes and rosemary gravy, for instance, or roast beef with horseradish, and treacle sponge pudding for dessert. I enjoyed it all in a late medieval setting where I could have almost realistically hoped for a knight or minstrel to join me.
#2 Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse (Boulder, Colorado)
It’s not every day that I come across a Tajik teahouse, so when I passed by this eye-catching establishment in downtown Boulder, Colorado, I couldn’t resist. In 1987, the then-mayor of Dushanbe, Tajikistan, visited his home’s sister city in Colorado and announced plans to create a teahouse in Boulder to commemorate the relationship. More than 40 Tajik artisans spent three years building the teahouse in their country without a single power tool. Then they disassembled it and shipped the pieces in 200 crates to Colorado, and the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse finally opened in 1998. The entry is flanked by black wrought-iron benches, trellises, rose gardens, and outdoor dining patios. Lured along this path, I admired the vibrant blues of the façade’s eight ceramic tile panels that depict the tree of life. As soon as I crossed the threshold, I entered another—and decidedly non-Coloradan—world. A dozen cedar columns, each one carved with a different and exquisitely detailed design, support the carved ceiling, covered in intricate patterns hand-painted in vibrant colors. Seven copper sculptures representing “the Seven Beauties”—princesses described in a work by a 12th-century Persian poet—surround a central pool. Oil paintings, traditional handmade Tajik furniture, and eight carved white plaster panels seem to glow from the light streaming through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The menu was as beguiling as the teahouse itself, and making a decision turned out to be a time-consuming effort. Quite a few Tajik dishes, along with a variety of Asian, African, and other international offerings, increased my ambivalence over what to order; the Tajikistan plov—a wonderful combination of beef, rice, carrots, chickpeas, sweet cabbage, apricots, cranberries, and a slew of spices—eventually won out. To complicate matters, more than 100 different types of tea are available—everything from pomegranate quince green tea to a soothing cinnamon plum tea. No matter which choice you make, however, you’re guaranteed to be treated to one of the most unusual and memorable meals in the Centennial State.
#3 Antica Osteria da Divo (Siena, Italy)
Located in the historic center of Siena, wending its way under the spectacular cathedral, Antica Osteria da Divo transports you back to the past, say, a millennium ago. The unassuming entrance belies the marvels within. With its uneven brick, stone, and tufaceous walls, brick arches, and wood beams and crossbeams that look like they’d collapse during the first rumbles of a central Italian earthquake, the restaurant incorporates ancient vaults created during the Etruscan period into its distinctive decor. Its labyrinthine passageways and staircases take you down to three different levels. On one of them, hunt for the defunct medieval well. Some light fixtures look like what a cloaked and hooded figure would carry around the night streets 700 years ago. This cavern-like setting enables you to truly relish local Tuscan specialties, like the crispy quail with aromatic herbs, blueberry sauce, and daikon, or a creamy risotto served in a wheel of cheese that melts into the risotto as you eat it—a dish so dreamy you can practically cry.
#4 The Witchery by the Castle (Edinburgh, Scotland)
The titular castle is Edinburgh Castle, a massive complex that overlooks the city from atop a hill at the western end of the Royal Mile, the main thoroughfare through the city’s Old Town. It boasts some of Edinburgh’s top sights, from the castle at one end to Holyrood Palace at the other, with magnificent St. Giles’ Cathedral in between. This artery teems with tourists, which made me a bit chary of The Witchery by the Castle, just steps from the castle gates and the potential to be a tourist trap. How wrong I was. The restaurant, now in its fifth decade of operation, occupies a structure built in 1595 near the spot where hundreds of men and women accused of being witches were burned at the stake during the 16th and 17th centuries. I entered the restaurant from a traditional close and was immediately won over by the gilded leather screens, rich red leather upholstery, Gothic paneling from a Burgundian chateau, balconies, antique church candleholders, and painted and gilded beam ceiling. Tapestries cover walls of 17th-century oak rescued from a fire at St Giles’ Cathedral. Painted doors and panels portray elements of the city’s ancient wine trade with France. Amid this incomparable ambience, I was treated to an unforgettable meal of a wild garlic portage with cream cheese and snipped wild leeks; pot roast corn-fed poussin with purple sprouting broccoli, basil mashed potatoes, and broccoli ketchup; and passion fruit and mascarpone trifle.
#5 Gryphon Tea Room (Savannah, Georgia)
Following an outstanding dinner along the Savannah River at River House Seafood the night before, I was now hunting for a unique lunch spot in the best historic district in the United States. Directly across the street from Madison Square and located on the street level of the former 1923 Scottish Rite Masonic Temple, one of the most beautiful buildings in Savannah, the Gryphon Tea Room seemed like the ideal place for a midday meal. Part of the Savannah College of Art and Design campus (one of the top five college campuses), the Gryphon is housed in a space formerly occupied by a pharmacy. Inside, a large chandelier hangs from a gorgeous stained-glass ceiling panel, and green and white stained-glass globes provide additional lighting. Drawers with such labels as Camphor Gum, Eyedrops, Tablets, Alophen Pills, and Ointments are topped by carved mahogany and glass-front bookcases formerly for medicines, tinctures, capsules, tonics, and salves, and now holding an eclectic selection of books, from War and Peace to The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. A series of stained-glass panels with an apothecary’s pestle and mortar runs above them. You’ll probably want to stop here for afternoon tea service in this cozy and historic locale, but you can also enjoy a refreshing Atlanta peach (peach nectar, fresh lime juice, and ginger-infused sparkling water), some superior Italian wedding soup, and a prosciutto baguette with Manchego cheese, fig spread, arugula, and pears.
- The Bank Bar and Restaurant (Dublin, Ireland)
- Old Swiss House (Lucerne, Switzerland)
- The Sultan’s Tent & Café Moroc (Toronto, Ontario)
- Rookwood Pottery Food & Beverage Company (Cincinnati, Ohio)
- Chaophraya (Glasgow, Scotland)
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