It's no secret I pick my holiday destinations based on what the country in
question brings to the table, quite literally. I have to confess though, besides food I have one other source of influence that plays an almost equal role in helping me choose where to go next. Books.
While travelogues feature quite heavily in my literary diet, it's often great fiction that gets me thinking about packing my bags and heading to places I never would have considered visiting before.
Apart from adding new places to my holiday wish list, some of my best-loved novels have also led me to - or heightened my interest in - great bars, cafes and restaurants around the world. Here are a few of my favourites:
Casa Botin - Madrid, Spain
Described as "one of the best restaurants in the world" in The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
If you read this in a Hemingway novel, wouldn't you want to try it out for yourself?
"We lunched upstairs at Botin's. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta."
- Jake, The Sun Also Rises,1926
More than 80 years on, the place is still going strong and has been for quite a while (Casa Botin has another claim to fame which will probably merit another mention in this blog at some point). The roasted suckling pig was as tender as I imagine it must have been in Hemingway's day, to have earned such high praise, and the wine - not rioja alta but syrupy Pedro Ximenez - was very sweet and went excellently with the pork. The upstairs dining room is a cheerful tiled room and a pleasant place to enjoy a leisurely lunch or dinner. And although I didn't visit it, my brother-in-law (who did) told me the exposed brick dining hall downstairs is also a great spot to grab a meal.
The Elephant House - Edinburgh, Scotland
One of the cafes where J.K Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
I remember glancing through an early interview with J.K Rowling when I first
started reading the Harry Potter books. It pictured her seated by a big window
at The Elephant House with a stunning view of Edinburgh Castle. I knew then
that if I ever went to Edinburgh, that was a cafe I'd definitely visit. I'm no Harry Potter nut - although reading this blog series I did in 2007 may give you that impression. It was work, I swear! :) - but I am enough of a fan to have wanted to see the place where this strangely gripping saga first took shape. The cafe is a bit of a nerdy writer's haunt which made it even more appealing. Some of the tables have drawers underneath that contain all sorts of fascinating scraps - poetry scribbles, badly drawn pictures, bills... I loved it! And it isn't famous-for-the-sake-of-being-famous either - The Elephant House was voted the best coffee shop in Edinburgh so you can be sure you can grab a nice cuppa when you drop in.
Leopold Cafe - Mumbai, India
Played a starring role in Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
Leopold Cafe (or Leo's as we always called it) was a favourite even before I heard of Shantaram. As a student in Mumbai, this is where I went on lazy Sunday afternoons for a big plate of fried rice after a matinee show at Regal, or for drinks and dessert before a late night film. Leo's is one of the oldest Irani-cafes in Mumbai and despite being the site of one of the 2008 terror attacks, I was pleased to have seen it as busy as ever when I visited Colaba Causeway a couple of months ago. It has the true faded charm of an old-school traveller's hangout, complete with whirring ceiling fans suspended from long rods, wooden furniture that has seen better days, eager gap year students exchanging travel tips and leather-skinned veterans nursing midday beers. The food is not the best, but the hearty portions and the atmosphere more than make up for it. The upstairs bar is generally darker, drunker and probably closer to the sort of place where anyone who read the book would picture underworld deals being done, but for a true taste of Colaba charm, dine at Leo's at street level.
M Bar - Hotel Majestic Saigon, Vietnam
Rooftop bar of the hotel where Graham Greene wrote the first draft of The Quiet American
My favourite book of all time, I challenge anyone who reads it not to want to
visit Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon (the old name just sounds so much more romantic and truer to the era in which this melancholy novel is set). While the
Continental Hotel got more than a few mentions in the book, it was at the Hotel
Majestic - also on Dong Khoi street (the oft mentioned Rue Catinat) - that Greene did most of his writing. The grande dame perched on the street corner is still pretty impressive and its rooftop M Bar is one of the best places in the city to linger over a cocktail. (Or in my case a mocktail, as I was on pretty heavy meds when I paid it a visit, after a bout of what was initially thought to be malaria, then dengue fever before finally being downgraded to a particularly nasty flu bug). Even without the help of a glass of something to lend a rosier glow to memory, the panorama of River Saigon and the city spread along its banks is not one I'm likely to forget any time soon.
Named Best Blog for Food & Travel
Top 10 UAE Food Blogs in UAE