BYO with Ellie Steafel
As fervent foodies and lavish winos who occasionally have to adhere to a budget, we have decided to uncover some of the best spots to do BYO in our home city whilst inviting along a person that we admire in the world of art, food, design or music to while away a long lunch with us, uncovering their stories, inspirations and darkest secrets. Our inaugural lunch guest and new favourite friend to spend a long boozey lunch with is journalist, cook and recent author of the wonderful cookbook The Art of Friday Night Dinner, Eleanor Steafel.
A fitting start to our BYO series was Sweetings, one of the city’s oldest seafood restaurants. This remarkable joint is an original Victorian fish and oyster bar that has been looking after hoards of hungry punters for well over 100 years. On arrival, we did what one must do when spending an afternoon at Sweetings and ordered three tankards (yes, real tankards) of Black Velvet (a mix of Guinness and Champagne), hopped onto our wooden stools and began talking..
Tell our readers a bit about yourself; who is Eleanor? Where did you come from? How did you get into food writing? And what is the inspiration behind your new book?
I grew up in London but have lived in Devon, Yorkshire, Newcastle and Paris. I’ve been a feature writer at the Telegraph for eight years and alongside that have a recipe column called The Art of Friday Night Dinner. Before the pandemic, I used to host a supper club for women with two friends called Hood. The book is based on my column and writing it really felt like the culmination of that time spent cooking for the supper club and writing week in week out about the special magic of Friday nights.
When you talk about food and eating, it's done with real soul and love. Where does that come from - did you grow up in a household of food and wine?
I grew up with parents who loved to cook, host and most importantly eat. I can remember loving that sort of fizzy feeling of anticipation when people were due to arrive for dinner on a Friday night. I loved lighting the candles and putting crisps and olives in bowls and arranging glasses, and then hearing the sound of increasingly loud, increasingly drunken laughter float up the stairs through the evening. We are all completely obsessed with food; my little brother is a chef, my younger sister is technically a primary school teacher but is the best baker I know. As a group we are really very annoying to have dinner with because we’ll spend most of the meal banging on about the bits we liked, the things we’d do differently next time, and what we should have for dinner next week.
I once was asked this question in a job interview and realised how revealing it was about me. So tell us, what would your last meal on earth be? And of course, include wine please..
A very important question which I have asked the people in my life so many times they can no longer stand it. Also a very revealing one to ask first dates, I find..
I’d start with a martini (gin, dirty, two olives, extra olive brine), then I’d need spaghetti with my mum’s tomato sauce [officially called Penny’s Pasta in the Steafel household]. I’d love a great platter of seafood to follow (oysters, crab, langoustines, clams) with lots of good bread, that French butter that has actual salt crystals in it, plenty of lemon and very garlicky aioli. And I’d probably have some thick homemade chips for good measure because why not. I’d like an extremely pale rosé because it just tastes like summer. Then, if I’m allowed a cheese course I’d have some Saint Felicien, a very aged Comté and a big glass of red – possibly a punchy red from the Languedoc. Then I’d have a massive ice cream sundae with apricot sorbet, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. And I’d go out in a blaze of negronis.
We are always keen to know an insiders tips for eating and drinking their way across the city. Where are your favourite places to luxuriate in the capital?
In the past couple of years my best friend Rosie and I have got into a routine of meeting at the French House on Dean Street for half pints of Guinness (they also do the best Bloody Marys in London in my humble opinion). It’s tiny and always rammed, but everyone always seems to be having a good time. Whatever the weather, we cram into the little smoking area at the front and lean on the windowsill for a drink or two, then head round the corner to Viet Soho. We love it there primarily because the food is so good (get the tofu summer rolls, the bún with grilled pork and the beef udon) and it’s incredibly good value, but also because somehow even though it always seems to be filled with people happily eating and taking their time, you don’t have to book and can always get a table without queuing. I’d almost rather not tell you about it so that it remains the one place in Soho you don’t have to queue to get into.
We like to go to Bar Italia for an espresso and a grappa on the way home. That place is honestly like something out of a movie, I love it endlessly.
You have just been jetting to New York (interviewing Alison Roman no less) and work seems to be non-stop for you right now. When you get a moment to yourself, where is your happy place? Where do you go to cleanse your soul and find some peace?
Brockwell Lido. I started swimming through the seasons there about four years ago. It’s much busier now than it used to be but in the depths of winter it still feels like this little haven in the middle of the city. Cold water swimming has become a form of therapy. I love the fact that when I’m getting into five degree water I can’t be on my phone, I can’t churn over all the things I’m worrying about, I can only focus on breathing. I do it every week and I still think OH JESUS IT’S SO COLD WHY AM I DOING THIS every time I get in the water.
In the spirit of our BYO series, we want to celebrate those moments that are both delicious and affordable. So what is your favourite high-low combo that doesn’t break the bank?
I revere the jacket potato. Always have, always will. There is a special place in my heart for the kind you get in a proper old café covered with beans and cheddar and served with a healthy mound of coleslaw. I do love a high-low baked potato though and sometimes make one at home with salty butter, hot smoked fish, sour cream, pickled radishes, dill and roe.
Like a window into your soul, if we came to your house, what would we always find in your fridge and pantry?
In the fridge: ketchup (I’m team cold ketchup – can’t understand you store cupboard people), crispy chilli oil, Frank’s hot sauce, Mrs Elswood pickles, cheddar and Parmesan.
In the pantry: Tinned tomatoes (Mutti if I’m feeling flush), tomato purée, white beans of some kind, garlic, onions, and I feel quite panicky if I realise we’re out of pasta.
It can often feel like we are on the go constantly and when you walk in your front door, it is good to know that you have some easy food back-ups for instant support. What are your favourite kitchen hacks that jazz up any meal?
I’m not very good at kitchen hacks – I’m just not organised enough. But if I can offer one tip it would be to blitz stale bread into crumbs and then freeze bags of them. They stay magically separate so you can easily reach into the freezer for a handful and fry them from frozen for instant crispy crumbs.
We couldn’t agree more that one of the best parts of going out(out) is the cosy day after with a good film and lots of comforting food. What would we find you watching and eating the day after the night before?
It has to be spaghetti carbonara. There is a recipe for what I call lifesaving carbonara in the book. You almost don’t need a recipe for it because I’m sure everyone has their own version they swear by – this is just my method. I’d honestly eat it every week if I could but I quite like keeping it in the “crack open in case of emergency” box for when you really need it. As for a go-to comfort film? If it’s a hungover New Year’s Day kind of setup it has to be Titanic. A true once a year epic. If it’s just a standard Sunday it’s Sleepless in Seattle. It makes me cry every time. I don’t even fancy Tom Hanks. I don’t know why it moves me so much, but I’m a mess by the end.
Of course, you are so much more than food, so we would love to know a little more.. Tell us, what is the best book you’ve read in the last year?
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. I just can’t get enough of her writing. No word is spared but the worlds she creates are so vivid. I’m now hoovering up everything she’s ever written.
Another window into the soul of any woman - what would we always find knocking around in your handbag?
Far too much pointless crap I don’t need to be lugging around. Seven lip balms, a couple of reporter’s notebooks and biros, my laptop, some slightly ropey make up, often a Babybel (love them, won’t hear a word against them).
A pillar to the BYO series is about sharing time and stories with people who inspire us. Who is an inspiration, an icon to you?
My journalism icon is Kirsty Young. I have listened to every episode of Desert Island Discs she ever made several times over. She listens with such an intelligent, empathetic ear. She seems to be able to hear the suggestion of a feeling in her castaways’ responses and then pursue it gently but firmly so that you end up with the most fantastically revealing conversations.
My food writing icon is probably Nora Ephron. Every time I re-read Heartburn I find something new in it. She is laugh-out-loud funny, fearless, and just so cool.
And my forever life icon is Emma Thompson. I just want to spend a weekend in a house in the highlands with her getting drunk by a loch and roasting a chicken and soaking up all her wisdom.
You’ve talked about sober dating (not a fan) and how attractive it is when a man knows their way around a wine list. However, we don’t want to know about the good ones, we want to know about the hilarious and disastrous.. Any particular dating stories that you’d like to share with the Emile readers?
The guy who for some reason lied about his name, turned up hammered and then just talked at me about crypto currency was a real standout. He also tried to recommend that I listen to Joe Rogan’s podcast. Needless to say I left after one pint.
And as a believer in the helping hand of a beverage in this wild ride that we call dating, what is your go-to drink on a date?
I find first dates tend to be in pubs so I usually steer clear of wine and have a Guinness or a lager, and then move on to g&ts.
We all know that food and wine are just part of what creates the perfect dinner party, so what else is a non-negotiable for your table to create that pitch-perfect atmosphere?
I like a lot of candles. I’m not overly bothered about tablecloths and napkins but I quite like a really naff 70s cocktail glass. I like splitting up a bunch of flowers (just whatever’s cheap at the supermarket – daffs or tulips) and putting them in little jars and stem vases, a great playlist (preferably made by my Rosie because it’ll be guaranteed to be Beyoncé heavy), and generally think all good dinner parties should end with several rounds of karaoke.
Whilst experiencing excellent hospitality here at Sweetings - albeit somewhat haphazard at moments - what has been your worst (funniest?) experience in a restaurant?
Rosie and I once got chucked out of a bar in Venice for gambling. Except we weren’t gambling, we were just playing a very innocent game of rummy. To this day we don’t understand why they made us leave.
We had initially booked in a couple of hours for our lunch with Elly, but almost four hours later and we were still laughing away, sharing drinks with our neighbours (it's almost impossible not to at Sweetings) and enjoying the beautifully old-school setting that was home for the afternoon. We cannot recommend this place enough; fill your table, as we did, with potted shrimp, dressed crab, fried whitebait, fish pie and skate wing in brown butter. Order a side of welsh rarebit, keep the wine flowing and bring a friend as interesting and vivacious as Eleanor Steafel.
As we descended from our stools, having ridden the whole chaotic wave of lunch service, it felt fitting that we were heading off to soak up the Ellie’s favourite moment of the week; Friday night. Perhaps fostering the first inspirations for her book, as a child, she was allowed to stay up late and have dinner with her parents and now, as an adult, she still revels in the sweet scent of this special night, “.. because it's your Friday night and you make the rules.” We can’t argue with that - Bonne nuit Ellie!
What we drank:
Love Joy 2019, Athénaïs Béru
Jus Rare 2020, Jean-Yves Devevey
Côtes Salines 2021, Frédéric & Céline Gueguen
Bill: £200 (including service)