There is a particular, peculiar joy in dining at a restaurant with a blackboard menu. In an age where diners are saturated with images of food on Instagram urging us to try that dish, there is something grounding about walking into a restaurant where a part or the entirety of the menu is a surprise. The blackboard, with its ease of addition and erasability, speaks of seasonality and a menu in constant flux; a breathing thing with a fragile lifespan that may last a week, a day, or an hour, but which will eventually be rubbed out and replaced.
Its regenerative qualities also start to reveal linguistic patterns in the menus to be decoded by regular diners. The language and style of a menu is so often a direct reflection of the cooking, it is enough for an astute reader to see St John’s capitalised ‘Gooseberry Eton Mess’ and 40 Maltby’s curlicued ‘Gooseberry and Stem Ginger Mess’ on a blackboard and know which one is going to deliver a nostalgic excess of richness and stodge and which one is going to be a featherlight pillow. The following 10 restaurants and bars use their blackboard menus in different ways but are united in consistently making thoughtful, seasonal food, often eschewing perfection in the pursuit of creativity.
The Bar at St John
The blackboard menu at St John’s bar is hung up high on its whitewashed walls, like a hymn board at a pulpit; a photo of it is posted on their website daily. There is normally a rotation of 9-10 savoury dishes with roast bone marrow and parsley salad serving as its unchanging Pole Star, along with bread, salad, Welsh rarebit (another St John classic), and a cold sandwich. There is something beautiful in the terse, epigrammatic language that suits the austere food that emerges from the kitchen. ‘Faggot and peas’, ‘cold roast kid liver, green beans and anchovy’, ‘cucumber, butterhead and lovage’, ‘jellied skate and mayonnaise’ are all dishes discerned as being from St John with no other context. The dessert menu is perhaps the most instantly appealing in London, pushing a number of nostalgic buttons. It normally features a hot pudding of sort, a fruit jelly, a mess, a parfait, something with butterscotch, definitely a sorbet, and vodka. And always, always Eccles cakes and Lancashire cheese; and those half or full dozen Proustian madeleines.
No blackboard in London has been so crucial to a restaurant’s critical perception as the one at Koya Soho (née Bar) on Frith Street. When the first Koya opened (no suffix, in 2010) it staked its reputation on being the first udon specialist in London, but it was when diners cottoned on to chef Junya Yamasaki’s blackboard that they realised Koya wanted to be more than just a noodle bar. That board facilitated the operating of a restaurant within a restaurant, with most people slurping udon and cognoscenti ordering the whole board of forward-thinking Japanese dishes made with recognisably British ingredients.
The combination was new and thrilling and was adopted by Shuko Oda’s Koya Bar (especially following Koya’s closure in 2015), where the blackboard tradition lives on with six or seven options every day. Flavours are usually clean and razor sharp with an emphasis on British vegetables, fruit and seafood, garnished with Japanese herbs, aromatics, and seasonings — an udon special might come with artichokes, or chilled with crab meat and asparagus. Simple sides cause dictionary inducing pleasure in two languages. A salad could be a “sunomono of pickled helda beans, grilled yellow beans and chicken of the woods mushrooms” or “tsuruna green, flat peach, shira-ae”. This might well be Soho’s best restaurant, in no small part because of its blackboard.
So much of the 40 Maltby Street menu is an inside joke, it takes several visits to get the hang of the weekly-changing blackboard and realise how deliberately it sells itself short. ‘Cooked Yorkshire Ham’ would be a gammonish miss anywhere else yet here it is revelatory, shaved off the leg in thick slices with sweet, snow white fat, and a dollop of English mustard. ‘Fritters’ are actually vegetables encased in gossamer batter that retains their freshness and crunch, adding crispness to a dish in danger of becoming texturally homogenous. That homely English word ‘crumbed’ is so often applied here to sweetbreads, mutton, fish, and mussels — with excellent effect. There is usually a tart of some sort that will be crossed off the board early in the evening, and there will always be a must-order dish that ends with ‘and a poached/boiled/fried egg’. Out of the three desserts expect a fruit ‘ice’ (a granita) and a pastry. The ‘custard slice’ when it features is a perfect millefeuille in disguise. After a few meals it becomes apparent that the linguistic tics of 40 Maltby’s blackboard are hiding that this (along with St John) may actually be the best provincial French restaurant in London.
There are rumours Singburi actually has a proper paper menu that doesn’t change, full of dishes like pad Thai and green and red curries. Ignore them. The best stuff is all on the daily blackboard that hangs on the wall in the back, which more often than not remains a surprise until guests arrive, such is the intermittence of its being shared on Instagram. Moo Krob is the one staple, probably because there would be riots on the streets of Leytonstone if this double-fried pork belly dish, sticky with chillis and caramelised chunks of fat were ever removed. The rest will depend on what chef Sirichai has picked up that day — whole fish (usually steamed delicately Cantonese style with ginger and soy), ribs (sometimes dry-fried, sometimes soft and yielding in a curry), a mind-bending fruit salad (cucumber and mangosteen perhaps, or pomelo and dried prawn) and a fierce but beautifully balanced southern Thai curry made with razor clams, gigantic head-on prawns, or fresh crab meat. The only downside to the board is that once an item has gone it’s gone. Turn up to a 9pm service at the risk half the menu will have disappeared, but this is a small price to pay for cooking this good.
No blackboard menu is so instantly transportative as the handheld one at this tiny French bistro on Bermondsey Street. Devoid of context it would be easy to imagine it hanging up somewhere in a family-run restaurant in a Lyonnaise hamlet or an old-school Parisian bistro, viewed with bemusement by British diners trying to decipher the more obscure French words with arcane GCSE knowledge. Everything about Casse-Croute’s ambitions can be gleaned from this board — trad-French, pan-Gallic, confident enough to only offer three options for starter, main, and dessert, unafraid in a restaurant scene constantly demanding the new to put steak au poivre or quiche lorraine on and remind everyone why the classics are classic.
The menu changes daily and the blackboard is posted in its entirety in the morning on Twitter in immaculate cursive. Everything sings but particularly look out for the magic words ‘en croute’, anything with ‘lapin’, anything smothered in a rich liquid (‘a la moutarde’, ‘hollandaise’, ‘sauce diable’, ‘beurre blanc’). Pastry is another strong point, especially in starters and desserts — and it’s still one of the few places in the city to get a decent pissaladiere, dense with the umami of anchovy, or a perfect Paris-Brest.
Rochelle Canteen at the ICA (Bar)
Like St John, the blackboard menu at Rochelle Canteen’s bar at the ICA becomes a way of experiencing a version of the restaurant casually, without great expenditure. Even taking into account the £1 ICA entrance fee, the price/quality ratio is astonishingly low with a daily list of 7-8 items listed at between £2 — £10. The genius of the Rochelle blackboard is it knows exactly what is required from a bar menu, steering a course between cliche and fussiness. Small fried snacks to graze on alongside on-tap wine or negronis are wise choices here: croquettes (sometimes pigs head, sometimes ‘nduja) are an absurd £3.50 for three, or a £2 ‘Rice Ball’ — a kind of cross between an arancini and onigiri.
A healthier alternative would be a plate of cods roe and radishes, pink and blushing, embarrassed to have just been pulled from the soil, or a sober boiled egg served with celery salt for a pound a pop. Marked ‘Sandwich’ on the board is just that: a half face of bread filled with mackerel pate and pickled cucumber or maybe cold roast lamb depending on the day. At £2 this isn’t just perfect drinking food, it could put Pret out of business if it was so inclined.
There are rare moments of unqualified beauty to be found while wandering around London on a summer day. The ponds at the Heath might be one, a walk through the Barbican, or Alexandra and Ainsworth estates. A casual afternoon stroll along Regents Canal before or after lunching at Towpath in limpid sunshine is definitely another. The blackboards hung up on either side of the awnings announce to the hungry traveller that this is not just another cafe. Yes, it has the Antipodean trappings of good coffee and the familiar comfort of a grilled cheese sandwich, but the menu is always magpie in how it hops between influences while using British ingredients.
Look here: a chilled Ajo Blanco (chilled Andalusian bread soup) with in season cherries, a Hellenic contingent of spanakopita, or taramasalata to scooped up with radishes and toast. There’s a confidence in produce that can be gleaned straight away from the language, a restraint to let things go unadorned, except for the addition of some piquancy. Smoked mackerel cut through with some pickled cherries, cured wild sea trout with a lick of mustard, and most telling of all, a simple plate of peas in their pods (and the assumption that customers will know what Ticklemore is.) It’s cheese. The blackboard is posted nowhere on social media, so this really is one to make a pilgrimage for as a matter of faith.
The blackboard at Leila’s isn’t just a blackboard, it’s a whole philosophy. There has always been something about Leila McAlister’s deli, where fruit, eggs, coffee and cheese come from people who know exactly where they’re from and/or who made them, the same ingredients cooked at the cafe next door. This European sensibility — so reminiscent of Richard Olney or Lulu Peyraud — is achieved by McAlister with apparent sprezzatura. The idea is that a customer can make all the food themselves at home, so the board at the cafe in summer is usually an unpretentious list of assemblies: tarts and soups shifting based on what is in season and stock. Recently peas have been paired with roast pigeon, or pulverised with mint and courgette in a chilled soup.
Winter months tend to see more braises and root vegetables; tarts may still be on but this time with the heft of squash or chard. There is also a separate sandwich blackboard, with three choices to take away for £4.20. The one constant is the eggs on the breakfast menu that arrive in a skillet, butter bubbling around the edges with some crisped sage or serrano ham on top. Lazily eating these with toast, summer fruits or preserves, and a coffee, it’s easy to imagine another place and time.
The largest blackboard on this list looms high on the dining room wall at this Holloway seafood specialist — most of it given up to a titanic changing wine list. On the left is the food menu, which reads like what it is: a list of day boat catches. So, oysters: Jersey, Porthilly, Mersea, depending on the day. Boquerones, sardines, mackerel perhaps, as something small, and always some seafood croquettes briny with cuttlefish or crab.
The lower section will have a big hitter of a white fish: hake, turbot, plaice, and at least one concession to meat for those strange people who would come to a fish restaurant and shun anything sea born. There are always three or four desserts but only one to swoon over, a rum baba. Arriving like a huge mushroom head, soaked all the way through with syrup and rum, with raisins and thick dipping cream to (barely) cut through the richness, this is best eaten ignoring the advice of the blackboard which states: “to share.”
The only blackboard on this list which purposely obscures rather than reveals the meal, James Knappett’s Kitchen Table menu is simply a date and a perfunctory list of about 14-15 words designed to encode the tasting menu. Each word is merely the chief ingredient but tells nothing of what it is or how it is cooked — partly down to the improvisational nature of Knappett’s cooking. Pig — Cod — Chicken reads plainly enough, but might be a snack of crackling, a bacalhau-like fritter, and crispy chicken skin with a rosemary mascarpone and bacon jam to follow. Even more confusingly, like with a recent dinner with Michael Wignall, a dish might just say ‘Yeast’ or ‘Umami’ just to whet the diner’s imagination. The only disruption to the purity of this menu comes in the form of brackets which denote where a supplement must be paid: (Lobster), (Scallop), (White truffle). Charmingly, two other blackboards are dedicated to messages from well-wishers who have dined well with the large caption, “Good Food Feeds The Soul,” written by some guy called Ferran Adrià.