Red buses, black cabs, old buildings; from Heathrow to Hackney, Borough to Brixton, Notting Hill to East Ham, London is a capital city of landmarks and neighbourhoods, of immigrant cuisines and stratification — of time-honoured traditions and world-class innovations, of venture capital and family businesses.
In this city, it is easier to eat badly than it is to eat well: It is difficult to know where to start and where to go; it is important to know what to try and where to get it. This guide will make it easier to escape not just the tourist traps, but to move beyond the received wisdom of what is regarded as “best” — in all, to help readers truly understand and better navigate a city in which it really is possible to eat very well indeed.
Welcome to the Big Smoke, one of the world’s most exciting places to eat
A city of sport, of music, of politics (and dodgy politicians), and history, London is one of the great European world capitals in which to eat and drink. For years now, money and an energetic, peripatetic youth have helped London shed its reputation as one of the globe’s least imaginative culinary cities. But a neophyte’s dream this guide is not, because food in London did not suddenly get good in 2010.
Yes, this guide will direct readers to the city’s most-interesting modern kitchens, to its Michelin-starred restaurants, and to its natural wine bars and small plates. It will chart the best Sunday roasts, the freshest fish and chips, the smoothest espressos, and the frostiest ice cream; the pubs, the curries, the English breakfasts, and the dim sum.
But it will also steer its readers in the direction of some of the world’s greatest barbecue, whether that’s jerk chicken from the oil drums of London’s great Jamaican chefs; the intoxicating nasal rush of yaji, which coats the tozo suya of south London’s hottest Nigerian and Ghanaian grills; or the plethora of Turkish ocakbaşi lining Green Lanes and the roads of north Dalston. It spans bao, pho, moo krob; pork pies, pica pollo, and burgers. It will help readers navigate Chinatown and Borough Market, and will travel between Soho and Shoreditch; from King’s Cross to Camberwell; and to Brixton from Bermondsey. This guide will paint as complete a picture of this great city as it can — so let’s get started.
Where to Start on Eater London’s Best Maps
Hottest Restaurants: Though there’s been a slowdown because of COVID-19, London’s restaurant opening cycle is one of the fastest and most furious in the world. British-Afghan barbecue duo Cue Point is putting out brisket naans by the river in Chiswick, while revered sushi master Endo Kazutoshi has opened Sumi, a beautiful neighbourhood bar dedicated to the art in leafy Westbourne Grove. And Dim Sum and Duck is putting out some of the city’s finest dumplings on an inauspicious road in King’s Cross. Here’s where to find all of London’s best new restaurants.
For places with a little more experience, those that have ridden out the fads and the trends, the changing wants and desires, for decades, sometimes centuries, consult this definitive guide to London’s oldest (still decent) restaurants.
Essential Restaurants: 40 Maltby Street, in Bermondsey, might be the capital’s outstanding answer to “What is modern British food in 2021?” Sirichai Kularbwong is cooking the city’s most exciting Thai food at Singburi in Leytonstone, while the likes of Shoreditch’s Lyle’s and Mayfair’s Gymkhana fly the flag for Michelin stars. Every three months, the Eater London 38 acclaims the restaurants that define what it means to eat in the city.
Best-Value Restaurants: Moving away from central London, restaurants coalesce around the communities that constitute neighbourhoods, and cook the food that residents want to eat two, three, or four times a week. Ealing’s Tetote Factory puts out matchless Japanese pan; Taste of Pakistan delivers aggressively spiced Pashtun chapli in the shadow of Heathrow Airport; Imone serves immaculate Korean banchan in New Malden, and London’s best Canto-Malay restaurant, Chu Chin Chow, is in the suburban borough of Barnet. London’s essential, best-value restaurants are a reminder that “great value” often just means great.
Bakeries: Forget comparing patisserie to Paris and sourdough to San Francisco. London’s best bakeries speak a vernacular of their own, responding to their surroundings both local and citywide to create breads, pastries, sweets, and savouries that stand on their own. Flor, in Borough Market, turns native grains into croissants burnished not gold, but a darker, caramelised hue; Hedone Bakery conjures fleeting entremets from British berries at Spa Terminus, while Kapihan fills Filipino pan de sal with adobo pork, and croissants with buko or calamansi in Battersea. Visit all of London’s best bakeries for daily bread, and more.
Wine Bars: Whether in the market for comparatively well-priced garnet French classics or rusty orange skin-contact from the Italian-Slovenian border, London has its wine-drinkers well and truly covered. There are few better places to start than at Clapton’s P. Franco, a room which ripped up the rule book half a decade ago, serving low-intervention styles from small producers all over Europe alongside some of the city’s most imaginative cooking. Older spots include 40 Maltby Street and Brawn (a restaurant, really), while newer additions to this rich scene worth checking out are Diogenes the Dog, Noble Rot Soho, and Hector’s.
Breakfast and Brunch: The full English is the archetypal breakfast of London’s greasy spoons — working class cafes that are local fixtures, not curios. But London embraces the fast-breaking traditions that dot the globe, from Pakistani halwa puri and French croissants to Aussie-style brunches and an awful lot of shakshuka. Early risers seeking London’s best breakfasts and those who want to take it slower for London’s best brunch will be well catered for, seven days a week.
Coffee: It’s easy to start the morning with a silky flat white or a sweet, rich espresso of the highest quality. Prufrock Coffee is one of the most famous third-wave cafes in the world, in Clerkenwell, while the likes of Kiss the Hippo in Richmond, Kaffeine in Fitzrovia, and Rosslyn in the City prove that London is now one of the great places for great coffee. Survey London’s best coffee shops and choose a brew.
Pubs: The art of British (and Irish) hospitality is oftentimes best experienced sitting at a bar, drinking a pint and snacking on a packet of scampi fries. Pubs are to London what the local bar is to NYC — integral to an area’s drinking culture. To experience London’s best, start in the city centre at the Harp, a tiny venue with dozens of taps and even more patrons, before heading north to Stoke Newington’s the Auld Shillelagh for what might be the city’s best Guinness. Expect to stumble on the likes of Ed Sheeran or David Beckham at the Cow in Notting Hill, and while there, get a plate of oysters.
London cuisine guides to know and follow
Sandwiches: Sandwiches are another London food category that is both British institution and so much more than myopia between bread: Ashkenazi tongue and brisket up in Edgware at B&K; a London cheesesteak by way of Iraq on an industrial estate in Park Royal; a rarefied smoked eel, horseradish, and pickled onion assembly right in the middle of Soho at Quo Vadis. They can be swiped as part of a crawl or as events in their own right. London’s best sandwiches truly contain multitudes.
Turkish: There’s a stretch of London’s A10, starting in Dalston and going all the way up to Green Lanes, where the air is scented with ocakbaşi smoke. Those in search of ribs, adana kofte humming with herbs, and bread anointed with grill fat will be delighted at Umut 2000, 19 Numara Bos Cirrik II, and, for a more modern look at the tradition, Mangal II. But the dominance of the grill shouldn’t overshadow other pockets of Turkish culture: At Neco Tantuni in Enfield, find the peerless wraps that give it is name, as well as the outstanding dessert kanafeh; seek out light and crisp lahmacun at Bebek Baklava. Pair a guide to London’s best Turkish food with a dedicated survey of where to eat on Green Lanes.
Indian: If one cuisine is synonymous with London, it’s Indian, largely a result of Britain’s violent colonialism, and resultant immigration. The breadth of Indian cooking in the city — across regions, price points, and London’s neighbourhoods themselves — makes a single guide superficial, and renders picking out individual restaurants a fool’s errand. So, some recommendations: an opinionated guide to London’s best Indian restaurants, which focuses on those refracting tradition through the city’s influences. Meanwhile, London’s best Eastern Indian, South Indian, Western Indian, and North Indian restaurants display the regional variety that makes the country’s food what it is, and also provide a secondary function of mapping the communities and areas of London where that cooking has taken root.
Chinese: The Anglo-Chinese takeaway is baked into England’s eating culture, with chow mein, crispy duck, and sweet and sour pork nourishing people up and down the country. But London’s Chinese restaurant scene is now most easily demarcated by two taxonomies: One of regionality, and one of food type. In Chinatown, find exquisite jiaozi dumplings at Jen Cafe, and peerless dim sum at Orient. In north London, seek out Xi’an Impression for hand-pulled noodles and cool, umami-laden liang pi, or Etles for Uighur big-plate chicken. In Pimlico, find Hunan and A. Wong, serving two of the most exciting no-choice/tasting menus the city has to offer, and in Queensway, go to Four Seasons for Cantonese roast duck. Explore London’s best Chinese restaurants, along with dedicated guides to takeaway, noodles, dumplings, and Chinatown itself.
Special mention for three other cuisines very well-represented in London: Italian restaurants in London serve excellent pizza (and pasta!), while Spanish (tapas) and Lebanese restaurants are also standouts.
London Food Neighbourhoods to Know
Soho: Soho is approximately a square mile in size — flanked on the north by Oxford Street, the east by Tottenham Court Road, the south by Shaftesbury Avenue, and west by Regent Street. Though it has recently undergone significant redevelopment, which threatened to sanitise its character, Soho retains lots of its unique historical, semi-seedy, and exciting charm. Given its concentration of restaurants, of varying class and quality, it can be tricky to navigate. If only going to one place, go to Koya. Still, the list of best of the rest(aurants) is a long one, including Kiln, Brasserie Zédel, and Quo Vadis. Oh, and it would be rude not to stop into Bar Italia for an espresso or Peroni, or into Gelupo for a cup of gelato.
Peckham: In the words of the author of Eater’s guide to Peckham, Jonathan Nunn: “If there is a true version [of Peckham], it exists somewhere in the frictions. It’s in the selling techniques of Pakistani butchers who know how to describe the viscera of a cow in Urdu, Yorùbá, and Igbo; it’s in the dark kitchens sandwiched on an empty floor between the cheapest cinema in London and a Campari bar; it’s in the apparition of smoke from Ugandan barbecue close to where William Blake first saw his angels on Peckham Rye. It’s in vegan Rastafari pasta, Filipino burritos, chapal wraps, and the same leafy vegetables translated into 20 different languages and eaten by a thousand different people.” The jerk pork at JB’s Soul Food; the shawarma wraps at Yada’s; the mucilaginous egusi soup at Yakoyo Spot; and the escalope sandwich at Crossroads Cafe are particularly worth seeking out.
Shoreditch: Shoreditch has become East London’s Soho — that means it’s now both a creative nerve-centre, trendy but increasingly commercial, and a hotbed of exciting and varied restaurants. Shoreditch, which Eater has loosely defined as running a little way down Old Street, a little way up Kingsland Road, and across to Spitalfields, packs in myriad cuisines and price points. Some stand-outs include: Burro e Salvia, a brilliant, comparatively unknown pastificio; Smokestak, one of London’s best American-style barbecue restaurants; Kêu Deli, one of London’s finest banh mi shops; and, in Lyle’s, The Clove Club, Brat, and Leroy, four Michelin-starred restaurants with personalities singular enough to bely an often-staid guide’s acclaim.
Chinatown: In the dead centre of the city, Chinatown’s best restaurants make it possible to feast on noodles from Wuhan and Henan, dumplings from Shanghai and Beijing, skewers from Sichuan and Xi’an, and fried chicken from Taiwan. While they might have declined in popularity, there still exist the stalwarts of Chinatown’s grander Cantonese traditions and the dim sum parlours that have served tourists and residents alike for decades. And there’s so much more in 2021: A wealth of Hong Kong caffs serving cheap dai pai dong style food, Anglo-Chinese dining rooms offering crispy aromatic duck, sweet-and-sour pork, and lemon chicken. Plus, bubble tea shops, ice cream parlours, and an array of young operators offering hot pots galore. Jen Cafe’s baozi, Good Friend’s fried chicken, and Four Seasons’ duck (a sibling of the one in Queensway) are great places to start.
Green Lanes: To walk along Green Lanes at dusk on a summer’s night is to viscerally understand how London’s neighbourhoods and their communities interact with restaurants. On a half mile stretch of a road that at its other junctions showcases Cypriot (both Greek and Turkish), Kurdish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Albanian cooking, smoke from ocakbaşi grills wends out of doorways as families pick up takeaway orders and diners queue for their favourite spot, intimately familiar with which place does the best lahmacun, the best pide, the best adana, the best iskender, the best şeftali, the best molohiya. Skewers clatter over coals, glass after glass of Turkish tea is set down on tabletops, and late-night bakeries and kanafeh salonus put out their wares. Even if not stopping to dine, walk the street. Stop at Diyarbakir Restaurant (not to be confused with Diyarbakir Kitchen); Hala; and Antepliler Kunefe.
Old Kent Road: Hold the Monopoly board jokes. This South London artery offers a three-kilometre stretch of restaurant panoply: Bolivian hand pies at Jenecheru; Hanoi blood sausage at Pho Thuy Tay; Salone-style gizzards at Mingles; and Nigerian suya and kilishi at Alhaji Suya are just a few. Its restaurants are testaments to years of community-building, and there is not another road in the city that can match its density and diversity.
Borough Market and Bermondsey: The trick to navigating London’s best-known food market is to have backup options. Because this place has a reputation (sometimes deserved, sometimes not). For every great plate of pici cacio e pepe, and for every beautiful laminated fruit pastry, there’s a dispiriting bowl of paella or a limp piece of pizza. Thankfully, there are plenty of great places to eat at Borough Market. And just a few minutes’ walk or cycle away is Bermondsey, one of London’s truly outstanding food neighbourhoods, which includes Spa Terminus — Borough Market, but for restaurant nerds — and 40 Maltby Street, one of the best restaurants in the city bar none.
Ambitious diners can follow the ultimate 24-hour London restaurant crawl, that is definitely impossible to complete. It takes in great coffee, perfect pastry, sweet treats, Michelin-starred dim sum, and late-night drinks.
And to avoid having an absolute disaster of a time on London’s most famous shopping street, consult this useful guide to the best places to eat and drink in and around Oxford Street.
A London Food Glossary to Live By
St. John: Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver’s temple of modern British cuisine. Bone marrow on toast, half a dozen madeleines, sorbet and vodka, a measure of Fernet Branca.
The River Cafe: Ruth Rogers and (the late) Rose Gray’s temple to Italian cuisine is still going strong and to it so many London restaurateurs owe their culinary identity and love of ingredients.
Natural wine: See wine bars, above. But this term is bandied about a lot. It means that the wine is “low-intervention”; it has not had a lot added to it. Or rather, it is grapes, a ferment, and not a whole lot else. It means wines which “reflect their terroir” or taste like where they’re from; it means cloudy, funky, unfiltered, earthy, and juicy. But like anything else, natural wines can also be divided along lines good and bad, so make sure to stop in at the likes of 40 Maltby Street, P. Franco, Newcomer, Winemakers Club, Terroirs East Dulwich, or Brawn to get a taste of the good stuff. (Outside, on a terrace, in many cases.)
Sunday Roast: The Sunday roast, or “Sunday lunch,” is among Britain’s best and most celebrated food traditions; when it’s right, it can compete with the world’s most-loved national dishes. The centre piece is roasted meat: beef (with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish), lamb (and mint sauce), chicken (with redcurrant jelly or bread sauce), and pork (with apple sauce and crackling) are the most famous. It’s served with roasted potatoes, an assortment of roasted or blanched vegetables, and gravy made from the roasting juices. The capital’s most venerable can be found at the Marksman, in Hackney; Blacklock, in Soho or Shoreditch; the Red Lion and Sun, in Highgate; and, for a more modish look at what it can look like, the Camberwell Arms.
Suya: One of the capital’s best grill preparations is the West African tradition of suya. Beef, lamb, and chicken are cubed, grilled, and dusted with a remarkably vibrant spice rub called yaji, usually a combination of chile powder, ground peanut, ginger, and stock cube, and garnished with chopped raw white onion and chunks of fresh tomato. Preferably eaten fresh; definitely begin by tasting the suya of chef Abdullahi Maikano at Alhaji Suya in Peckham.
Ocakbaşi: London’s Turkish grill food is some of the city’s best, best-value, most reliable, and well-loved. This word means barbecue or grill, so that means charred meats, and smoky vegetables, judiciously seasoned and enlivened with acids like lemon juice or pomegranate molasses. See “Turkish.” But don’t miss Mangal II, Umut 2000, and 19 Numara Bos Cirrik II.
Fish and chips: In truth, London is not among the best places in Britain to eat this most stereotypical of British food customs. A tranche of battered cod or haddock (most often) is served on top of thick-cut chipped potatoes. Both elements of this meal are fried in hot oil, wrapped in paper, and ideally eaten fresh. Only add salt and vinegar, and perhaps a dollop of mushy peas, a chubby pickled gherkin (or “wally”), or — on the chips, at least — a drizzle of gravy. The best of London’s fish and chips is very much worth seeking out, at the likes of the Fryer’s Delight in Clerkenwell; Fish Central, near the beautiful, Brutalist Barbican; and Masters Superfish in Waterloo. Diners can also take a look at a guide to a wealth of classics from regional British cooking.
The London Restaurant Reservations to Make in Advance
For those seeking a prime-time dinner spot for a special last night, or wishing to visit somewhere eyed from afar, book weeks or even months in advance for the likes of A. Wong, Sushi Tetsu, Noble Rot, the River Cafe, the Clove Club, St. John’s suckling pig, the whole lamb at Namak Mandi, Gymkhana, and Ikoyi.
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