The Ritual of Sunday Roast
No meal is more beloved by the Brits than the Sunday roast.
The classic meal is a gray-weather-soothing, all-day-eating, then veg-on-the-couch-in-a-food-coma affair (think Thanksgiving, if it came once a week), and the communing around slabs of roast meat is a remarkably sturdy tradition—one that’s survived mad cow disease and the new appreciation in Britain for healthy (even vegan) eating and remains a nostalgic bulwark against the spread of American-style brunch.
“What’s brunch?” says chef and roast fanatic James Knappett of London’s Bubbledogs and Kitchen Table restaurants. “A bit of granola and a poached egg? What’s the point? Let’s get something proper to eat.”
Knappett and I are among 200 or so hardy diners attending what’s advertised as the ultimate gluttonous Sunday roast on an unseasonably warm Monday night in the spring. It was scheduled for Sunday originally, but a last-minute change in venue bumped The Great Roast, as the banquet’s being heralded, forward a night. The festivities kick off with cocktails outside Royal Hospital Chelsea’s Great Hall in West London at 6 p.m. Like any truly great Sunday roast, The Great Roast promises to kill us with excess. That its 14 courses are from some of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary chefs, cooking alongside award-winning European colleagues from across the continent, helped this marathon meat fest sell out fast.
By 8 p.m., we’re gathered at long wooden tables enjoying a family-style feast. Regimental banners from bygone British wars dangle overhead like house flags at Hogwarts. Simon Rogan of two-Michelin-starred L’Enclume in England’s Lake District sends out big platters of dry-aged roast duck. Stephen Harris of The Sportsman in Kent, the country’s most acclaimed country pub, offers roast pork loin with crisp crackling. There’s lamb neck from Dutch chef Jonnie Boer, spicy chicken from Sweden’s Björn Frantzén, and potato salad with baby shrimp from Belgium’s Kobe Desramaults.
Three hours in, antique silver trolleys arrive with the main event: giant blistered haunches of roast British beef, carved tableside by the London chefs who prepared them, Knappett and Shaun Searley of The Quality Chop House. The two are best mates who spend their Sundays off cooking meat together. Their final savory course comes with Yorkshire pudding and roast potato “trimmings,” as well as an extravagant, creamy morel mushroom gravy.
Despite the international mix in the kitchen, it’s an elementally British evening, built on generosity and conviviality and copious amounts of good food and drink. Former music executive Steve Plotnicki, who organized the dinner in lieu of an awards show for his Opinionated About Dining European restaurant survey, puts it best: “What could be more British than a Sunday roast?”
Across London, the Sunday roast is a class leveler enjoyed by every demographic, from Mayfair mansions to council estate flats. Though best eaten at home, it’s also long been the purview of the neighborhood pub. “People love on Sunday to go for a long walk in the country and end up at a pub having a roast by the fire,” says chef Merlin Labron-Johnson, formerly of London’s Portland restaurant, who contributed an eel and beet starter to The Great Roast.
The roast became a democratized British birthright starting in the 19th century, according to food historian Ivan Day, as the cost of meat and fuel began to plummet. “Suddenly, ordinary working people could roast meat using this new cheap fuel—coal—and the day when they stop working, on a Sunday, would become the time for it,” he says.
For most Brits, the Sunday roast remains about family first, which is why even the most meager versions still have emotional resonance. “If you go and see your nan and she’s managed to put together a roast dinner, and the Yorkshires are frozen, and the veg is frozen, there’s still something about it,” says Knappett. “You’re like, this is right; this is good. There’s so much nostalgia to that meal.”
Though its makeup can vary widely, the quintessential roast dinner revolves around a big piece of well-marbled beef, ideally roasted on the bone until it’s crisp around the edges and still pink inside. A love for roast beef runs at the historic heart of British culture. “The roast beef of old England became a symbol of British power, of patriotism,” says Day. “Across the Channel, the French took the piss out of us and called us les rosbifs as a kind of joke, but hidden in that is a certain amount of respect for the fact that our meat was much better, and we knew how to cook it really well.”
And you can’t have roast beef without Yorkshire pudding. Many Brits judge their Sunday roasts by the size of those puffy popovers, like mini soufflés, made from a simple batter of milk, flour, and eggs cooked in molds filled with sizzling fat. “It would be met with a riot if there wasn’t Yorkshire pudding in our house,” says Rogan. The batter, ideally, should be made a day ahead, according to Paul Weaver of London’s Noble Rot restaurant, who prepared the Yorkies (as they’re sometimes known) that were served with The Great Roast’s beef. “It needs time to develop flavor and structure.” And they should crisp as they rise but remain soft in the middle. “The pudding part is important,” says Searley, “the contrast of two textures.”
From the finest hotels to the edgiest gastropubs in London, the Sunday roast is surging in popularity as a restaurant meal (find one to try with “5 Great Sunday Roasts in London,” below). But even the most ambitious chefs rarely fiddle with the classic formula. On a recent roast tour through the city, the beef—whether individually plated or on big, pass-around platters—always came with Yorkshire pudding and golden potatoes cooked in duck or goose fat, with meaty gravy and horseradish cream for spooning on top.
“When I think of Sunday roast, I think of family, sharing, being happy,” says Labron-Johnson. “People don’t mess around with it. You won’t chef it up too much.”
5 Great Sunday Roasts in London
Blacklock’s spot in Soho serves London’s most popular Sunday roast, drawing a crowd for its heaping platters of charcoal-roasted beef, lamb, or pork. The “All In” features three meats piled high with all the trimmings, along with a bubbling crock of cheesy cauliflower. Book in advance. (From $21 per person)
Shaun Searley’s rustic tavern serves one of the city’s most elevated beef roasts, always pairing two cuts from the whole cows that come into its attached butcher shop—one slow-braised, the other butter-roasted. Don’t miss the justly famous thousand-layer confit potatoes. (From $38 per person)
For the classic pub roast experience, head to this bright, bustling, duplex boozer in Islington, packed with rambunctious groups at big wooden tables whiling away hours tackling endless pints of ale and homestyle platters of meat. (From $25 per person)
This nostalgic, clubby Mayfair restaurant is an exceptionally civilized spot to enjoy a Sunday roast—and a great option for carnivores stuck dining with non-meat-eating friends. The sprawling Anglo-American menu features a top-notch brunch section as well. (From $38 per person)
Siblings Karam, Sunaina, and Jyotin Sethi opened this Anglo-Indian hot spot. Its Sunday roast, an enormous family-style feast, pairs masala-rubbed tandoori-cooked rib eye with breads, chutneys, and free-flowing cocktails. (From $39 per person)