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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bad feng shui, misbehaving ley lines – call it what you like, some restaurant and bar sites seem doomed to fail. No perfectly central location or huge budget can save an address that has seen owner after owner pour fortunes into a project only to have it go belly-up. Number 4a Upper St Martin’s Lane, Covent Garden, has long been one of those blighted sites, going back to when Samuel Pepys popped in for a stewed coffee and a stale bacon butty after clubbing in Leicester Square. If anyone can make a bad site work, it must be chef-restaurateur Marcus Wareing. He’s one of the golden boys of London gastronomy, picking up Michelin stars the way most of us collect Nectar points. Now he’s aimed his sights on Covent Garden’s tourists. Part of the problem with number 4a is that it’s a huge concrete box, partitioned by a mezzanine floor. As a result, the noise levels are like a carnival sound system. Every hoot and holler is amplified up along the front of the building and into the upper floor. Even at lunchtime the noise levels were offputting. But we liked our dishes. Slim aubergines had been glazed with harissa and grilled, served with dollops of yoghurt and ground peanuts, coriander and chilli – appealing to both eye and palate. Toast slivers were served with a chorizo spread, simple and very tasty. A disc of olive oil cake was topped with blackberry jam and a pipe of pâtissier’s custard – a novel combination, but it worked. The above dishes remain on the menu. Others we t
No sign of a recession at Tsunami: on our weekend visit, smartly dressed thirtysomethings packed the place. This suburban sushi restaurant and cocktail bar has found a recipe for success and is sticking to it. The international waiting staff were warm and welcoming, the dining room glam but not intimidating, and the menu packed with modern Japanese crowd-pleasers. We began with a salad of beef tataki: seared slices of tender beef layered over rocket, beansprouts and red onion, dressed with sesame seeds and tangy, yuzu-based vinaigrette. Next, golden tempura-battered vegetables came in all textures, from soft sweet potato to chewy shiitake mushroom or crunchy lotus root. Sushi arrived beautifully presented on glazed earthenware, with slightly sweet, melt-in-the-mouth white tuna sashimi best enjoyed unadorned; dragon roll maki, combining sweet eel, avocado and tempura prawns, showed off the chefs’ skills. The larger ‘main course’ section, dominated by meats in wasabi-based sauces, is somewhat tacky – head instead for the specials, where you might find crisp-skinned sea bass on a bed of braised gai lan (chinese broccoli). The small adjoining cocktail bar is a safe bet for pre- or post-prandial drinks.
The inspiration behind Cinnamon Bazaar may be a traditional marketplace, but don’t go expecting to haggle. With rose gold walls, rich pink silk awnings and flower baskets hanging from the ceiling, this is a pimped-out bazaar for the business-lunch crowd. As an offshoot of Westminster’s Cinnamon Club – an old hand at high-end Indian dining in London – this kitchen specialises in imaginative fusions of East and West. The star dish was a lamb rogan josh shepherd’s pie; filled with cardamom-infused lamb and topped with buttery mashed potato, it was a perfect balance of old-school British comfort and tangy, warming Indian flavours. Another highlight was a Malabar boatman’s haddock curry rich with beautifully fresh fish. With the hits came a few misses. Service was slow (and a little clueless) and my carrot halwa roll pud came with an overbearing, clove-heavy ice cream. There’s also something about all that pristine silk decor that makes you long for a bit of dirty souk atmosphere. But if it’s a swanky work lunch you’re after, Cinnamon Bazaar will deliver the goods. And that shepherd’s pie might change your life.
Unlike other Martin Brothers’ ventures, Chiswell Street Dining Rooms isn’t much of a pub (though you can drink in the roomy bar, where beer and wine are taken seriously), and the dining room feels like a restaurant, with prices to match. The decor here is less in-your-face (no taxidermy, for a start) and more lounge-like than the Jugged Hare – the gastropub that’s also attached to the Montcalm London City hotel. Colours are subdued, chairs nicely padded; staff are friendly and professional. What was slightly below-par on our visit was the food. Coq au vin, served with excellent savoy cabbage and creamed potato, was more like three chicken pieces recently introduced to gravy, while a main course salad of smoked barbary duck breast was dominated by its salad cream-like dressing and (unexpectedly candied) walnuts. These dishes hovered around £15; even pricier were the likes of grilled fillet of Cornish brill (£27) – too much for what is merely competent cooking. The bar menu might be the more attractive option, including charcuterie plates, cheeseboards, and steak sandwiches (though even these are £15) – or look out for one of the generous special offers.
Designed by the late David Collins and typical of his style at its most majestic, Massimo’s decor mixes marble, leather and bronze as if to suggest HG Wells’s time machine landed amid Roman baths. The room is admittedly huge, but does that necessitate or simply magnify the opulence? Most of the customers on our lunchtime visit were moneyed tourists, possibly from the adjacent Corinthia Hotel. We tolerated the question whether we understood the raw scallops we ordered were actually raw ‘like sashimi’. Fortunately, they were delicious, sliced thinly and prettily dressed with chive and courgette flowers. The menu offers the likes of Herdwick lamb and Goosnargh chicken, but freshest seafood (there’s also an oyster bar) and, to certain extent, pasta are the key draws. Tagliolini with crab and chilli was exemplary, so too the breads that staff offered throughout the meal. The dessert list is classic yet persuasive; a dark chocolate faux cappuccino was delightful. Wine prices are on par with the location and decor – glasses start at £8.50 for just 125ml.
The owners’ preferred name for this bar-brasserie is ‘HUNter486 at The Arch London’. But once you get past the moniker no-one will use, you find a very smart new five-star boutique hotel with attractively upmarket design and a very cosy feel. The bar and dining rooms run into each other with high-sided circular leather booths and secluded areas, some of which can be curtained off for added privacy. It’s low-lit, well upholstered, quiet, and service is professional and discreet. The bartender in charge of the small bar area dispenses a top-class selection of spirits in beautiful glassware, including some excellent Martinis. Renowned drinks consultants The Gorgeous Group have created the list, and our female bartender’s version of an Earl Grey Martini (£8) was sublime: beautiful to behold, and with a gin base flavoured with sweet and sour notes below an egg-white foam aromatic of iced tea, garnished with lemon peel. A 40-strong choice of wines runs all the way up to a Château Margaux 1er Cru 1998 (£475), while the Musetti 202 coffee has been specially blended for the bar. The dining room’s menu is brief and, after the excitement of the look of the hotel and excellent drinks list, disappointing. A hotel restaurant near Marble Arch has to cater to all sorts of tastes, at all times of the day, and the result is a list of lowest-common-denominator dishes – Caesar salad, beef burger, steak and chips, pizza. There’s attention to detail, though, and it’s possible to order more imagina
This East Dulwich stalwart’s small dining room is so quiet and dimly lit of an evening you’d barely know it was part of a pub. Retro lampshades filter an orange glow on to a room decked out with dark wood panelling and a floor of ornate mosaic tiles. Despite an open doorway separating the dining area from the green leather banquette seating and open fire of the main bar, the only sounds are the quiet clink of staff polishing cutlery and the gentle murmur of middle-aged chatter from the couples populating the few well-spaced tables. A pricey menu (two courses and two pints of lager came in at around £70) proved hit-and-miss, with meltingly soft scallops sharing a plate with chewy black pudding, and a portion of refreshing pickled girolles atop not-quite-tart-enough goat’s cheese. This was once the leading light of the East Dulwich gastro revolution, but with dishes that fail to live up to their billing (or pricing), and the current glut of artisanal produce in SE22, it’s hard not to feel that the Palmerston needs to change gear if it’s to keep pace with the competition. There are decent real ales and a sound selection of wines by the glass, but sluggish service certainly doesn’t help – it took 45 minutes from ordering for our starters to appear.
Not original, naming a restaurant after its street – there are loads like that in London. But when it’s as nice as this… Well, why not? LP’s villagey part of Kensington is festooned with flowers in summer, and its rows of mansions are immaculate: this poshest outpost of the D&D London restaurant group fits in. It has the quirks and tics that the Michelin inspectors look for (it received a star in 2013), but our recent visit showed irregularities. The carpets were a bit scuffed, for instance, and the men’s toilets are inhibitively tiny. Towards the end of a late lunch booking, we experienced rushed service. The peculiarly shaped series of rooms works better after dark, when the charcoal walls and spectral artworks lend gravitas. Standards of food are generally high; cooking is an accessible and inventive French/British marriage. A starter of salmon with mooli and sweet little cubes of pressed apple was made special by a sorbet-like scoop of iced horseradish, although hake with peas, broad beans and lettuce tasted too vegetal and ‘green’. Launceston Place is a restaurant that makes living in Launceston Place even nicer than it undoubtedly already is, but a visit from further afield isn’t always rewarded.
The Malta-based Corinthia hotel group spent a mint turning this ex-government building near the Embankment into its London flagship, with stunning lobbies and two high-wow-factor restaurants, Italian Massimo (see p165) and this one, with a modern British emphasis. Decor is a blend of classic grandeur (soaring Corinthian columns, of course), modern glitz and old-London poshness, with very comfortable leather seating and lofty windows. It’s all very dressed-up, but not so clear on where it’s going. Service seemed oddly uncoordinated. Menus make great play of the origin of the quality British ingredients, but the cooking seems to lack the flair of its best grand-hotel competitors. From the three-course set lunch menu – a reasonable deal for this kind of venue – cod brandade with smoked salmon, and roast barnsley lamb chop with forest mushrooms, shallots and a pile of parsley, were both pleasant, but unexciting. Just reading the ‘Afters’ list had us drooling, but, sadly, vanilla parfait with cherry compote and watermelon and mint jelly had almost tasteless jelly. The wine selection is suitably grand without any special highlights, but one plus is the offer of superb Damian Allsop chocolates, for an extra charge.
On a Thursday evening, this popular neighbourhood bistro, with its retro prints and mirrors, was thrumming with Chiswick’s spruce and moneyed troisième âge and a sprinkling of younger folk. It’s the sort of place where a man might dine alone, linen napkin tucked into his shirt. The menu is classically French (snails, soufflé, duck à l’orange) but with Italian elements (tortellini, ravioli, risotto) and appealing British ingredients (Maldon oysters, Suffolk asparagus, dover sole). The largely French wine list is a lovingly assembled affair. Things began well – excellent bread and anchovy butter, a smooth courgette velouté amuse-bouche, the comforting sight of waiters plating up cheese – but the momentum was quickly lost. A long delay in taking our order was followed by a stomach-rumbling wait for our mains, which we put down to the champagne-themed dinner for 30 taking place alongside us. Lamb with borlotti beans was more gastropub than fine dining – it didn’t merit its hefty (£23) price tag. A ‘rare’ rump steak (part of an admirable £11.95 steak frites deal that included a glass of wine) was tough and underdone, the chips lacklustre. Tarte tatin featuring plump, jammy-sweet apples was let down by soggy pastry. A blip? We hope so.
Between Chancery Lane and Fleet Street, this outpost of the ETM empire (the Gun, the Botanist, the Jugged Hare and so on) is perfectly pitched at affluent local workers. It’s a rebuild of an older pub of the same name on the site, and follows the model of the group’s other venues: smartly traditional ground-floor bar with a small but well-kept selection of real ales (two Adnam’s, one Wandle on our visit); rather posh dining room on the first, complete with tablecloths and attentive service. And tallying with our experience of other ETM pubs, the ambitious food is almost there – it reads very well on the menu, it looks fantastic on the plate, but afterwards there’s a feeling something is missing. However, that’s a minor criticism. Both our starters were delicate ensembles of summery ingredients – a salad of young leek, carrot and scotched quail’s egg with goat curd, and a mackerel fillet with mackerel tartar and pickled beetroot. Mains are mainly meaty, with the likes of stuffed saddle of rabbit, mutton with grilled tongue and wild garlic purée, or 45-day aged sirloin all making an appearance. Most evenings, the wood-panelled bar throngs with unwinding besuited professionals.
You should know what you’re getting from a group with restaurants in places like Hampstead, South Ken, Geneva, Singapore and Vienna. And sure enough, this new branch of Patara – now a London fixture for more than 25 years – certainly fits the brand’s ‘fine Thai dining’ bill. It’s a sophisticated-looking dining room – all pretty plates, chunky silver cutlery, sweeps of marble and lighting turned down low. That does mean lofty prices, though. Evenings here can easily turn spendy, so lunchtime set menus are a better shout for those on a budget. From here, duck in tamarind sauce was a highlight, its prettily plated slices of pink breast finished with a good bit of crispy fat and a balanced sweet-sour sauce. Black pepper beef was decent too: big on flavour and punchy with heat. Our only grumbles? Portions were measly and service needs honing – we were asked three times for our order within five minutes of sitting down. Still, this is otherwise a slick operation with an obvious understanding of what constitutes good Thai cooking. A solid – if not cheap – new spot from a reliable group.