London is full of restaurants serving food so good it brings tears to our eyes: just take a look at our 100 best restaurants list. But sometimes a place comes along that thrills in a way that makes it properly bucket-list-worthy. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily perfect, but that it’s got the magic ingredient: an unmissable setting you just have to Instagram, views you can’t tear your eyes away from or incredible flavour combinations that taste like the actual future.
The ten listed here have that try-before- you-die quality. They’re the restaurants that once you’ve visited you can’t stop raving about to your friends. If you want to experience everything that makes London food culture the greatest in the world, this is – in no particular order – a good place to start.
The one with a speakeasy bar: Social Eating House (£££)
Of all of Jason Atherton’s ‘Social’ network, from Pollen Street Social to Sosharu, this one’s the coolest. It manages to straddle that line between somewhere casual enough to drop in on a Wednesday night (if you can get a table), yet stylish enough to be a ‘special occasion’ spot too (especially if you go for cocktails at Blind Pig, the upstairs speakeasy-style bar). It’s not cheap, but the playful, technically flawless modern European food is so worth it.
Hot tip: At £22.50 for two courses, the set menu (noon-2.30pm, 6pm-7pm) is a wallet-friendly way in (and for £7 extra, they’ll chuck in a cocktail).
58 Poland St.
Nearest tube: Oxford Circus.
The best Sri Lankan outside Sri Lanka: Hoppers (£)
Don’t get too bogged down with the name – while it’s true that the signature dish of this no-bookings restaurant is the hopper, a kind of spongy savoury Sri Lankan pancake – there’s so much more to it than that. Sexy Colombo-by- way-of- Soho styling, incredible short eats (snacks), exceptional curries and a truly hopping (sorry!) atmosphere. There’s nowhere else quite like it in London. Get ready to queue (and to be excited).
Hot tip: Don’t get bounced into ordering all the chutneys. Instead, order an extra curry to share.
49 Frith St, W1D 4SG.
Nearest tube: Leicester Square.
The cool upstart: The Barbary (££)
Remember the buzz around Soho’s modern Israeli restaurant The Palomar? Well now, its younger sibling. The Barbary has gone and stolen its limelight. Why? Well, its location is better (when the queue spills outside, it’s into charming, pedestrian-only Neal’s Yard), the counter seating is better (no jostling from behind) and – whisper it – the food is better (especially the octopus and the pata negra neck). The room, full of smoke and laughter, is one of the liveliest in London.
Hot tip: Arrive between 5pm and 6.15pm – it’s more fun at night – and order the naan bread and dips before choosing the bigger plates.
16 Neal’s Yard.
Nearest tube: Covent Garden.
The tapas bar that will change your life:Barrafina Adelaide Street (££)
It almost feels disloyal to celebrate this younger model rather than Barrafina’s trailblazing Frith Street original. But with that Soho site due to close in mid-November and the Drury Lane branch more of a baby sis, it’s all eyes on swish Adelaide Street. Yes, you’ll queue (there are just 29 stools along one sweeping counter), but once in, every seat is a good seat and the tapas is change-your- life good.
Hot tip: Bulk up your order – but not your bill – with the excellent classic tortilla (£7) and frit mallorquín (a southern Spanish offal stew, £8).
10 Adelaide St.
Nearest tube: Charing Cross.
The slebby one: Chiltern Firehouse (£££)
Others come, others go, but if it’s a celeb-filled mega-hotspot you’re after, you can’t beat Chiltern Firehouse. Whether or not you’ll actually see any A-listers on your visit is academic – it’s an always-busy place with friendly, polished service and best of all, cooking from humble-yet- brilliant superchef Nuno Mendes, who can take food for wealthy tourists (it is part of a hotel, don’t forget) and turn each dish into something very special.
Hot tip: Go for brunch or lunch on a sunny day – it’s easier to book and you can ask to move to the chic courtyard, one of its nicest spots.
1 Chiltern St.
Nearest tube: Bond St.
The crowdfunded Thai: Som Saa (££)
Everything about this slick new Thai restaurant is hot. It started life as a residency in an east London coffee roastery (obvs). The chefs have a great story (ex-‘MasterChef’ winner Andy Oliver met Aussie chef Mark Dobbie training at Nahm, under the acclaimed David Thompson). When they started crowdfunding for a permanent site, they raised £700k in three days (they’d only aimed for £550k). As for the bold north-eastern Thai dishes, they’re hot and completely unforgettable.
Hot tip: To avoid the queues and get a great seat, go as a group of four, which will allow you to book and request a cabina-style booth.
43a Commercial St.
Nearest tube: Aldgate East.
The one with the views: Hutong (£££)
If it’s a breathtaking view you’re after, but you actually want the food to be dramatic too, Hutong’s your gal. Not only does she have panoramic vistas of the capital, but the northern-Chinese- leaning food (melt-in- the-mouth lamb and leek dumplings, fiery minced pork with crunchy string beans) is unbeatable. For the best value, go for dim sum, or for serious ooh-factor, go after dark. Also, while it’s steep as well as lofty, remember that the Shard’s viewing platform costs £25.95 a go and they don’t even feed you.
Hot tip: Make lunch go further by mixing menus. Four dim sum plus rice and greens from the à la carte (for two, to share), comes in around £30 a head.
Level 33, The Shard, 31 St Thomas St.
Nearest tube: London Bridge.
The Instagram one: Bao (£)
Joining the queue at Bao has become a London rite of passage. Waiting your turn to sit and eat these Taiwanese steamed milk buns, with their thrilling fillings, is something everyone should do once. Bao’s enduring appeal is down to three things. One, it has proper cult status (it started life as a humble Netil Market stall). Two, it’s brilliant value – you can stuff yourself silly for not much moolah. Three, have you actually tried the confit pork bao?
Hot tip: Try the ‘small eats’ (xiao chi). These are actually more exciting than the bao and, interestingly, completely different in its two branches.
53 Lexington St.
Nearest tube: Oxford Circus.
The one where you sit up and take notice: Counter Culture (£)
Is this BYO spin-off from The Dairy the coolest counter restaurant in London? It’s certainly one of the smallest: 15 seats along the wall or the coveted chef’s counter (just six seats, up close to the action). The small-plates food is incredible: thoughtfully considered and carefully crafted, yet never veering into fussy or frou-frou. Staff are hip but also completely clued-up. Plus, it’s buzzy, relaxed and guaranteed to be fun.
Hot tip: The 30 seats outside are held for walk-ins: perfect for sunny days. But note: they’re not BYO (drinks are served from The Dairy).
16 The Pavement.
Nearest tube: Clapham Common.
The place that proves sushi’s still hip: Roka (£££)
What’s great about Roka – especially this, the original Charlotte Street branch – is that, unlike its high-end modern Japanese peers, it has never been infiltrated by the worst of the too-rich sushi lovers (WAGs, the oil-rich, Surrey housewives). Perhaps it’s because here, the focus is more on robata than raw (though it’s all brilliant). Or simply because its meedja-land location means customers are creative, no matter how ka-ching. Either way, it’s an enduringly lively, swanky spot.
Hot tip: For a slick date, go for saké cocktails downstairs at Shochu Lounge, then sit, knees touching, at the corner of the robata bar.
37 Charlotte St, W1T 1RR.
Nearest tube: Goodge St.
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