There are people who travel for sightseeing, those who seek adventure, and others who delve into history — and then there are those who get away simply for rest and relaxation. During a year in which I was lucky enough to travel my fair share, I discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, that I travel for food and drinks. While others seek out hiking trails to waterfalls or book trips to museums or tour national monuments, I am constantly, chronically, looking for restaurants, bars, wineries, and breweries.
For me, to have visited a place is to have tasted its food, familiarised myself with the local produce and flavours, met local chefs, and discovered the hidden speakeasies.
It’s about getting a literal taste of a city, village or town, from the hottest restaurants to those hidden gems. It’s about the underground drinkeries and the primmest bars, each one creating a gastronomic postcard that will live on long after the trip ends, revisited time and time again through the thought of a dish, a conversation with a chef or a flavour first tasted overlooking a magnificent view. This, to me, is the beauty of travel — to taste the world one small part at a time.
Here are a few of the most magnificent dining destinations I visited this year.
South Africa, Franschhoek
It’s dusk and, as the last rays of the spring sun disappear behind the Franschhoek Mountains, I find myself among the lavender fields on the La Motte wine estate, heading towards the picturesque, historic Veepos cottage. It is here that chef Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen is once again bringing his seasonal food and wine experience to life in a one-of-a-kind dining experience that combines the conviviality of a dinner table with the chef’s fine technique and absolute eye for detail.
Underneath a ceiling hung with drying flowers, their scent permeating the air, a table is draped in white linen and set with crystal and silverware, illuminated by the flicker of candlelight. The room is abuzz as we take our seats and become acquainted with those on either side of us — our culinary companions for the evening, with whom we will share a table, break bread, and toast many a glass of wine. What follows is a multi-course gastronomic experience drawing on nostalgic South African favourites, flavours, and ingredients and elevated by the chef’s Michelin-star technique and fine-dining finesse.
This ranges from his signature frozen apple, tête de moine cheese, and kabeljou in haddock milk — a brilliant dish of contrasts across heat, flavour, and texture — to a hearty lamb shank, served to share, with waterblommetjies, a mielie-and-bean risotto, and a plethora of intriguing pickles. Van der Westhuizen outdoes himself with the “kaas en konfyt” course — a table at the back of the cottage dressed as a still life of beautiful cheeses, freshly baked breads, fruit, and preserves. The artwork evolves as we dig in, indulging in the likes of Belnori’s Forest Phantom with fennel-and-ginger preserve, Forest Hill Manchego with brandy-stewed fruit, and Dalewood Lanquedoc with korrelkonfyt. Throughout, the team delivers a beautiful showcase of local produce, heritage dishes, and a reminder of the joys of a meal shared around a table.
Italy, Gabicce Mare
The clang of a church bell echoes through the streets as locals and tourists alike venture out into the early evening, a gentle breeze providing relief from the heat of a blistering Italian summer’s day. Many have made their way up from the beach clubs, whose closed umbrellas create a pointillist patchwork of colour all the way along the Adriatic coastline, contrasting with the surreal aquamarine waters, now ablaze as the setting sun bathes both sea and town in gold.
Above it all sits Dalla Gioconda, the building once a 1950s disco-pizzeria that has now been reinvented by the brilliant Stefano Bizzarri, Allegra Tirotti Romanoff, and Davide di Fabio, creating a restaurant truly like no other. The design by Romanoff, drawing on Dalla Gioconda’s storied past in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, is somehow both understatedly elegant and breathtakingly show-stopping, modern and retro, hyper-curated and exceptionally comfortable. Everything has been thought through, but it all feels effortlessly stylish.
The food is equally impressive, with each of the courses a masterclass in technique, restraint, flavour, and texture. The dishes include mazzancolla in rosa (tiger prawns in pink), paccheri al sugo??? (a playful dish that has you guessing at the sauce ingredients), olive-stuffed cappelletti with orange and urchin, and La Zuppiera di paste e pesci dell’Adriatico, which sees seven types of seafood dressed with seven sauces and served with seven kinds of pasta.
The degustation menu is a testament to the genius of chef Di Fabio, with incredibly clever cooking that draws on classic Italian recipes, regional ingredients, and time-honoured traditions that here are recreated, revised, revisited, and transformed into something wholly and uniquely their own. The experience is completed by the casually cool yet utterly impeccable service overseen by restaurateur Bizzarri and his stylishly kitted team.
He has also put together a rather impressive wine menu with a cellar to match — make sure you take your time reading the veritable tome of a wine list, you’re bound to be impressed.
Dalla Gioconda is that restaurant that you simply cannot wait to return to, an immensely special place in a magnificent setting where a passionate, dedicated team, a family, come together to create something simply, sensationally, magical.
London, United Kingdom
I respect chefs who put salt on their tables, and I respect chefs even more when you never reach for that salt. Such was the case on my visit to KOL, in the heart of Marylebone, where chef Santiago Lastra cooks up his magnificent take on modern Mexican cuisine underpinned by seasonal British ingredients.
The chef (in his early thirties) has already achieved what many others spend their entire careers striving for — a coveted spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list and a Michelin star to boot. The restaurant is also refreshingly different. The first thing you notice upon entering is the kitchen, where, in full view of guests, Santiago and his team create and plate all the dishes.
This is a restaurant that is fine in all the senses that we’ve come to enjoy in fine dining, without the frills we can often do without. Each delicious course, from the Cornish crab oblea (a twist on a Mexican wafer dessert) to the signature langoustine taco and the Mextlapique (trout cooked to sublime perfection in a corn husk and served with textures of kelp, cauliflower, and succulents), is a sensational display of the chef’s ethos and intention. It is an exemplary dining experience and a phenomenal demonstration that this is, indeed, a chef worth his salt.
• From the 2023/2024 edition of Wanted Watches, Jewellery and Luxury.