MARCH 2020: We’ve added Bubala in Spitalfields, which deals in on-trend veggie small plates, and Nutshell, a stylish modern Iranian restaurant in Covent Garden. Also in Theatreland, we love Kebab Queen – the latest (and quirkiest) offering from the guys behind Le Bab and Maison Bab.
London has been blessed with a load of world-class Middle-Eastern restaurants. Offering everything from tender grilled meats and kebabs to exceptional vegetarian dishes, these places will spice up your life. Here's our pick of the best.
London's best Middle Eastern restaurants
Handsome and fashionably modern, new-wave Arabica is a world away from Edgware Road’s Levantine cafés or the marble palaces designed to attract Gulf money. Originally a stall selling imported Middle Eastern provisions, it now peddles a huge menu of native and international hits – think za’atar spiced flatbreads, mezze, pide, lahmacun (Armenian pizza), creative shish kebabs etc. Arabica also has branches in King’s Cross and Selfridges, plus a couple of street-food market stalls.
Like a pomegranate-coloured jewel glittering among the local chains, this hip kebab joint serves the real Middle Eastern deal from a cleverly designed, bespoke charcoal grill. Ingredients are lovingly prepped, portions are generous, and fillings are off-piste (beef brisket with chilli and smoked cheese kofta, say). Don’t forget to order some dangerously addictive dukkah whitebait too. There’s a branch in Islington, too.
Many of Yotam Ottolenghi’s one-time cooks are doing it for themselves these days – witness this clubby Tel Aviv-style rendezvous from chef Eran Tibi. Set in a Southwark railway arch, Bala Baya is a bakery, a fast-paced pitta kiosk at lunchtime and a buzzy restaurant in the evenings. Come here for astonishing little Middle Eastern-inspired dishes such as tea-smoked, yoghurt-injected ‘aubergine tea’. We warned you!
If you love Palomar, you’ll also be smitten by its sibling The Barbary, a fizzing eatery filled with smoky aromas, music and laughter. Be prepared to wait for a stool at the horseshoe-shaped bar where punters gorge on Israeli-born dishes and ideas gleaned from Africa’s Barbary Coast – don’t miss the slow-braised, robata-grilled octopus (London’s finest tentacles). Palomar fans should also bookmark the Coal Office in King’s Cross.
Noise, smoke, clubby vibes, strong cocktails and belting Turkish barbecue are the attractions at this hip grill house underneath Haggerston’s railway arches. Berber’s long wooden tables and bench seats are built for socialising, and the menu offers everything from off-the-wall nibbles to bonanza sharing feasts – the brilliant cauliflower shawarma is a must-order. Also try the Berber & Q Shawarma Bar in Clerkenwell.
A boho-chic, no-bookings Persian hangout from the people behind Bao and Hoppers, live-wire Berenjak might look like a Tehran backstreet eatery, but the food is far from your average kebab shop. The grill dispenses skewers of spicy minced goat shoulder and juicy charred poussin, while the menu also finds room for coal-cooked aubergines and bowls of lamb shoulder, bone marrow and kidney beans. Staff are eager to please, and the bill won’t kill.
Any restaurant specialising in veggie Middle Eastern small plates has to be bang on-trend, and this dinky Spitalfields joint delivers the goods in an easy-to-love rustic-chic space with unplastered walls, stylish woodwork, tiles and designer lighting. Be sure to order plenty of charred laffa flatbread to go with top picks such as aubergine slices piled with coriander-spiked zhoug paste. With its sunny, enthusiastic staff, Bubala is exactly the kind of place to convert an ardent meat-eater.
You know about The Palomar and The Barbary – well, this King’s Cross beauty comes from the same crew, and it doesn’t disappoint. Brilliantly designed by co-owner Tom Dixon, Coal Office follows the house style with a thrilling menu that highlights the revved-up flavours of modern Jerusalem: the josperised aubergine and Machneyuda’s polenta with asparagus, mushroom ragoût and parmesan are must-orders.
Come hungry and expect a crowd at Gökyüzü – a sprawling Green Lanes institution and a gobsmacking go-to venue for prodigious portions of excellent Turkish cooking. More is more here: exhibit A being the charcoal-grilled minced chicken beyti (we counted 15 pieces!), wrapped in cheese-filled lavash bread, drizzled with butter and served with bulgur wheat, yoghurt and salad. There are branches in Walthamstow, Finchley and Chingford.
Run by a husband-and-wife team with Ottolenghi credentials, this super-cute Israeli bolthole serves up colourful Middle Eastern dishes inspired by home cooking and Jerusalem street food. The window is filled with breads, pastries and exotic jams, while the menu always includes stonking seasonal falafels alongside the likes of tahini-crusted aubergine and fish tagine. For a cheaper deal, try canteen-style sibling Honey & Smoke nearby.
You can’t help but smile when you walk into this long-serving family-run Turkish favourite: the atmosphere is infectiously homely, and the interior is a riot of ethnic knick-knacks, ceramic tiles and coloured glass decorations. The focus is on oven-cooked meats and fish supported by dainty salads and refined small plates – although the mixed grill is excellent too. Just add some perfectly acceptable Turkish booze.
An ever-popular Pimlico mainstay since 2002, this opulent Ottoman grill is a polished, atmospheric spot with intricate carved screens, patterned lamps, flower-topped tables and old-school mintan (jackets) mounted on the walls. Expect to pay a little more for your nosh, but in return you’ll get creative meze plates, full-flavoured classics (the Albanian-style calf’s liver is a must-order), superlative kebabs and a few resolutely un-Ottoman offerings.
Secreted in a basement room at the back of modish kebab joint Maison Bab in Covent Garden, this ten-seater space promises speakeasy-style dining without crockery or cutlery. Yes, you use your fingers and eat each brilliantly contrived dish or assemblage straight from the meticulously clean, heated Dekton counter (scorched cabbage topped with crispy chicken skin and monkfish, for example). With its low lights, soulful music and chatty staff, Kebab Queen is huge fun and refreshingly off-piste.
with flickering flames, water features and mosaics, while the party vibe peaks at the weekends with live music and belly dancing. As for the food, expect home-style dishes built
for sharing – we like the lavish mashawy feast crowned by a tiered platter of fresh fruit.
We had gourmet burgers, gourmet hot dogs and gourmet fried chicken. Then this place made it the kebab’s turn. Le Bab’s owners took the Middle Eastern blueprint, splashed on some Asian influences and gave their posh offerings a modish Scandinavian look (they’re served open on house-made flatbread, like mutated smørrebrød). Fillings change seasonally, with preserved and fermented ingredients adding to the Nordic vibe. Also try sibling Maison Bab in Covent Garden.
East London’s most famous ocakbasi has been around for more than 20 years, but this Turkish kebab king still lures in passers-by with its enticing smells. Meat is the main event here, so hold out for the succulent cubes of grilled lamb in the peerless cop sis, or the garlicky lusciousness of the minced chicken beyti served with an oversized salad and warm leavened bread. Mangal 2 operates out of Stoke Newington.
Following the huge success of its pokey original branch by Tooting Bec tube station, Meza’s second coming is now the go-to for Lebanese mezze and grilled meats in the Tooting Broadway area. The same standards apply (welcoming service, low prices), but there’s more space – and you can book. It does very decent kebabs, but we prefer the little grazing dishes for variety and zing.
Yotam Ottolenghi struck culinary gold with his game-changing Ottolenghi cafés, but Nopi promises a slightly more formal, grown-up take on things – while sharing the look and ethos of the casual mini-chain. As you might expect, the cooking is an inventive fusion of Middle Eastern cuisine with bold forays into the Mediterranean and Asia. Nopi isn’t the greatest bargain in town but it is handy for Oxford Circus and there’s a lovely private room downstairs.
It feels right to call this lively, welcoming rendezvous ‘modern Iranian’ rather than ‘old Persian’ because it’s emphatically of the moment – a stylish spot serving the metropolitan cooking of present-day Tehran in a super-sceney, industrial-chic setting. There’s plenty of good stuff on offer here, from oily, golden ‘bazaar bread’ and small-plate mains accessorised with pomegranate or shards of walnut to quince tarte tatin served with fragrant Persian tea ice cream.
Even if you’ve never heard of Yotam Ottolenghi, you can’t pass the flagship branch of his café-deli empire without stopping to admire the sight. Fronting the long all-white dining room is a huge window display, while each dish is a masterclass of eclectic flavours drawn from the Middle East, the Med and beyond. There are branches in Belgravia, Spitalfields and Notting Hill. Fancy the Ottolenghi experience in a proper restaurant? Try Nopi or Rovi.
The West End’s most unlikely hot-ticket rendezvous is a rambunctious amalgam of pulse-quickening music, free-flowing drink and vibrant food with a modern Israeli slant – so sell your soul for a seat at the high-energy no-booking bar. Our favourite dish? Shakshukit – spicy minced meat served in a swirl of tahini and yoghurt with laffa bread. The Palomar has spawned siblings The Barbary and Coal Office.
Anything connected to Yotam Ottolenghi gets our vote, and this warmer, buzzier offshoot of Soho’s Nopi is no exception. True to form, Rovi’s small-plates menu is an absolute blast with its eclectic mishmash of Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food. There’s some ravishing veggie stuff here, but our bobby dazzler is a dish of skewered squid and lardo with red pepper and aioli.
Cosy vibes, faultless service and terrific food seal the deal at this modish self-styled purveyor of Beirut street food. Lunchtimes are mega-busy as crowds pile in for its takeaway wraps. Otherwise, sit at one of the long tables and graze from the all-day line-up of mezze and charcoal grills – with some refreshing mint tea on the side. There’s an offshoot in Soho.
The London outpost of Istanbul’s celebrated Yeni Lokanta, this Soho spot is a deliciously atmospheric delight for fans of contemporary Turkish cuisine. The restaurant’s logo suggests a flower-shaped cluster of aubergines, and the purple-skinned delicacy appears in various guises – notably the signature manti dumpling. Otherwise, it’s top-drawer stuff all the way,
from succulent fish cooked in raki to crisp-edged kadayifi (Turkish bread pudding) fritters spiked with candied orange zest. Not cheap, but worth it.