Diversity and delicacies
While London is known for offering some of the most diverse culinary experiences in the world, in years gone by the quality of its offering always seemed to fall behind other global cities, such as Paris and New York. However, with four London establishments making it into the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list this year (that’s only one behind the whole of America which has almost five times as many people than the UK), it’s quickly catching up. With so many restaurants in London (around 17,000) there’s a wealth of different cuisines to choose from and 70 of the city’s eateries have earned themselves a coveted Michelin star. Pretty much anything goes here and Londoners will give most things a try.
Consequently, there is no shortage of restaurateurs willing to experiment; there’s the Cereal Killer Café in Brick Lane, where you can eat hundreds of different kinds of cereals from around the world (the cafe has become so popular that the owners opened a second branch in Camden in 2017), a restaurant dedicated to the humble crisp in Soho, HipChips, and in Shoreditch there’s a cafe especially for cat lovers; 13 of them mooch about as you dine.
If you like to be the first in the queue to check out the latest quirky restaurant opening, then you really are spoilt for choice in London – a new one launches pretty much every week. The latest incarnations range from the flamboyantly-opulent to the cheap yet wonderfully cheerful and these days, it seems, you really don’t have to be a chef to open a restaurant – as long as you have an original concept London’s foodie population is happy to give it a try. Indeed, you can even dine in a working prison by booking a table at The Clink restaurant at HMP Brixton. Charity-run, the restaurant sits within the walls of the category C/D prison and allows a select number of visitors to dine on food prepared by inmates as part of a prisoner rehabilitation programme. Be mindful that you need to be vetted before you can dine so make sure you enquire about a booking well in advance.
Themed restaurants are a regular sight in London. Indeed, cheese fans were recently rewarded with the opening of a restaurant dedicated to this moreish delicacy. The Cheese Bar, situated underneath a burlesque club in Camden Stables Market, is the brainchild of Mathew Carver, founder of the travelling Cheese Truck. This permanent space serves all manner of cheese-based dishes, such as Stilton raclette, grilled cheese sandwiches and even blue cheese ice cream. One of the biggest food fads to hit London recently is the bao. Popular at street food markets across the city, this Taiwanese steamed bun sandwich now has three restaurants dedicated to it – Bao Soho, Bao Fitzrovia and Bao Bar in Netil Market – but beware, they don’t take reservations and the queues for a table soon back up.
Another foreign delicacy making its mark in the city is the Sri Lankan Hopper (rice and coconut milk pancakes shaped like a bowl). Hoppers Soho (backed by the Sethi family, who also back Bao) launched in 2015 and has been so successful that a second branch opened its doors in Marylebone last year. While the aforementioned restaurants are on London’s food map thanks to their somewhat quirky offerings, some must-visit restaurants in London have earned their spot for other reasons.
If you like to be the first in the queue to check out the latest quirky restaurant opening, then you really are spoilt for choice in London – a new one launches pretty much every week
Dinner with a view
Nearing the top of most people’s wishlists when looking for a place to eat in London, is dinner with a view. London’s highest restaurant is Duck and Waffle, which sits triumphantly on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower at 110 Bishopsgate. Here executive chef Tom Cenci cooks up an array of traditional British dishes with broad European influences and, of course, the restaurant’s signature dish, duck leg and duck egg on a waffle with maple syrup. However, the best thing about this place is undoubtedly the views and the fact that it’s open 24-hours a day so both the food and vistas can be appreciated whatever the time of day or night!
If you don’t fancy the food on offer at Duck & Waffle, then don’t panic. Descend a floor in the same building and you will find yourself in Sushi Samba, a New York import that serves a fusion of sushi dishes with influences from Japan, Brazil and Peru. The design details are what give this restaurant the wow-factor and include a speckled black-and-white floor, inspired by the Ipanema Beach promenade, a ‘sky at night’ bamboo canopy containing 340 lightbulbs, and not one but two outdoor terraces – one with a bar set around a magnificent orange tree. Another of London’s skyscrapers offering a multitude of dining options with a view is The Shard. Although the building, at London Bridge, is the tallest in western Europe, its restaurants are positioned on floors 31, 32 and 33 so don’t quite get the prize for the highest in the city. Nonetheless, the views are impressive.
Aqua Shard, located on level 31, serves innovative contemporary cuisine which combines the staple ingredients of British cooking with groundbreaking techniques. There’s also a three-storey-high atrium bar offering an extensive menu of cocktails including two signature selections, one with ingredients inspired by the botanicals used to make gin and the second by a most British staple – tea. Situated on floor 32, Rainer Becker’s Oblix offers a contemporary, sophisticated yet relaxed dining experience with a wood-fired oven, charcoal grill and spit roast serving wholesome dishes. On the next floor up things get an Asian twist at Hutong, which is based on the much-loved restaurant of the same name in Hong Kong. The menu artfully captures the subtlety and surprises of northern Chinese cooking and takes inspiration from the dishes served in the imperial palaces of what was once Peking. A cocktail selection inspired by ingredients used in traditional Chinese medicine, and a stunning traditional Chinese interior with red lanterns and beautiful hand-carved wooden ‘Moon Gates’, completes the offering.
Always listed in the top 10 of places to eat with a view in London is The Oxo Tower which, with its positioning on the south bank of the River Thames, has a spectacular outlook towards Charing Cross and St Paul’s Cathedral. A dazzling success since opening in 1996, the Harvey Nichols-run trio of restaurants on the eighth floor of the tower includes a formal restaurant, low-key brasserie and bar. Those with a taste for the finer things in life can rest assured, as London is one of the top-ranked cities in the world for fine-dining and the capital is quite rightly decorated with Michelin stars year after year. Few Michelin-starred restaurants have views to match that of Galvin at Windows, on the 28th floor of Hilton Park Lane. You may well recognise the general manager Fred Sirieix – he’s the charismatic maitre d on Channel Four’s First Dates – who will be able to talk you through the modern French menu, as you enjoy the 1930s-style décor and views of iconic sites, like Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace.
London’s highest restaurant is Duck and Waffle, which sits triumphantly on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower at 110 Bishopsgate
Michelin star menus
Another shining star in Mayfair’s ever-growing Michelin constellation is the elegantly-understated Alyn Williams at The Westbury. Following eight years perfecting his craft with Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley Hotel, Alyn stepped into the spotlight with the opening of his eponymous restaurant in autumn 2011 and has since gained a Michelin star, four AA Rosettes and a top 15 ranking in the UK’s 100 Best Restaurants. Coupled with a National Chef of the Year crown in 2012, Alyn Williams has been catapulted to the top of everyone’s fine-dining wish list. Another of Wareing’s protégés, James Knappett, is shaking the pans at Kitchen Table – a tiny two Michelin-starred, 19-seat modern European restaurant tucked behind Champagne and hot dog spot Bubbledogs in Fitzrovia. With a 12-course tasting menu, which changes daily, the restaurant allows diners to sit right around the kitchen so they can watch the chefs’ every move.
Meanwhile, Marcus Wareing himself is reaping the benefits of a renovation at his Michelin star restaurant which recently reopened as ‘Marcus’. There are still the same sommeliers wheeling over trollies of Champagne on ice and an inspired modern French menu by Gordon Ramsay’s protégé and guest Masterchef judge, Marcus, but the restaurant itself has been stripped back to be more minimalist, making the food the star of the show. Also in Mayfair, Japanese restaurant Umu was awarded two-star status in 2016. The restaurant – the name of which means ‘born of nature’ – opened in 2004 as the UK’s first Kyoto-style restaurant, specialising in the multi-course kaiseki menus, derived from the Japanese tea ceremony that is a speciality of the former imperial capital. The restaurant has a futuristic sliding entrance door (set off by placing your hand on a sensor), a plush, dark interior and polished service but with a bill to match, so it’s best to save this swanky venue for a special occasion, unless you have a generous expense account.
If sushi is your thing and you have the cash to splash, then it’s also worth considering three-star Michelin The Araki. Opened by Japanese sushi master Mitsuhiro Araki in 2015 as part of the £250m W4 development in Mayfair, the tiny restaurant offers a very personal dining experience with space for just nine covers and has a no-choice, set-price menu costing around £300 per head – that’s £100 for each of its Michelin stars! Sticking with high-end Asian offerings, the Michelin-starred Amaya, in Belgravia, specialises in stylish pan-Indian tapas. Ask for a table by the kitchen for a view of the chefs working the clay tandoor, charcoal grill and griddle. Traditionalists, meanwhile, will love the 103-year-old The Dining Room, at The Goring. A favourite with the royal family, the plush dining room at this exquisite, family-owned hotel near St James’ Park, features bow-tied waiters, Swarovski chandeliers, and thick carpets and drapes in muted colours with a traditional menu of British classics, such as beef Wellington and gypsy tart.
That quintessentially English fine-dining experience can also be found at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught in Mayfair. It’s clear the staff take pleasure in working at this historic dining room with its beautiful wood panelling and floral plasterwork ceiling. Waistcoats, silver jugs and Baccarat crystal denote formality yet the menu is far more rustic than you’d expect. Such is the special-occasion nature of this two-star Michelin venue that everyone is presented with a personalised souvenir menu. Meanwhile, the longstanding Le Gavroche, in Upper Brooke Street, is a bit of an institution in London, having trained the likes of Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay. Opened in 1967 by brothers Michel and Albert Roux, the two Michelin-star restaurant is now run by Michel Roux junior and offers a delicious French menu complemented by an unpretentious atmosphere and a 60,000-strong wine list.
If sushi is your thing and you have the cash to splash, then it’s also worth considering three-star Michelin The Araki. Opened by Japanese sushi master Mitsuhiro Araki in 2015, the tiny restaurant offers a very personal dining experience with space for just nine covers
Such is London’s status as a food capital that fellow Frenchman Stéphane Reynaud recently chose the city for his first restaurant outside Paris. While it’s not yet made it into the Michelin list, Tratra – a meat and charcuterie-focused restaurant which takes up the entire basement level of the Boundary Hotel in Shoreditch – is bound to start racking up the stars soon. Locanda Locatelli is another Michelin-starred London institution. Considered by many to be one of the best Italian chefs in the UK, Giorgio Locatelli serves authentic home-baked Italian food and can often be seen wandering among his diners. A few years back, the chef saw his restaurant closed following a gas explosion. Undeterred by this, he reopened on the same site following a £1.2 million refurbishment, serving a menu just as it was before. There are currently just four London restaurants with three Michelin Stars; aforementioned The Araki, Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester and celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s namesake restaurant in Chelsea. Talking of which, Clare Smyth, who ran the kitchen at Restaurant Gordon Ramsey for a number of years, was recently awarded two stars by Michelin for her first solo venture, Core in Notting Hill.
London also has its fair share of celebrity-run restaurants. Made famous by Jamie Oliver’s TV series in 2002, the cheeky Essex boy’s famous Fifteen restaurant, between Hoxton and Old Street, is still going strong. You can expect Jamie’s trademark quirky, delicious food in a trendy, celebrity-filled setting. The Mediterranean menu, which is as seasonal and locally-sourced as possible, is complemented by the laid-back vibe, and philanthropists out there will be keen to hear that money from your bill goes towards teaching the restaurant’s trainee chefs. Heston Blumenthal’s famous flagship restaurant the Fat Duck, in Bray, may well be booked up months in advance but his two Michelin-starred London restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental, in Knightsbridge, is a little more accessible. While the Fat Duck celebrates futuristic flamboyance, Dinner updates historic dishes with flair and precision ensuring that it is one of London’s most sought-after destinations.
Those looking for a celeb-chef experience on a budget should head for Corrigan’s, acclaimed Irish chef Richard Corrigan’s humble offering in Mayfair, where the great value lunch menu offers a sample of the hearty portions of down to earth food that have been inspired by Corrigan’s rural upbringing.
If you’re more concerned about who you’re dining with than who’s cooking the food, then the latest celebrity hangouts are where you should be heading. Sexy Fish has been described as “not so much a restaurant but the museum of London’s rich”. Artwork by Damien Hirst, Frank Gehry and Michael Roberts adorns the walls of this Asian fusion restaurant in Berkeley Square, there’s a resident DJ seven nights a week and it’s open until 2am. Oh, and there’s not one but two massive fish tanks. Expect famous people, lots of famous people.
London also has its fair share of celebrity-run restaurants. Made famous by Jamie Oliver’s TV series in 2002, the cheeky Essex boy’s famous Fifteen restaurant, between Hoxton and Old Street, is still going strong
Grandeur, and tradition
If you don’t manage to bag a booking at Sexy Fish, try Chiltern Firehouse – Andre Balazs’ luxury hotel and restaurant in Marylebone – and it’s almost a dead cert you will be dining with at least one star. Originally one of London’s first purpose-built fire stations, the Grade 2-listed Gothic Victorian building has been transformed into a swanky New York-style brasserie with high ceilings, hanging light fittings, large mirrors and a busy open kitchen. Guests including Kate Moss, Simon Cowell, Lindsay Lohan, David Beckham, Orlando Bloom and even former Prime Minister David Cameron, are greeted by attractive top-hatted doormen and escorted through a pretty garden courtyard to their tables.
Kitchen W8 is also one of the most popular haunts amongst celebs in town. The stylish Michelin-starred venue is nestled unassumingly in one of Kensington’s side streets but has steadily built up a reputation as being the number one choice for the rich and famous in the know. Despite these new kids on the block attracting the celebs, A-listers continue to dine at Nobu, the Park Lane sushi restaurant co-owned by Robert de Niro as well as its sister restaurant in Mayfair. And, while its crown has slipped slightly in recent years, The Ivy is still the place to be seen when in London’s trendy West End. A selection of Ivy Brasseries has opened up across the city as well, so check those out if you struggle to get a table at the flagship restaurant.
Joining the aforementioned Alain Ducasse at the Dorchester is China Tang, another favourite with the celebrities. The restaurant is owned by the flamboyant founder of the Shanghai Tang chain, David Tang, and his movie star friends are often found there sampling Chinese delicacies alongside supermodels and business tycoons. The signature dish of Peking duck is said to be one of the finest to be found in the UK. Cecconi’s of Mayfair is glamour personified, with smart waiters, a stylish interior and a genuine Venetian tapas bar. Breakfast is served until midday and the place is renowned for its trendy salads, chocolate fondant and “the comfiest sofas in Mayfair” – there’s a good chance you’ll spot the likes of Madonna or Stella McCartney lounging on them. The grand old cafe-restaurant at The Wolseley, on London’s Piccadilly, has a spectacular Grade 2-listed interior and a sumptuous menu to match. Whether you go there for a traditional afternoon tea or the famous Wolseley breakfast, you’re likely to spot a famous face or two, such as Sarah Ferguson or supermodel Lily Cole.
For a more psychedelic celeb-spotting experience, head to Sketch in Mayfair, a unique gastro-brasserie conceived by Turner Prize-winning artist Martin Creed that pushes the boundaries of art and functionality. Sketch contains five restaurants in total but the two Michelin-starred Lecture Room and Library is the place to eat if you’re after wall-to-wall celebrities. Of course, eating out isn’t just about the food these days. As well as the chance to spot a celeb or two, most people are after a whole experience that will entertain their minds as well as their tastebuds. From floating restaurants that take you along the River Thames to those that invite you to eat your meal in the dark, London does not disappoint. With futuristic décor courtesy of British designer Tom Dixon, Circus restaurant and cocktail bar in the West End has a decadent feel and dinner is punctuated by various surprise cabaret and circus acts, which parade around on the tables as you eat.
The Ivy is still the place to be seen when in London’s trendy West End. A selection of Ivy Brasseries has opened up across the city as well, so check those out if you struggle to get a table at the flagship restaurant
Challenge the senses
Also in the West End, Sarastro is “the show after the show” thanks to the musical entertainment delivered by musicians from London’s opera houses each Monday and Sunday. The restaurant is even decked out like a theatre; elevated boxes arranged around the restaurant are furnished in rococo, Gothic and Ottoman styles with drapes and theatre props in abundance, while food is of the Turkish-Mediterranean variety. Providing just as much of a show but giving diners a taste of a bygone era is The Medieval Banquet, at St Katherine’s Dock. This show of festive pageantry features your very own serving wenches, who sing and dance while serving you a four-course banquet and refilling your glass with unlimited wine or beer. While The Medieval Banquet is served by torchlight, there is one restaurant in London which serves dinner in complete darkness. At Dans le Noir?, in Clerkenwell, meals are served by blind waiters and challenge your sense of taste and smell in a bid to educate your palate to truly appreciate the flavours.
From eating in total darkness to an eye-opening display of cooking at Benihana. With restaurants in Chelsea, Piccadilly and St Paul’s this American-import offers a menu of Japanese sushi and teriyaki grill dishes prepared and cooked at the table by your very own chef. For that extra special lavish experience, head to Soho’s Bob Bob Ricard, a luxury English and Russian menu to its eclectic clientele in London’s most glamorous all-booth dining room. Equipped with a ‘press for Champagne’ button at every table, it is famous for pouring more Champagne than any other restaurant in the UK.
One of the best things about dining in London is that there are hundreds of places where you can dine while looking out over the River Thames. But you can’t get a much better view of the river than by dining on it. Bateaux London operates daily scheduled public cruises for individuals and groups on a Scandinavian vessel, which boasts the largest open upper deck on the Thames.
There are plenty of kid-friendly options in the city, too. At the Rainforest Café on Regent Street they’ll go wild watching the indoor waterfalls, lightning, rain, animals and real tropical fish, while munching their way through the special two-course, American-themed kids’ menu and enjoying the activity packs. Older kids might like to mingle with the stars at Planet Hollywood restaurant near the bright lights of Leicester Square. There’s plenty to keep kids entertained alongside their burgers and fries, including colouring sets, balloons and movie memorabilia, and the kids’ menu includes unlimited soft drinks. Both little and big kids will appreciate the rock ‘n’ roll offering at the Hard Rock Café, near Hyde Park. The menu features sizzling dishes from the deep south served with a side of nostalgia thanks to the classic rock memorabilia and music. If they’re still hungry after their main meal, then head to Maxwell’s Bar & Grill in Covent Garden for a freakshake – a massive milkshake with a shedload of cake, crazy toppings and cream piled on top. The shakes began life in the Aussie capital of Canberra and are now taking London by storm.
At Dans le Noir?, in Clerkenwell, meals are served by blind waiters and challenge your sense of taste and smell in a bid to educate your palate to truly appreciate the flavours
Afternoon tea and street food
If you want to experience a true London tradition then you cannot visit the capital without going for afternoon tea. This famous pastime, made popular by Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford in 1840, is a staple of London’s social calendar. Tea at the Ritz is by far the most well-known and here you will get the true quintessential experience with 18 different types of loose-leaf tea. However, you will find that most luxury hotels provide an afternoon tea menu, some more traditional than others. Traditionalists should head for The Dorchester, Claridges and The Savoy, where the cakes, crust-less sandwiches and scones are all served on delicate stands and are accompanied by a crisp glass of Champagne. For those who scoff at scones, the OXO Tower Brasserie serves a ‘Not Afternoon Tea’, featuring a selection of quirky cocktails and sweet treats with not a sandwich or scone in sight, while at the Sanctum Soho Hotel, in Warwick Street, gents can feast on an Ace of Spades afternoon tea featuring masculine delights such as beef sliders, miniature lamb hot pot and roast beef with Yorkshire pud, all topped off with a Jack Daniels and fine cigar.
Other themed teas include Pret-a-Portea, a fashion-inspired tea at The Berkeley Hotel, a Mary Poppins afternoon tea at The Shard and Willy Wonka-inspired treats at One Aldwych. You can even treat yourself to this famous English pastime aboard a red double decker bus! Afternoon tea isn’t the only alternative to the usual breakfast, lunch, dinner option; these days Londoners love nothing more than a brunch – so much so that in September 2018 the city held its first ‘Brunch Fest’. Most popular on a Saturday or Sunday, these mid-morning get-togethers can be bottomless and boozy or vibrant and virtuous. Kings Cross’ Granary Square has become a magnet for foodies and its Caravan restaurant serves one of the best brunches around – particularly as it is served until 4pm. Choose between dishes such as avocado toast sprinkled with chilli, lemon and olive oil or more indulgent options, such as pumpkin waffle topped with baked ricotta, maple and pecans. For those who like their brunch rather boozy, Mews of Mayfair, just off Bond Street, is the place to head. You can get unlimited Bellinis and Mimosas for £15 to accompany your brunch of eggs benedict, or even a roast if you’d prefer!
Of course, you don’t have to ‘dine in’ to experience the many culinary delights that London has to offer. Drawing on the cultural diversity of its population, street food is more popular than ever before in London and if you’re food-obsessed but don’t have the disposable income to ‘fine dine’, street food is a real saviour. You’ll find it for sale at markets across town (most big markets will have at least a handful of food stalls) but the most famous are Borough Market, where you can easily spend half a day dining out on the free samples on offer, and Brick Lane, where there’s even more food to be found outside than just in the street’s famous curry houses. In the evening, head for the Southbank Centre, where stalls are open until 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays, and Street Feast, which has venues across the city open from 5pm to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays.
You’ll also find one-off food festivals cropping up across London throughout the year. Meatopia and Taste of London have become permanent fixtures in the city’s foodie calendar but new ones launch all the time so make sure you keep your eye out for the latest gigs. Whatever your taste and budget, there’s more than enough to choose from in the capital. A lot of restaurants require bookings, particularly at the weekend, so if you have your heart (and belly) set on somewhere, make sure you call ahead to avoid disappointment (your hotel will be able to help or make a reservation for you). However, lots of venues are happy to accommodate walk-ins so there are plenty of options for those who would rather be spontaneous.
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