Petersham Nurseries, near Richmond in Surrey, is a garden centre café and restaurant like no other. The casual-dining restaurant once held a Michelin star, though this may have had more to do with the prelapsarian beauty of the venue than the rustic Italian-style cooking.
This far more urban Covent Garden branch, opened in spring 2018, attempts to recreate the original’s idyllic setting, despite occupying an office block. The suntrap central courtyard is a big draw, with its changing array of plant displays and escape from Covent Garden’s hordes.
Ingredient quality was very high. An appetiser of eight leafy radishes with a broad bean purée (pictured above) costs £1 per radish, while main courses included sharing dishes (for two diners) of monkfish or roast rib of beef costing £80. A dish of courgette and pea ragù (pictured below) was topped with pea shoots, shot through with the vibrant sweetness of fresh Italian tomatoes.
If you don’t want to pay the huge prices, Petersham has a slightly cheaper branch in the adjoining premises, called La Giocca; it’s more of small plates, pizza and grill place. It also has outdoor tables (pictured at the top of this feature); both venues are superficially similar, and the outdoor seating is much the same.
Service at The Petersham, by what appeared to be continental gap-year students, was sweet and obliging.
If you don’t mind paying more for it than the price of a return fare to Pisa, this bucolic setting in Covent Garden gives a taste of the simple life.
Dinner for two with wine and service, around £180.
2 Floral Court, 27 King Street, WC2E 8JB; +44 020 7305 7676;
Alto by San Carlo
The Selfridges’ rooftop has harboured a succession of experimental and short-lived restaurants, but San Carlo sticks to a simpler formula of expertly-made Italian food.
You reach the rooftop by a dedicated express lift that’s guarded by clipboard-wielding staff: book in advance or you may be turned away. A further interrogation at the upstairs reception ascertains if you’re turning left for the open-sided restaurant with its retractable roof, or right for the open terrace, where drinks and bar snacks are served.
The Roman pasta dish of cacio e pepe was sublime, with smooth pecorino sauce and just enough pepper to give it a kick. Fried calamari had an exquisitely crisp yet tender texture; a bar snack of a deep-fried pastry, panzerotto pugliese, was a perfect foil for the drinks.
The waiters tried hard to please, despite frenetic service once the sun drew visitors; there was too much rushing back and forth past the rooftop-facing tables for a truly relaxing meal.
If you’re seeking al fresco dining in central London, this rooftop serves great food; but like all al fresco restaurants, it becomes way too busy in good weather. Visit off-peak if you can.
11.30am-11pm Mon-Sat (last orders 9.45pm); 11.30am-6pm Sun.
Meal for two with wine and service: around £100.
Selfridges, 400 Oxford Street, W1A 1AB; +44 020 7318 3287;
Other good al fresco options
Run by D&D London, and one of its best, this Michelin-starred City restaurant perches at the top of South Place Hotel near Moorgate, and is perhaps the slickest of all al fresco options.
12.00pm–2.30pm, 6.00pm–9.30pm Mon–Fri; 6.00pm–9.30pm Sat.
South Place Hotel, 3 South Place, London; EC2M 2AF;+44 020 3215 1260;
Ham Yard Hotel
One of the prettiest options, in a secluded and quiet courtyard in the heart of the West End. Set menus of modern European dishes start from £19.50 for two courses.
7.00am-11.30pm Mon-Sat; 7.00am – 10.30pm Sun and holidays.
Ham Yard Hotel ,1 Ham Yard, W1D 7DT; +44 020 3642 1007;
The Ivy Chelsea Garden
Popular for its location in residential Chelsea and extensive brunch menu, you need to book far in advance to get a garden table at this neighbourhood restaurant.
8am-12.30am Mon-Sat (last food orders 10.45pm); 9am-12.30am Sun and holidays (last food orders 10pm).
The Ivy Chelsea Garden, 195 -197 King’s Road, SW3 5EQ; +44 020 3301 0300;