Want to sample London's gourmet restaurants without splashing the cash? Take a seat at off-peak times and you can eat like a king for a lot less than you'd expect. Here are just a few the finest London restaurants with bargain pre-theatre deals and uncommonly cheap set menus.
Most of London’s really exciting new restaurants open in the centre of town – and you’ll pay two limbs for the pleasure of eating in them. So when somewhere special opens in a residential area, word gets around. This last happened in Clapham in 2013, when The Dairy – a wine and British tapas bar –introduced an innovative, but reasonably priced small plates menu to the neighbourhood. The Manor is run by the same team, but this time has a fully fledged dining room as well as a bar. Prices are a little higher – but still reasonable – as the cooking has gone up a few notches, too. The Manor looks and feels casual, like a slightly more grown-up version of The Dairy, despite the graffiti, old desks and industrial light fittings. But the imagination and skill of the kitchen places it among the city’s most cutting-edge restaurants: The Clove Club, Story or Lyle’s, to give just a few examples. Case in point: two slivers of meat resembling pork belly were in fact crisp chicken skin. Something that resembled soft cheese turned out to be the flesh from a cod’s head mixed with sour cream. Fermentation, one of the most transformative kitchen techniques, is used to good effect on the ‘malt granola’ and fermented grains, both served with the claw-on leg and breast of partridge. The New Nordic technique of scorching and burning is used successfully on both kale and cauliflower, and a smoky aubergine purée (coloured green using mint) served with Irish-inspired potato scones was sublime. Th
Genial staff take obvious pleasure in working this historic dining room, with its beautiful wood panelling and floral plasterwork ceiling. India Mahdavi’s feminine interior of velvety golds complements the original features, while Damien Hirst’s artwork keeps it grounded in the present. Waistcoats, silver jugs and Baccarat crystal denote formality, so first-timers may be surprised by the rusticity of the food on display: a leg of ham for carving, butter pats as big as cheese truckles, huge biscuit jars. Best to go with the flow. Darroze put trendy piment d’espelette on the culinary map and her menus reveal a passion for all things peppery. Yet this is not fiery cuisine; sometimes we wish it was a little less French, such as in the irritating refinement of hake with razor clams, salsa verde and minuscule girolles, which anywhere else would have been a muscular dish. No complaints, though, about perfectly proportioned foie gras crème brûlée with bright apple sorbet. Dessert was a clever globe of chocolate, which, when hot chocolate sauce was poured over, collapsed to reveal a layered tower of black-forest-themed indulgences. The sweet avalanche continued with a whole trolley of petits fours to choose from – cinnamon marshmallow and an apricot and salted-caramel macaron were particular favourites. Such is the special-occasion nature of the place that everyone is presented with a personalised souvenir menu; but rest assured, the experience is memorable in its own right.
Venue says: “Enjoy our set menu offer for lunch and dinner – two courses at £20, three courses at £25.”
A long-time favourite, the Blueprint Café would be destination for the setting alone: wall-to-ceiling windows look on to a stunning view of the Thames and Tower Bridge, and a retractable canopy gives a great inside/outside feeling. Head chef Mark Jarvis’s seasonal menus are short and to the point – dishes are beautiful but in no way twee. Begin, perhaps, with just-seared yellowfin tuna with kalamata olives and a delicate salad niçoise, or a tender artichoke salad with a molten warm duck egg and mint. Line-caught cod beneath a zingy green herb crust, with yellow-tinged crushed potato with rapeseed oil and a flower and herb salad, was stunning – summer on a plate. Meat-lovers will be wowed by well-hung Hereford onglet with bone marrow and forest mushrooms. Even a tomato and onion side salad was a treat – jewel-bright, full-flavoured plum, cherry and green tomato heaven. There’s a first-rate wine list too, helpfully arranged. Service was a touch haphazard, but always friendly and, after all – with that view (plus mini-binoculars on every table) where’s the rush?
Venue says: “Set lunch Monday to Friday, noon-3pm. Restaurant: two courses for £28, three courses for £32.”
The long riverside dining room is elegant if a little soulless, but the setting is picture-perfect: dining on the outside terrace with a view of Tower Bridge feels like posing for a London tourist brochure. Cynics might expect the food to disappoint. It didn’t. The lunch and dinner menu du jour offers great bang for buck, with many dishes lifted from the carte. Vegetables cost extra. New potatoes were an unnecessary addition to a lovely crisp-skinned bream with courgettes, fennel and tomato. A snappy salad added much-needed colour to a rewardingly varied plate comprising pithivier of rabbit leg confit and a ballotine of the saddle around herby forcemeat, either side of exquisite mashed potato. A nicely tart raspberry crème brûlée again showed what the kitchen does well: matching fine technique with focused flavours. The food may be French, but on a fine day Le Pont de la Tour can be a top London attraction. Typically British: our waiter admitted he’d arrived in the country only a few days earlier, and service slowed terribly towards the end of lunch. The adjoining primary-coloured Bar & Grill offers food that is more brasserie in style: more cheaply, more informally and with less sense of occasion.
More than a decade after it started wowing London’s big spenders with its classy Cantonese cooking, this Michelin-starred trendsetter remains a benchmark against which all high-end Chinese restaurants should be judged. The basement’s stylish interior (all dark wood lattice screens and moody lighting) still attracts the kind of beautiful people who might suppress their appetites – though there was little evidence of restraint on our midweek night visit. Plate after plate landed on tables around us, including signature dishes such as silver cod roasted in champagne, and jasmine tea-smoked organic pork ribs. We started with the dim sum platter, a basket of superbly crafted dumplings. The pastry was perfect in give and texture, just elastic enough to encase generous bites of flavour-packed meat and seafood. Sweet and sour Duke of Berkshire pork with pomegranate was equally good, the melting tenderness of top-quality meat turning the clichéd staple into a luxury – Chinese takeaways should weep with shame. Drinks run from cocktails via high-priced wines to specialist teas. The original Hakkasan that spawned a global empire (including a newer branch in Mayfair) retains all its appeal: cool enough to be seen in, yet authentic enough to dash pretension.
The 2011 reopening of architect George Gilbert Scott’s former Midland Grand Hotel has resurrected one of the most visually arresting edifices in London; its former ‘Coffee Room’ is now home to this relatively casual venture from chef Marcus Wareing. His mark is evident in the well-drilled, personable service and flawless cooking. As with the rest of the hotel, the space is nothing short of spectacular – this is Victorian embellishment at its most exuberant, with pillars, gilt, cornicing and huge windows. But, thankfully, it’s no temple to fine dining: the please-all, best-of-British menu shows off the dedication and imagination of the kitchen with dishes such as crispy pig’s head with pickled cockles and sea herbs, or curried parsnip soup with onion bhajis. More traditional diners will be impressed by the sterling renditions of battered cod and chips, or beefburger with braised oxtail.Desserts continue the homeland theme: eccles cake with cheddar ice-cream, ‘Mrs Beeton’s snow egg’, Irish cheese with honeycomb. The weekend brings roasts and a popular brunch, complete with pianist. The equally handsome bar at the entrance is good to know about in an area short of quality drinking options. Situated next to the Eurostar terminus, where Continental Europeans enter England, this is a restaurant of which we can all be proud. Don’t wait for a train journey to book a table.
Venue says: “Karpo grill offers great steaks from Britain, aged a minimum of 28 days, complemented by fun dishes from far and beyond.”
A hypercoloured graffiti mural covering the top four floors of the building sounds warning bells. Is Karpo going be a style-over-content kind of joint? Thankfully, no – the food delivers innovative flavours, the staff are friendly, and the location is ideal for an easy-going dinner date or catching up with friends near King’s Cross. A small entrance opens up to the main restaurant, giving a wide view on to chefs working in the kitchen. Dark decor and a quirky wall covered in plants keep the bohemian look going inside, but the focus is on the food. We started with cocktails in the railway-inspired basement bar, where you can also order nibbles such as soft-centered ham croquettes from the upstairs menu. From a seasonally-changing menu, mains are playful: roast venison came with an on-trend side serving of tender salt-baked celeriac, but it tried too hard with an overly-sweet chocolate garnish to the meat. Mac ’n’ cheese went retro, arriving in a hot cast-iron pan, and the mixed leaf salad had a tangy red wine vinegar dressing. To finish, rhubarb fool was a tasty jive off traditional trifle, coming with a rich custardy cream served between layers of stewed rhubarb, pistachio nibs and a fine shortbread crumb.
For such an obviously swanky restaurant, this Gordon Ramsay Mayfair outlet is exceedingly casual, and staff bring a personal sparkle to the generally accomplished service. A sushi bar, complete with bar stools to watch the chefs in action, opened inside the long, stylish space in autumn 2012, adding a full menu of sashimi and sushi. Its arrival seems to have angled the food further towards the Orient and almost every dish now comes with an Asian twist on French foundations. The menu of small plates is largely designed for sharing – indeed, Maze was one of the first haute cuisine establishments to offer an alternative to the amuse-starter-main-dessert formula. From the set menu (a steal at £25 for four courses) came a supreme of quail with jalapeño miso dressing, bream with dashi broth and enoki, and beef carpaccio with chilli: all perfectly balanced platefuls, although perhaps lacking the zing that might elevate them from strong to distinguished. On our visit, Maze was buzzing as new arrivals trooped in every few minutes: groups of tourists snapping pictures of their food, lunching couples, even families with young children. It’s easy to see the appeal – this is a distinctive and approachable entry point to the higher end of the Ramsay stable.
Hoxton Square was once the apogee of the east London bar scene, full of creatives clutching bottled beers on their way to the Lux Cinema or a club night. But the Square’s matured – now so mainstream the once-edgy streets have branches of Bill’s and Byron. As the arts crowd has moved further east, a moneyed new media set is moving in, clinking wine glasses as they go. The neighbourhood’s becoming less cool, perhaps; but the cash-rich techies are making it a better place to eat. 8 Hoxton Square is targeted at those who are looking for something more interesting than beers and burgers, more destination than pitstop. It’s an outpost of the no-reservations 10 Greek Street, one of Soho’s most deservedly popular restaurants. Both branches brilliantly combine great food, great wines and great service – a common goal, but one that’s harder to realise than a Middle East peace plan. But in a welcome departure, 8 Hoxton Square takes bookings. Result! The term ‘Modern European’ was coined by Time Out in the mid-1980s to describe an emerging blend of British, Italian, French and Spanish cooking, still flourishing today. A courgette flower stuffed with crabmeat, then battered, fried and served with a samphire garnish, roasted tomatoes and a squeeze of lemon is evocative of the seaside. Seafood is a strong point, with two meaty monkfish tails pan-fried then served on a bed of borlotti beans. Italian influence is evident in the combination of fennel, olives and pungent shavings of bottarga,
You really know a restaurant is expensive when even the walls are textured. Set within super-swanky Claridges, this dining room has been decorated in sombre tones (including plenty of dark olive green), which may well not be to everyone’s taste, but the interiors are pretty much the last reason you’d visit Fera. Meaning ‘wild’ in Latin, Fera is chef Simon Rogan’s first permanent eatery in the capital. (His Marylebone pop-up, Roganic, was a roaring success, while his two-Michelin-starred Cumbrian restaurant L’Enclume, is widely held to be one of the finest restaurants in the UK.) As you might expect from the name, many ingredients are wild and little-known, from dittander (a salt marsh plant, here served with Cornish lobster, pickled golden beetroot and other ‘sea herbs’) to ‘pineapple weed’: a type of wild chamomile, here used in a pudding of butterscotch and celery. Yes, really: celery. Others are grown according to the seasons at Rogan’s Cumbrian farm. Dishes are intricate and imaginative, like tiny works of art. Highlights from our visit included ‘snacks’ of puffed barley wafers topped with smoked eel mousse and the petals of ox-eye daisies; a bowl of ‘grilled salad’ (literally – curly endive leaves grilled over embers) with sunflower seeds and a rich, savoury ‘truffle custard’; and a dinky parcel of hake wrapped in caramelised cabbage, which came served with tiny chicken-fat-cooked potatoes. Service is warm and polished, with many of the eye-opening dishes brought out i
Beyond the opulent five-star hotels of Hong Kong, ‘Cantonese fine dining’ can seem an oxymoron. Cantonese restaurants in London are better known for garish decor, abrupt service and slapped-together dishes shared by noisy families. HKK reinvents the entire experience. The Hakkasan Group describes its latest venture as ‘bespoke Cantonese fine dining’. While it’s unclear what the tailor-made aspect is – our prix fixe menus (and their prices) were only presented to us at the end of the meal, and there was no à la carte option – the latter half of the promise is no exaggeration. HKK serves up beautifully presented, exquisitely prepared dishes crafted from high-quality ingredients. The eight-course lunch menu offered at lunch (£48) will persuade even the most sceptical (including Prince Philip who famously said, ‘If it has four legs and is not a chair, if it has two wings and flies but is not an aeroplane, and if it swims and is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it’) that Cantonese food can be sophisticated. The tone is sealed the moment you bite into the first starter, a delicate mouthful of fried silken tofu, pickled water chestnut, and shimeji mushroom tied with a translucent strip of Iberico ham. The next course, a trilogy of dim sum, was among the best of we’ve had. As was the peking duck, ceremoniously carved in front of diners. The perfectly crisped skin is served with both hoisin sauce and a pinch of sugar, just like in Beijing’s top roast-duck restaurants. Each subs
This highly enjoyable member of the Boisdale triumvirate is almost laughably incongruous. On the second floor is an appropriately smart bar-diner that offers a brasserie menu and mollifying puffs in the Cigar Library or on the terrace, but the third-floor main restaurant has a cod-Scottish gentlemen’s-club theme entirely at odds with the office-casual modernist architecture around it. No cliché is knowingly ducked – mounted stag’s head and angling trophy, tartan carpet, table-top thistles – yet they’re delivered with a cheerful wink (a slightly lascivious wink when it comes to the waitresses’ tartan miniskirts). From the £19.75 ‘Jacobite’ menu, we were content with potted mackerel, despite it arriving cold rather than warm, and relished haggis with a quenelle each of orange neep and white mash: no fussy presentation, just gut-stuffing good flavours. A la carte prices trespass on expense-account territory, but crab tian (with another quenelle: avocado, this time) and king prawn caesar salad were up to the mark, big in size and taste. After 9pm there’s a stiff cover charge to watch jazz or blues from a stage at the far end of a pewter bar counter (where there’s a daunting number of fine whiskies).
‘Holy the sea’ says a wall-mounted slogan at this landmark establishment, and it’s clear from the bright, colourful interior design – heavy on the piscine motifs and maritime paraphernalia – that fish is the religion of the rejuvenated Kensington Place. Sure, you can toy with a ham hock or waste your time on a veg risotto, but the smart money’s on some fresh fillets plucked from banks of ice in the in-house fishmonger (which in turn is supplied by Billingsgate and the fisher-folk of Cornwall). These might be grilled and served with a raucous beurre noisette or a smoky sauce vierge, heavy on the capers. On recent visits, we’ve been particularly taken with the sea bream and the lemon sole, teamed with triple-cooked chips and a pichet of blanc. Starters of mackerel rollmop with a delicate potato salad, and spiced crab with apple, were standouts, and an earthenware pot of raspberry and apricot crumble provided a splendid end to the meal. True to theme, the water is served in fish-shaped jugs, which glug rewardingly every time you pour. KP also contains a pleasant bar: a fine place to cradle a tawny port after an epic seafood session. Very civilised.
It’s a well trodden path to the Grill from the Savoy Theatre, across the concourse of the world-famous hotel. Many diners seem to combine a meal and a show for a quintessential London night out. As such, the vibe can be quite touristy, but that in no way detracts from the quality of the experience. Following the Savoy’s epic £220 million refurbishment, completed in 2010, the restaurant looks as spectacular as it did in its heyday: a dark and glamorous room of polished wood, burnished mirrors and statement pendant lights. It’s now run by Gordon Ramsay, who largely keeps things classic on the extensive French/British menu. All the old favourites are here – snails in red wine, french onion soup, oysters, lobster thermidor, dover sole – and the grill itself sears a selection of steaks, chops and cutlets, from prime British breeds. At lunch, a trolley trundles around the tables dispensing a roast of the day with trimmings. Nothing is particularly cheap, of course, but the popular pre-theatre menu consists of simpler dishes and offers a more accessible route into this historic and celebrated dining room.
A room enveloped in shades of pearlescent pink and dusky grey, with a spectacular crimson extrusion at its middle – it’s unclear if Gordon Ramsay intended to make his Knightsbridge restaurant so womb-like, but that’s the effect. And it’s not a bad thing: the chef shows his caring side in other ways here – with service, food and an overall experience that has remained near-perfect since the place opened in April 2010. That red centrepiece is an open ‘cellar’, holding some of the extensive and indulgent wine list that reaches price levels few can contemplate. However, Ramsay realises his name draws those on a salaryman’s salary too, so it’s possible to eat and drink here with value. The set lunch still has a few of the luxe ingredients that characterise the carte and tasting menus: asparagus, aged beef, foie gras. Food here is rich, for sure, but it’s plated with a light touch: roast cod and crushed potatoes rich in olive oil came with a punchy accompaniment of cornichons and brown shrimps; and a saddle of rabbit was sharpened by peas and mint oil. Special mention to the fine cheese board, which is a no-supplement option on the £35 three-course set lunch.
On a sunny day, after a walk in Hyde Park, there are few better places to put the world to rights than an outdoor table at Angelus (the refurbished pub’s interior isn’t quite as inviting, with red banquettes, dark-wood panelling and a boudoir-like cocktail bar lending a slightly dated vibe). There’s nothing retro about Thierry Tomasin’s creative dishes. Simple yet sublime, a clear cucumber gazpacho was notable for its delicate flavour underpinned by a vinegary tang. More complex in flavour, we loved the juicy texture of poached salmon partnered with creamy beetroot purée. Mains delivered star quality. A crisp-skinned seared sea bream fillet, surrounded by light lemongrass broth, was crowned with crisp-fried rice noodle rösti – a tasty play on South-east Asian flavours. Pineapple millefeuille teamed with passionfruit jelly and star anise ice-cream provided a fitting finale. Prices are eye-wateringly high, even for the all-day brasserie choices; however, the set menu (available until 6pm) is excellent value and decent carafes of wine that won’t break the bank are available. Service is as smooth as silk.
Glazed windows and voile curtains shut out the incessant noise and traffic of Knightsbridge, making this modern, comfortable dining room (with well-spaced tables) a serene place to enjoy some of the best seafood cuisine in town. The repertoire is modern with a French accent, although chef Pascal Proyart is not afraid to incorporate Asian and Mediterranean touches. While the carte is pricey, the petit plats menu at lunch is good value (with prices from £17 for two plates, up to £40 for six) and puts sustainable fishing centre stage. A deftly roasted hand-dived scallop was paired with flaky shallot confit tart and lifted by a red wine matelote that left us hankering for more. Pan-fried farmed turbot tasted fresh and light in a parsley cassoulet, accompanied by king crab dumpling and finished with a few flakes of white truffle and rich bisque. Ethical arguments aside, there was nothing fishy about a smooth parfait of foie gras, its richness perfectly offset by a tart cranberry compote. For dessert, we enjoyed coconut malibu soufflé. Service is provided by a team that has worked here for several years and understands how to look after its customers. The international wine list is expansive and predictably expensive; however, by-the-glass options start at £7 and include saké.
Conversations overheard at Wiltons, which was established in 1742, are always a cut above. On our last visit, an elderly gent recounted where he sat at the Coronation to his grandson, who later pronounced ‘grouse shooting is just the best’ when describing his summer plans. It’s no private club, though, as anyone with sufficient funds can enjoy the seductive comfort of the dining room (bustling but cosy) and the supremely attentive, courteous service – from men in regulation black-and-white and ladies in prim green dresses with a distinct look of school matron. The kitchen doesn’t do experimental, but renders its chosen repertoire very well. Prices have even dropped slightly for the three-course set lunch, from which we tried a lovely, smooth warm vichyssoise with crisp-fried egg and truffle. Also included was the day’s roast, beautifully pink lamb cooked to perfection, and an apple and blackberry crumble that was also spot on. Transfer to the carte and you can enjoy other British classics – hefty grilled meats, more roasts, Wiltons’ famed fish, oysters and other seafood. The wine range is predictably grand, and details (breads, fresh petits fours) are exquisite. Nice to see standards being maintained, even if one can’t often afford it.
Sited in a faceless Fitzrovia street opposite the glum façade of the Sanderson, this smart and inviting restaurant, with dark leather banquettes, mosaic walls and abstract art is a pleasant surprise. A well-heeled mixed clientele largely comprised those who worked nearby and the place was all but empty by the time we left at 10.30pm. An interesting menu betrayed a chef trying to move Italian food forward. A lavish platter of nibbles kept us happy while we scanned the menu. First courses of fiore de zucchini ripieno with Devon crab and broad bean sauce and pappardelle with wild boar ragout were both excellent. Mains of slow-cooked pork belly with savoy cabbage and balsamic vinegar, and fillets of red mullet wrapped with basil and lardo de colonnato, with sun-dried tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella sauce were superb, and the latter exquisitely presented. Rum baba with marsala sabayon and pistachio ice-cream, and white chocolate bavaroise with raspberry coulis and pistachio biscuit rounded off a memorable meal, but there was yet more delight in the chocolate petits fours that came with coffee.
Lutyens, opened in 2009 by Terence Conran and Peter Prescott, is a City restaurant for all occasions. It consists of the restaurant proper, wine bar with bistro menu, cocktail bar, outdoor terrace, members’ club and numerous private rooms for meetings and discreet splurges. Service is formal and tactful. Most of your fellow diners will be of the pinstriped type, and it’s safe to say a great proportion of the spending is done on expenses. But there’s still plenty here for everyone else: first, the site itself, in the former Reuters building designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, is a corker. The façade displays that invincible Fleet Street pomp; inside, Conran has remodelled the space, adding a muted colour scheme with signature flourishes such as statement lighting and an open kitchen. The cold part of that sends out a lot of seafood – oysters, smoked salmon, ceviche – while the chefs manning the ovens and grills concentrate on French-slanted dishes of impeccable execution. Salmon tartare with perfect cubes of cucumber, say, or a simple plateful of cod with mussels and spring vegetables – both from the good-value prix fixe (sides at £4 and drinks will bump things up, of course). A reliably flawless experience.