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A Newcomer's Guide to London Food
An essential and existential restaurant guide.
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An essential and existential restaurant guide
Earlier this month, I put out a call via Instagram for Copenhagen recommendations at which point I was immediately deluged with names of very cool-sounding, spartanly-named restaurants. As DM after DM came in, I was struck at how similar they all were; as if everyone was getting their information from the same master source. Yes, you must go to Hart Bageri, get the cardamom bun from Juno, get a chicken sandwich from Pompette, go have a sauna at La Banchina, get a schnitzel at Barr and have the caviar pasta at Barabba (I ended up, in the absence of much else, doing nearly all these things). I wondered whether a city that has been repeatedly talked up as one of the best places to eat in the world had been flattened, been reduced to a handful of names, mainly ex-Noma chefs doing serene six-to-seven-course Japanese-inspired tasting menus. Was Copenhagen really this small, or was the dining scene far more conservative and centralised than I had initially thought?
I believe the answer is a little bit of both, although this is not the newsletter where I critique the Copenhagen food scene. Rather, it’s about the homogeneity of travel lists, things that you should tick off. I often write lists and recommendations for people who live in London, assuming an infinity of time and a familiarity with the city’s topography and bus routes. But if someone is coming in from out of town, I start sounding like Hot Dinners: I will revert back to the same five or six restaurants which you will probably find in most guides, maybe even restaurants that I don’t even particularly like but I feel are important to visit. (I think of some of the best city guides I’ve ever received, and keep coming back to a Vaughn Tan list of Tokyo which includes an entry that ends up arguing against its own inclusion.)
Not too soon after I came back from Copenhagen, the new Eater 38 list dropped, the first since all restaurants reopened. The map is titled ‘essential restaurants’, which does beg the question: what is the definition of ‘essential’? (One wonders if there should be, in a Sartrean riposte, a list of ‘38 existential restaurants’). What I take ‘essential’ to mean is something which informed the writing of my own Best Value maps for Eater, which is that they are a list of restaurants that you would tell a newcomer to the city to visit to understand something fundamental and intrinsic to London. My response was to write a guide that represented the city in its totality, rather than something essential to a certain vision of it. In my mind, the essential map was for out-of-towners, mine was for Londoners.
Today, I’ve revised my own insistence on separating what could be considered the ‘core’ of the London food scene and its diaspora communities; I am now much more interested in the commonalities and conversations that could exist between them. And I also wonder, like the latest version of the Eater 38 (which I think is the most diverse yet), if it’s possible to make a list that is functional but that also communicates something about London to someone who isn’t familiar with it. Can you make an interesting, genuinely diverse guide that doesn’t lean on the same few restaurants but that also acknowledges that a tourist map must function in a certain way? That it must take into account scheduling, travel, people’s patience for buses and intermittent rail services, where people are most likely to stay or visit, and, most crucially, what London does particularly well compared to other cities. “Existence precedes essence” but can you do a guide that does both at the same time?
The following list of restaurants, cafés, food shops and bakeries is an attempt to do this. Please feel free to email it to anyone visiting and save them the cost of a Lonely Planet.
Let’s assume you’re coming in by plane. London airports are generally a nightmare to get to and from, so why not take advantage of the fact that your introduction to England is being dumped in a Home Counties industrial park and visit some of the places even seasoned Londoners would consider too long to bother going to? Plus, it breaks up the train ride a bit.
If you’re coming into or leaving Heathrow mid-morning, you should take the Piccadilly Line to Tetote Factory near South Ealing station. I reckon a good quarter of the times I’ve been here, it’s been with a suitcase, being told by someone sensible that there’s not enough time to get buns (wrong, plus the suitcase doubles up as bun storage). On walking into Tetote you might ask ‘Where should this bakery be?’ If it were in Tokyo, it would function as a neighbourhood bakery so good that commuters from other tokubetsu-ku would divert their journey for melon pan. If it were in Paris, then it would just be on every guidebook going and its clientele would mainly be food tourists and cooing French chefs. But it’s in South Ealing – this fact is constantly quite mad to me. Get there at 11am sharp, if you can.
If you’re coming into Gatwick then you can take a Southern service to Thornton Heath and walk to Tasty Jerk. Coming from central, I think this is the furthest I would ever send someone not familiar with London on a food trip – it’s a pain to get to and it involves a good fifteen-minute walk, half of which is covered in smoke because of Tasty Jerk’s extraction. Contrary to Google Review claims that it’s ‘gone downhill’, ‘serving burnt pork’ and has ‘half-an-hour waits’ (no wait, this one is true), I was there last week and it was every bit as phenomenal as ever. The sensation of biting down onto a particular sweet, crunchy piece of pork crackling, infused with a good decade’s worth of drum tar and smoke, with its diabolical chilli sauce too hot to actually consume, is one of the top three enjoyable things you can do in this city in public.
If you’re coming into Stansted, then god help you.
Tourist Traps That Are Actually Good
The biggest divide in how tourists eat and how Londoners eat can be summed up in the institution of afternoon tea, a meal synonymous with London which no one who lives here has actually ever consumed. The reasons for this are obvious: as a semi-insider into the afternoon tea world, I can tell you that it’s an open scam, a particularly tortuous way of getting people to fork over close to £100 per head for some lukewarm champagne, pre-made sandwiches, average patisserie and non-descript tea. It has the double genius of wildly high mark-ups and being possible to prep almost entirely in advance. You are paying for a room: my advice is to walk into Claridge’s like you own the place, have a look round the dining room and then go straight to the bar.
Duke’s in St. James is another case of paying for the room, in this case a slightly stuffy, club atmosphere with the detritus of Empire on the walls and some dubious Ian Fleming heritage. A martini is around £20. And yet, and yet: it is just about the best martini you’ll ever consume, and if not, it’s certainly the biggest; it’s about four measures of some of the thickest-looking gin you’ve ever seen in your life, so cold that it seems to actually distort the space around it. I believe vermouth may be involved at some point, but I’ve never been able to confirm. When I went here on my birthday last year, I had one and a half martinis (they don’t allow you to order more than three), got on my bike and immediately cycled into my partner. I can’t recommend it enough.
I have heard that The Ritz is genuinely excellent, but I’ve never had the money to try this theory out.
If you go to Borough Market on a weekday, you can find it close to how God intended it to be: a market that actually sells produce. Places like Monmouth, Mons and Neal’s Yard Dairy are world class at what they do, while if you’re staying in a place where you can cook then you could do worse than buy from the fishmongers there, or De Calabria (once incredible, now slightly diminished by the bureaucracy of Brexit). Do not go on a weekend or bother wasting space on sandwiches (yeah, the Kappacasein toastie is good but it’s not worth a queue, and you can just buy the cheese and make it yourself).
Do not, under any circumstances, join the queue at Padella.
If you go to the theatre or the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, do not bother eating nearby. If you find yourself in Soho or Chinatown then use the 99 Places To Eat Near Oxford Circus guide. I would say the casual places worth actually going to would be Kiln, Koya, Bao, oysters at J. Sheekey or Bentleys, Andrew Edmunds, Cafe TPT (especially if the city you come from doesn’t have much in the way of Cantonese food), Wong Kei (a Venus fly tourist trap) and Lanzhou Lamian. All of these, though, with maybe the exception of Koya’s blackboard, are not essential, but v good if you are in need.
London has become awash with street food markets where the idea is to trick you into spending more money than you anticipated by making you less comfortable than you’d like and lowering the quality of the food. A recent exception to this is Arcade Food Hall at Centre Point in Tottenham Court Road, which has been taken over by JKS (the restaurant group responsible for Gymkhana). It’s a good place to get a barometer for the madness of the London food scene, and what is considered trendy, monetisable and on the cutting edge. Astonishingly, the best thing there is still a burger.
Judging by the wailing that went on last month, you’d think The Wolseley had either closed or Jeremy King had died. But the restaurant has not yet had time to go downhill and you’re mainly there for the ambiance anyway. Go for breakfast: not just because it’s probably the best thing they do, but also because I consider it to be a lesser meal, only worthy of partaking during holidays (to fit an extra meal in)
Dishoom is the most overrated and underrated restaurant in London. If you insist on going (it was, apparently, the one restaurant all Eater US staff wanted to go to in London when they visited) then go to the King’s Cross branch, which is one of the best designed dining rooms in London. Also, go for breakfast.
Yeah, so you’ll be wanting that Bri-ish (pronounced without the T) food you’ve seen being mocked on Twitter. First of all, London isn’t the best place to get British food, or at least this idea of British food. London has no regional cuisine, in the traditional sense of the word. The caff is in decline and good chippies are as common as good Mexican food.
If you want to go to an iconic (I don’t use this word lightly – these are spaces for devotion) London caff, it comes down to E. Pellici in Bethnal Green or Regency in Westminster. Both are art-deco institutions which feel worn in, as if the rest of the city has grown around them. Regency edges it, partly because the food is slightly better, partly because it’s less knowing (a product of its central location compared to Pellicci being on Columbia Road’s tourist trail). There’s an element of ritual about Regency: the long queue, no matter how much space there is, being addressed as young man or lady no matter your age, your order being bellowed by the voice of the Oracle, whether it be fry-ups with eggs like milky, glossed-over eyes, crusty, square slices of pies, or the Friday fish lunch, which is lowkey one of the finest fish and chips in the city.
You could be forgiven for thinking the queue of black cabs in front of the Regency was due to cabbies stopping over for a fry-up break, but they abandoned it long ago, when the long queue swelled with art students and unusually well-informed Japanese tourists. Instead, you’ll find them huddled up over the road at the Astral discussing LTNs and cashless cabs. If you want to understand the lot of a modern London cabbie you could do no better than squat in the corner of the Astral, nursing a fry-up (good, but not quite as good as the Regency), or a deliciously chaotic plate of penne and fusilli bolognese topped with chicken escalope, or a chicken kebab, or hake rice, or a panini melt, and just listen. If the Regency sells tourists an image of British food as they want it to be, then the Astral serves it as it is.
Pubs: this deserves a newsletter by itself (and will have one), but you should try to visit at least one good pub (and not a Brewdog or a Mikkeler bar you can now seemingly get in any country). Most good pubs will not necessarily do good food, but one that does both is The Southampton Arms which is great after a long walk on the Heath. Here you can get close to understanding the British obsession with lukewarm cask ale and have a gargantuan roast pork and apple sauce sandwich with a thick shard of crackling on top.
There is no one standout pie and mash shop in London; they’ve all packed off to Essex. Plus, I think if you’re a tourist going to a pie and mash shop, you’re really there on a dare to see if we actually eat this shit. However, it is also the only cuisine I can think of that originates in London so you may as well get pie, mash and liquor (you have to get the liquor, otherwise you may as well not bother) if you’re in an area with one (Goddard’s if you’re in Greenwich, Manze’s if you go see Tower Bridge, Cooke’s if you’re in Hoxton). If you absolutely must, get stewed eels. Jellied eels will get you a good story and confirm every prejudice you’ve ever heard about British cuisine.
If you want to have fish and chips there are three options. The first is an old-school sit-down place, like The Golden Hind or The Fryer’s Delight. This is a fine experience but they are all past their best and we should all admit this. The second, is one of these new school fish and chip shops that ikejime their fish, or some shit, and charge double the amount fish and chips should cost. If the place looks like any expense has gone into its upkeep then AVOID. The third is what a chippy should be, a neighbourhood spot that you would go to if you live nearby. My recommendation for central is Fish Central, which is as isolated a central London chippy can be, hidden on a housing estate somewhere between the Barbican (which you should go see and get lost in) and Angel. However, if you really, really want to get the best fish and chips possible without leaving the city, then get to West Norwood station and go to Knight’s Fish Bar, which is the only place apart from Fryer’s Delight that still fries their chips in tallow. To justify it to your family/partner you can combine it with a leafy, south London tour of museums, like Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Horniman.
Old school places I have never been to because I suspect they are massively Tory, but would probably be good fun to someone who hasn’t lived under a Tory government for over half their life:
Rules, Sweeting’s, Wiltons.
You can’t leave London without going to a traditional Brıtish ocakbasi. There are so many options that you may as well turn it into a whole crawl: unless you come from Turkey or Berlin, you won’t find another city with this many great Turkish and Kurdish restaurants.
The Beginner’s Crawl – Dalston
Start at Umut 2000 for ribs to get a feel for the close-up, elbows in, lamb-fat-in-your-hair feel of a good ocakbasi. Go over the road to Mangal 2 to get a sense of how the next generation of British-Turkish are changing the cuisine. Go to Bebek Baklava to have lahmacun, pide or claypots. And then go over to Oren, not an ocakbasi, for the best grill experience in east London.
The Intermediate Crawl – Green Lanes
Get off at Turnpike Lane and go to Durak Tantuni for a double-wrapped tantuni and pickles, which will stretch your stomach for the night ahead. Then go to Haringey Corbacisi, the new soup joint, for head and hoof soup, or tripe soup, or meatballs, followed by ribs at the other Umut 2000 or iskender at Antepliler Doner, or adana and manti at Hala, or icli kofte at Diyarbakir Kitchen. Finish with kunefe at Antepliler Kunefe.
The Expert Crawl – Edmonton
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going this far unless you’re pairing it with a New River walk or a visit to a Jacobean manor in Enfield, but Edmonton is the current epicentre of good Turkish food in London. I’ve written up two different crawls before: one here, and one here, but the real aim is to end at Neco Tantuni, which is the closest thing London has to a real late-night food culture. Most restaurants would be sated by doing one dish better than anywhere else in London: Neco does two: tantuni and kunefe.
There are plenty of new Italian restaurants, pizza places and pasta bars, all of which purport to do things incredibly authentically, exactly like how you would get it in Italy. My advice, if you like this sort of thing, is to go to Italy.
Otherwise, get some seafood pasta in a bag at Ciao Bella, or a fried-to-order escalope sandwich at Scotti’s – real British-Italian fare.
St. John is an unusual restaurant in the sense that almost every place it has influenced is undeniably more pleasurable than the mother ship. Most people who have been to both will tell you that Rochelle Canteen (run by Fergus Henderson’s wife Margot) has long been putting out better food (here’s the revelation where I tell you I have never been to Rochelle Canteen). This is not to put you off going: I do definitely think it’s worth visiting, but casually, sitting in the bar for a snack, or going for a post-meal dessert Larry David-style (the other restaurant I would put in this category is Noble Rot). If you want a full meal, then go to St. John Bread and Wine, where the cooking feels a little less anchored. The breakfast here – a thick bacon sandwich on toasted white, or a Scotch woodcock (scrambled egg and anchovy paste), with a cold glass of orange juice and a black coffee – is one of the few affordable luxuries left in the East End.
I would say there are now two schools of Modern British cooking: light and heavy, one more in debt to Italy, vegetables, fish, Elizabeth David, Alastair Little, city cooking and The River Café; and the other to France, Fergus Henderson, meat, country cooking and Jane Grigson.
For the former, you should go to Quo Vadis where Jeremy Lee has now run the kitchen for a decade since leaving Terence Conran’s Blueprint Café. Starters are minimalist (the famous eel sandwich is a masterclass of sandwich architectonics) while desserts, which is what you should come for, are pure maximalism, billowy, excessive and rococo. There are few greater joys in London than sitting at its bar or terrace with a cocktail and maybe two puddings. I once had a pudding here where I counted four different types of cream – if you don’t understand British desserts after this, then you can consider the whole genre lost on you.
Then there are the two ‘Cafés’ – Cecilia and Deco. Max Rocha at the former came through River Café and it shows, but the food has some of the earthiness of Irish country cooking: Guinness breads, roughly-hewn black puddings, pig head and potato pies. I’ve written about languorous breakfasts here before, which is my favourite way to experience them. Anna Tobias’s food at Café Deco on the other hand, is influenced by her time at Rochelle Canteen and cooking with Jeremy Lee, but also her Balkan heritage and pared down, Coco Chanel (remove one ingredient before serving) ethos. Her dishes carry something of the shock that Fergus Henderson’s once did, when you realise there actually isn’t anything more than what is described. The food here is like good poetry: one some days it might completely fly over your head; on others, it feels vital, perfect. I would rather have this than consistent mediocrity. Get the egg mayo.
For the latter, you should head straight to Quality Chop House, where Shaun Searley has one ambition: to leave every diner almost physically unable to walk by the time the meal has finished. I believe this is the only restaurant in London where you might get butter poisoning. QCH was the victim/protagonist in a very funny literal beef about mince on toast, when Eater US claimed it was a traditional British dish. The answer is: it is and it isn’t, but it is delicious, which is all that matters.
At FKA Black Axe Mangal, former St. John Bread and Wine head chef Lee Tiernan is cooking food that reads like the St. John menu dredged through a Turkish mangal, a smoker, and the entire continent of Asia, in an exercise to see how far you can stretch the rigid St. John ethos before it snaps (or, to see how much commonality it has with non-Western cuisines). I have actually never had a meal here that wasn’t flawed in some way, but I’m not sure this matters next to the sincerity of the cooking (which is rare) and it’s an experience you couldn’t really have anywhere but London.
South Asian Food
But if you’re in London briefly, you’ll want to maximise the amount of time you have, which means making an executive decision on what you want to prioritise. You might, understandably, want to go to some modern British-Indian restaurants, in which case I would recommend Bibi, Darjeeling Express and Gymkhana (I have not been to Trishna, Manthan, Chourangi and many other places people seem to like). But if you want to get a sense of London’s vernacular South Asian food then here are a few potential lunch/dinner trips you could do, taking in 3-5 stops to make the journey worthwhile.
This would be easy if you’re anywhere east, as it’s a short walk from Shoreditch station down Brick Lane. Start at Graam Bangla, which is probably the best Sylheti canteen on the street. Get rice and a fish curry of some sort, possibly keski maas and some shidol, or just ask what they think is good that day. On Whitechapel Road, go to Sonargaon for samosa chaat and to Haji Nanna Biryani for Dhaka-style biryani (you can also make a detour to Al Kahf for Somali lamb shoulder and rice). Finish at Lahore One for methi chicken. I’m not saying don’t go to Tayyabs/Needoo et al, because they’re institutions and they’re fun, but there is better Lahori cooking elsewhere.
East Ham Crawl
This is where you can get the best South Indian cooking in London, primarily from Kerala and Chennai. Start at Royal Chef for kottu roti, then go to Thattukada for chicken fry, paratha and a beef curry, and Vasantha Vilas for dosa. You could then take many options: to Udaya for more Malayali food, anchovy and crab fries; to Hyderabadi Spice for Hyderabadi-style biryani; or even Spice Hut for naga doner to try something that is really unique to London.
Wembley-Rayner’s Lane Crawl
This is Gujarati central, and also the crawl that takes place across the largest area. Start at Alperton station and get vada pav from the small place which used to be Shree Sai Vada Pav when you turn left. Go towards Wembley and get crispy bhajia from Maru’s Bhajia House and then a Gujarati thali from Asher’s Africana, for a one-two of East African Indian food. At Wembley, get pani puri from the stall outside Dosa Express, and then get dosa inside, or go to the mini mall next to it and get some snacks. There are plenty of places here selling convoluted egg variations, including Jishal Goan and you can find a mithai shop of your choice. This is probably enough, but if you want to go further then you can trek to Rayner’s Lane for Sri Lankan food, including Gana and Rasa Bojun, as well as chilli paneer pizza at Jai Durga Mahal.
You could do this straight from Heathrow or before Heathrow, but it would involve lugging round a suitcase, which is a bit of a nuisance. Get off at Hounslow East and walk to Shree Krishna Vada Pav for vada pav and get some Goan snacks and some Goa sausage at Casa de Goa. Go to Charcoal Chicken and order one or two chubby seekh kebabs (without bread, this is a professional crawl after all). Finish (because you won’t have room after this) at Taste of Pakistan; get chapli kebabs and charsi karahi. Make sure to book it in advance, or you risk being turned away/suplexed through a table.
Places that are near other places
Sometimes you just need to grab some food after an exhausting day out looking at some stolen artifacts or a big clock. Here is a very quick guide on where to go when you have no patience.
Big Ben, Westminster Abbey – The Regency Cafe, the street food market on Lower Marsh, Little Bread Pedlar
St. Paul’s Cathedral – Koya City, Bodega Rita’s, Bleecker Burger
British Museum – Catalyst Coffee, Noble Rot, Master Wei, Café Deco, Jincheng Alley, Arcade Food Hall, Dapur
Tate Modern – Anchor and Hope, O’Ver, Bao Borough
Victoria & Albert Museum – Ognisko
Camden Market ─ don’t go in the first place
Greenwich – Goddard’s, South and North, Tai Won Mein, Saikei, Alhaji Suya, Pho City, Naru
Hampstead Heath – The Southampton Arms, Bull & Last, Red Lion and Sun (okay, this is mainly pubs), Balady (if you’re coming from the extension)
Tower of London – throw yourself in the Thames
If you’re lucky enough to be able to cook yourself, or if you’re taking stuff home, then go to Spa Terminus in Bermondsey on a Saturday rather than Borough Market. It has everything you need except for a fishmonger (in which case, go to Moxon’s in Angel or Fin and Flounder in London Fields). You will get incredible cheese and charcuterie here (through Neal’s Yard Dairy, Mons and The Ham and Cheese Co), meat from The Butchery, wines from Ancestral, beer from The Kernel and pastries from Flor.
When going to a new city, you don’t necessarily want to go to the absolute best places but the ones you can’t get at home. I was talking to Sheena Dabholkar of Lover Magazine about this recently and she made light fun of the tendency of people to take newcomers to the kind of globalised cafés you might find from Mumbai to Los Angeles, things that are exciting within India but could actually be anywhere. In the same spirit, the first thing I ask anyone when they ask me for tourist recommendations is: what cuisine is abundant in your city, and which cuisines are hard to find?
The following is a list of restaurants I think have something which other cities would struggle to offer: they’re not necessarily the best all-round restaurants, but they have an attribute that ranks high in the citywide game of Top Trumps (which is ultimately what this all is).
Unless you’re literally coming from Thailand (and, even then) Singburi is the one London restaurant I would move the heavens to get a reservation at. It’s out of the way, but fairly easy to get to on the Central line, a walk from Leytonstone station that feels longer than it is. It’s also one of those places where someone has to be ruthless with the ordering: double the number of moo krobs that you need, two morning glorys from the paper menu, a balanced route through the blackboard if there’s two or three of you, the whole board if there’s more. If there’s a soup: order it. If there’s something on there that sounds like you wouldn’t get it in Thailand: order it.
If you’ve never had West African food before then London is probably the best place to try it in Europe, along with Paris, but there is almost nothing that isn’t slightly difficult to get to. Alhaji Suya in Greenwich is on an industrial estate, a bus ride away from the Maritime Museum and Greenwich Park. Get the tozo, buy some extra yaji and if you have an oven at home, you can get a guinea fowl to heat up later. Otherwise, if you’re in Peckham, Angel’s Bakery or Tiwa ‘N’ Tiwa do good versions of suya.
In Brixton, Chishuru in Brixton Market is a must; Joké Bakare’s cooking seeps around borders, encompassing the southern and eastern cooking you’ll find in most of London’s Nigerian restaurants, with food from the north as well as across the wider region. Brixton Market itself is rather interesting as an urban phenomenon, although I can hardly recommend much in it anymore. Better to take the bus down to Asafo for Ghanaian food (or, if you go to an Arsenal match, Sweet Handz).
You’ll find better food from the Caribbean in London than you do in pretty much all European cities, and even most American ones too. Tasty Jerk I’ve mentioned and Smokey Jerkey in New Cross is a close second, but it’s not just Jamaican. If you want outstanding Guyanese food, then go to Kaieteur Kitchen which is fairly easy to get to (it’s in Zone 1) and just ask Faye what you’re in the mood for. For Trini food, doubles, roti go to Roti Joupa (the Clapham branch is better than the Finsbury Park one).
Park Royal, but I will do this another time, inshallah.
Someone I didn’t know cornered me at a party recently and said that he had an issue with me, then proceeded to tell me that by recommending Bake St continuously, I had made his wait for coffee longer in the morning. These are the kind of issues I like to hear about and it wouldn’t be such a tragedy if people were making their way from all corners of the earth to swell the Bake St queue: it is really the only place I know of that tries to encompass everything interesting about London in one place (where else could you find the head chef of Quality Wines making a biryani?). The smash burger, the fish filet, the Nashville Chicken and the Makhani burger are four of most well-composed sandwiches in the city, while the crème brûlée cookies are maybe THE essential London bake (along with the St. John doughnut, the Tetote custard bun and anything from Bageriet).
The Ethiopian Restaurant Principle
Every Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurant in London, without exception, is great. This is something we should talk about more because I’m actually not sure how it is possible.
If you’re near one (Wolkite Kitfo if you’re at The Emirates, Zeret Kitchen, Beza or Rhoda if you’re south, Genet Café if you pass through Tottenham Hale to the airport) you should go.
East (and South) London Natural Wine Bars
London is currently one of the best places in the world to drink wine, poised, Istanbullishly, between Europe and the New World, and with no wine tradition of its own to be devout to. This means most wine bars in London will have fairly diverse wine lists, heavy on low-intervention. This has spawned a whole genre of restaurants slash wine bars, where it’s possible to have a full sit-down, three-to-five-course meal, or sit at the bar and have a wine and a croquette (it is always a croquette). This also happens to be the exact way I like to eat.
Over in east London, Brawn is probably the oldest restaurant in this category, serving, like most of them, Franco-Italian, leaning towards Italian, but masquerading as British. The portions here are slightly larger than elsewhere, less inclined towards snacking and more towards full eating. If you’re eating here late, then you can finish at The Laughing Heart, the Wellesian Charlie Mellor’s wine bar, which is a short walk away.
The Antipodean influence on London’s food scene is profound, and none more so than the effect of P. Franco and its first manager, Phil Bracey. P. Franco really is a wine shop with a few induction hobs at the back; it feels slightly embarrassing how revolutionary this use of space seemed back in 2017 now it’s everywhere. Bracey then opened Bright with two head chefs, which never quite worked out. Since then, Bright has become resolutely Italian under Peppe Belvedere, a River Café for people who can actually afford River Café but don’t want to be seen there. Meanwhile the third restaurant, Peg, which started out as a yakitori restaurant in the mould of Paris’s Le Rigmarole, has also found its feet with a generous set menu. Last time I went, a mango rice pudding made by Will Gleave was so instantly nostalgic of Thailand and of nursery, simultaneously. It remains one of the most pleasurable things I’ve eaten all year.
Another Aussie, Seb Myers, is cooking exceptional Parisian food at Planque in Haggerston. Lots of people try to ape the Parisian wine bar aesthetic and miss because they have no feel for the details; I think this is the first place in London that gets it right but that also isn’t a slavish recreation of another city.
When Quality Wines opened in the summer of 2018 it came advertised with the least needed remit a London restaurant has ever had: a small plates (strike 1) wine bar (strike 2) serving fresh pasta (strike 3) cooked on induction hobs (how many strikes can you have?), seemingly an unoriginal way to monetise a dead section of the Quality Chop House and its deli which it is attached to. Within a few months, it appeared that, in fact, this is exactly what London needed: mainly because Nick Bramham understands that there is a lot of merit in picking something very simple and executing it to the highest standard possible. Order any sandwich on the menu (a tuna melt toastie fried in butter, or a mortadella, burrata and pistachio panino) to make you realise that this is secretly the sandwich shop London needed all along.
The Winemakers Club under the Holborn Viaduct is not a restaurant but it is the best wine bar in London and Galahad is the best pub dog. You may also find him doubling up in Veraison in Camberwell.
When I was at university, there was a lecturer in the film department who, when planning the first ten seminars of the year (each one around a different aspect of filmmaking – editing, mise en scene, scriptwriting and so on) would allegedly choose Renoir’s Les Regles du Jeu ten times in a row to either troll his students or make some kind of point. In the same vein, I would legitimately recommend eating out at 40 Maltby Street every night until you get a feel for it. It’s a place I’ve been to so many times that going there feels like breathing; it’s a place where I can stand, sit or perch without feeling like I’m under pressure to do anything except feel comfortable. The best time to come is 5.30 or 8.30 on a Wednesday, when the food is being cooked for the first time and it’s likely you’ll find a seat, or on a Saturday lunchtime. Order the least-assuming thing on the menu or just ask someone and you’ll get an honest answer.
I have never been to London Fields. If you think you’ve clocked me there, you’re wrong, it was someone else. Because it would be hugely embarrassing to ever be spotted here, a neighbourhood which is just as uncool as Clapham, only for people without the self-awareness to realise that yet. But if I was here, theoretically, then I might go to Hill and Szrok for a burger, Pockets for some falafel, E5 Bakehouse for coffee and bakes, and Sonora for a taco, but even then, you wouldn’t see me in a queue.
Shoot Your Shot
I don’t usually go to Michelin-starred or high-end restaurants but I have spent my own money at the following and would do so again: The Clove Club (two birthdays), The Sea, The Sea (my partner’s birthday), Ikoyi (when it was cheaper), Lyles (for lunch and post-dinner dessert) and Leroy (under a previous chef). I would love to go to Otto’s and A. Wong but haven’t gotten round to it yet. I have been to The River Café, but I did not pay for it and will only do so in apocalyptic circumstances.
The McDonald’s Principle
This is the idea that the soul of a national cuisine is contained in its McDonald’s specials, the collective dreams and nightmares of a country laid bare in between two soft bun halves. You might deduce from Britain’s McDonald’s specials that we generally hate food, which is correct. Avoid all British McDonald’s unless you need to use the toilets.
If McDonald’s isn’t essential, then what is? I would argue that Nando’s would probably give you more of an insight into modern British food than most chains, but do you really want to waste a whole meal here? No. Perhaps a late-night chicken shop snack, Morley’s if you’re south, Sam’s if north, a PFC if you’re east. A Gregg’s bake or sausage roll will tell you more about the way we eat than anything on this list. When I put the question to the group chat, Eater London editor Adam Coghlan replied with something that made me laugh, but may be right: a Sloppy Giuseppe and side salad from Pizza Express, and a prawn mayo sandwich and prawn cocktail crisps from M&S.
NEXT WEEK: Inspired by being asked this exact question by Peter J Kim on a podcast recently, if you had to recommend five London restaurants to someone coming here for the first time, what would they be? Please comment or send me your answers, and I will collate all of this plus the newsletter into one big map. I’ll also drop my Copenhagen map, and maybe some other cities too. What a time to be alive!