Whether you're a dim sum daredevil or a play-it-safe type, you'll find London's thriving dim sum scene has something for you. Grab your chopsticks and get stuck in with these tempting Chinese snacks in Chinatown restaurants and beyond.
Top five dim sum restaurants in Chinatown
Never tried xiao long bau? These Shanghainese dumplings, sometimes called ‘soup dumplings’, are steamed parcels containing both filling and ‘broth’ – so make sure you pop them in your mouth in one go. Here they’re a house speciality, prepared by a line-up of chefs behind a glass pane. Skip past the ‘spicy pork’ version (made to a mouth-numbingly hot Sichuan recipe) and keep it classic with the likes of plain pork (the broth a heady ginger infusion), or vegetarian (this time with a garlicky number). Elsewhere, there are thick squares of moreish fried turnip cake and quivering cheung fun (stuffed rice pasta).
Though this Chinatown veteran isn’t as reliable as it once was, and the surroundings look a little tired, it’s still worth a visit, if only once. Don those rose-tinted glasses and picture it in its heyday: from the long approach over a dinky carp-filled pond to the double-height ceilings at the front. Though we’ve had dishes that were a touch doughy or bland, we’ve seen moments of brilliance too: from the perfection of a steamed prawn and chive dumpling, with its delicate case and aromatic filling; to moreish Vietnamese spring rolls, the golden deep-fried casing giving way to a dense, meaty centre.
Terrifying and brilliant in equal measure, Joy King Lau is run in the manner of a mass-market sports shoe outlet. Having been ushered into the large space (spread over several floors), you can sit, slack-jawed, as your order is conveyed via walkie talkie and headsets to the kitchen, who respond in kind by sending plates into the dining room via motorised dumbwaiter. By comparison, the decor and menu are fairly old-fashioned, but none the worse for it. Dim sum is excellent, from the huge (and hugely good value) single parcel of glutinous rice, to the crisp edges of the grilled dried shrimp cheung fun.
One of the few places in town to still offer a dim sum trolley service, this old-timer is about as close as you’ll get to the frenetic pace of lunchtime in Hong Kong. It looks the part, too, with hanging lanterns adorning huge red and gold dining rooms spread over several floors. One highlight from the trolley was the full-flavoured chunks of char sui (roast pork) stuffed generously into fat rolls of rice noodles (though the pastry itself lacked the correct amount of elasticity) – this inconsistency was a theme of our visit, but given the low prices and traditional ambience, New World remains worth a punt.
Dumplings are the star of the show at Gerrard's Corner, an unpretentious joint between Wardour Street and Gerrard Street. Prawn and chive dumplings are plump, sweet and packed out with fresh flavours, the perfect balance between elasticity and translucency. The rich crabmeat dumplings that followed are even better – served with a whole scallop balanced on top and cut through with with sweet, fresh cucumber. The restaurant is adorably retro too, so if you like dim sum with a side of nostalgia, Gerrard's is for you.
Top five dim sum restaurants elsewhere in London
A far cry from the hustle and bustle of Chinatown, this restaurant on the Royal Garden Hotel’s 10th floor is a serene spot to enjoy high-end Cantonese cooking. Take in the views across Kensington Gardens while choosing from classic dim sum. It may play it safe – you won’t find any chickens’ feet or ducks’ tongues here – but is none the worse for it, with every item, from our beautifully textured seafood and pumpkin steamed dumpling to our crisp-edged pork, prawn and asparagus rolls, exceeding expectations. But these standards, combined with stellar service, come at a price: expect a bill that’s double what you’d pay on Gerrard Street.
My Neighbours the Dumplings has adopted the dim sum dining style of shared small plates and given it a hip east London twist, combining traditional Chinese dishes with other popular Asian influences. But don't worry, these guys really do make excellent dumplings. The pastry is handmade and the meat (all free-range and from the Rare Breed Meat Company) tastes like actual meat rather than something you hope is pork. Vegetarians are very well catered for too, with plump steamed shiitake mushroom dumplings and fried aubergine and sesame ‘potstickers’ trumping their meaty counterparts.
Dark and swanky, with a jazzy cocktail bar and slick staff, this Cantonese expert in ‘new Paddington’ is good for a business lunch, though you don’t need an expense account to go for dim sum. Our favourites include the steamed dumplings, from one with a meaty pork and watercress filling to a clever pumpkin and ‘mock shark’ option – where slippery pieces of al dente noodles stood in for slivers of controversial fin. Elsewhere, there are prawn dumplings laced with modish wasabi and steamed ox tripe dumplings cut with ginger and spring onion. If you can’t decide, the £10.80 for 10 items ‘dim sum sampler’ remains a winner.
Tucked away on a quiet North Marylebone side street, this opulent Cantonese restaurant caters to all-comers. By night, luxurious and exotic ingredients (from abalone to ostrich) can be teamed up with pricey French wines, but by day, the high-quality, excellent-value dim sum is a reason to visit in itself. There’s a varied selection, from dependable favourites (roast pork buns; steamed vegetable dumplings; deep-fried sesame-crusted prawn rolls); to lesser-seen options (octopus patty) or the more traditional (black egg and salty congee); all of which deliver on freshness, taste and texture – belying the speed at which they exit the kitchen.
This original – and for many, still the best – branch of Royal China is a crowd-pleasing middleman. Vibrant enough to compete with Chinatown on atmosphere, the upmarket gold and black interiors also makes it smart enough for special occasions – but without breaking the bank. This especially applies at lunchtime, when the great-value dim sum means that weekend queues are a norm. Recent favourites include lacy-edged taro croquettes, their starchy casing giving way to a juicy, meaty centre and the impeccably-crafted steamed dumplings, their opaque, stretchy casings holding in fillings such as sweet, juicy prawns and fragrant chopped chives.
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The warren of distressed hutong rooms and twanging music might make patrons of this Hunanese eaterie feel like extras in Kill Bill. Posters celebrate Mao’s paeans to chilli-fuelled revolution – ironic, we hope, but it’s hard to tell when the service tends to the authentically brusque. Unfortunately, the kitchen seems to have rested on its laurels of late, and prices have crept higher. The once-famously fiery dishes have been toned down for non-Chinese (who account for a decided minority of diners), so it’s worth a word with staff if you’re after genuine western Chinese heat. Otherwise, stick to dishes displaying the double chilli icon. The most fun and expensive choice on the menu is the whole sea bass in red chilli, de-boned at your table should you wish and served in a big bowl of broth – ideally soaked up by a second serving of noodles. Pork dumplings were tasty if unremarkable; green chilli-stuffed shrimp looked great but lacked pungency. Beancurd puffs were crunchy-sticky goodness. The kitchen also produces a serviceable General Tso’s chicken, for more mainstream tastes. Ba Shan is much more enjoyable and civilised than many local competitors; it’s still popular too, so reservations are highly recommended.
Venue says: “Hunanese food is the most fiery of all the Chinese traditions - less oily than Sichuan and much more pungent.”