There’s no denying it: 2015 was a good year for restaurants. There were several hundred newbies that were pretty decent, and around 60 that we all really liked. So whittling those down to a final ‘must-try’ list of 15 was tough – but hey, it’s a nice problem to have. At last, here it is – our pick of the most memorable new openings in the capital of the last 12 months. And a smug little ‘go us’ reminder that London remains the best place in the world for going out to eat. Suck on that, New York.
The story: Having already scored a huge hit with cocktail joint The Little Bar, owner Madeleine Lim turned her attention to tapas. This time teaming up with the chaps behind Meza, arguably the first restaurant to have put Tooting firmly on the map.
What to eat: Simple, classic tapas, from pan con tomate to salt cod fritters and big juicy prawns.
Did you know: Ms Lim used to be the Food and Drink Editor of the Independent magazine.
The story: In a world of fried chicken and small plates, there is Piquet, a place where the techniques are classic and the flavours flawless. It’s smart – but not stuffy, and the best seats are in the basement, which is where the open kitchen is.
What to eat: The dinky snail-filled ‘pithivier’ (a classic French pie with pastry walls and a sunbeam design on the lid). It’ll make you change the way you feel about escargots forever.
Did you know: The chef is called Allan Pickett. As in, picket (fence). As in, Piquet. Geddit?
The story: The only thing better than one high-end restaurant in Marylebone? Two high-end restaurants in Marylebone. That’s what we’re guessing the gang behind Donostia thought, before opening this swish sibling just a stone’s throw away. And it’s just as mega-popular: they were clearly onto something.
What to eat: The fish or vegetable sharing plates are especially good (they can be on the small side: all the more reason to order more).
Did you know: Donostia (the original, older sister of Lurra), is the Basque name for San Sebastián?
The story: He’s English, and quietly does the behind-the-counter cheffing. She’s French, with front-of-house charisma and a passion for wine. They met at Clapham restaurant Trinity, and are now the dream husband-and-wife team running this dinky neighbourhood spot, where water is served from vintage pastis bottles.
What to eat: Brilliant small plates. But leave room for the chocolate mousse with white chocolate crumble.Did you know: He used to call her a ‘greedy piglet’. She’d laugh, correcting him with ‘naughty piglet’, pointing out this is what we should all be from time to time.
The story: It all started as a market stall, selling venison (wild deer). Co-owner Andy Waugh then quickly moved into residencies and pop-ups, before finally opening this surprisingly slick and stylish Fitzrovia spot.
What to eat: The venison chateaubriand: it’s super-lean and not at all gamey. And of course the incredible ‘venimoo’ burger, with one patty beef and one venison.
Did you know: When Waugh first drove down to Borough and flogged a load of venison steaks out of the back of a van, he got a bollocking from his Dad for undermining his restaurant supply business. It was Dad that told him to ‘add some value’: step forward the venimoo.
The story: Having shrewdly noticed that we all love fried chicken, and we all love cocktails, pop-up guru Carl Clarke (Disco Bistro, Rock Lobsta) did the sensible thing and put ‘em together. Even our editor-in-chief is a big fan – how’s that for a seal of approval, Carl?
What to eat: Chicken in a bun (a Korean-spiced battered chicken burger, slaw, fiery gochujang mayo and chilli vinegar), with dripping-cooked fries.
Did you know: When Mr C isn’t cheffing, he can be found spinning the decks. Yes, it’s THAT Carl Clarke.
The story: Selin Kiazim earned her culinary stripes at fusion joints Providores and Kopapa. This debut restaurant is a smart small-plates spot drawing on her Turkish-Cypriot roots, but with groovy global twists, too.
What to eat: We loved the chargrilled monkfish with urfa chilli sauce and the chilli garlic chicken with a za’atar crumb, but the show-stealer is the lahmacun – a kind of pizza and salad DIY wrap. It rocks.
The story: James Ramsden and Sam Herlihy ran a supper club called the Secret Larder. This east London spot is their first ‘proper’ restaurant. It says a lot about their lack of ego that they’ve hired someone else – Elizabeth Allen, formerly of Smokehouse – to do the cooking.
What to eat: You don’t get a choice (it’s a weekly changing, no-choice menu, much like a supper club)… but it’s all terrific.
Did you know: They play the sound of crashing thunder in the loo.
The story: Picture the Eurovision Song Contest, only with food. Oh and actually brilliant. The backdrop here is Nordic, while the cooking showcases Scandi techniques, British produce, and killer ingredients from across the Continent. Not a ‘nul points’ in sight.
What to eat: If it’s available, the scallop with spicy Italian ‘nduja sausage. Though the meat and salads are equally great.
Did you know: Rök means ‘smoke’ in Swedish. They love their coals here.
The story: After winning ‘Masterchef’ in 2011, Tim Anderson promised us a ‘Japanese soul food’ joint. We got excited. And waited. And waited some more. When it finally opened, our reviewer was put off by the saltfish and ackee croquettes, but the rest of the crew here love this place.
What to eat: Chicken karaage (fried chicken), horumon yaki (sweet, salty and sour pig's tripe with crunchy rice), and the curry goat tsukemen (ramen with an intense goat curry).
Did you know: There are booths upstairs, styled like carts, with wheels on.
What to eat: The Lady Hamilton Pollock or anything fermented (they love a bit of fermentation). The just-baked sourdough bread and whipped butter is always fantastic, so go starving and don’t skip it.
Did you know: The site used to be a garage – hence the name.
The story: March 2015: the moment when we officially reached ‘peak bun’. When Bao, a Netil Market stall specialising in filled Taiwanese steamed milk buns, went all bricks-and-mortar and had us queuing in the rain.
What to eat: The pork confit bao and the fried chicken bao are best, but you can’t really go wrong. Ask for the trotter nuggets, if they have them, too.
The story: Like Dozo, the upmarket sushi spot that does a great-value set lunch? Then you’ll love this place, which serves slick Vietnamese street food in a setting that's so 'urban chic', we actually took photos of the loo roll holders.
What to eat: As our waiter told us, ‘everything is good’, so go with a few friends and order lots – but especially the deep-fried coconut calamari and the stir-fried French beans with sticky beef.
Did you know: Head chef Jeff Tan was born in Malaysia, and used to work at Hakkasan in Mayfair.
The story: Normally we wouldn’t put a ‘branch’ in a list like this. But this third outpost of the upmarket tapas bar is no ordinary offshoot. In addition to the classics, there are masterful new creations. It’s proof that sometimes, just sometimes, the sequel can be as good as the original. (Star Wars fans: you hear us.)
What to eat: Definitely the Galician-style empanada (like a cuttlefish-filled pasty, only the best you’ve ever had) or the terrific crab bun. Also look out for market specials like the incredible – and huge – salt-baked prawns.
Did you know: You can book downstairs, if there are eight (or more) of you. Hello friends, goodbye queue!
The story: Proof of their restaurant smarts, the Sethi family (they of Bubbledogs, Bao, Gymkhana and Trishna) created this stylish homage to the humble hopper, a Sri Lankan savoury breakfast pancake, right in the heart of Soho. Our only question is, what took them so long?
What to eat: Hoppers (obvs), but also curries and ‘short eats’ (street food snacks). It’s all brilliant.
Did you know: Those colourful masks on the walls are called ‘devil masks’, and are used to ward off evil spirits.
The new year looks pretty tasty too…
We're looking forward to even more amazing new restaurants opening in London in 2016. From hot pots to hot chefs, from pop-ups gone permanent to celeb-backed operations, it's a bright year ahead on the London restaurant scene.
'Smiths' of Smithfield Farringdon
Since this review was published, 'Smiths' of Smithfield Farringdon has undergone refurbishment. Time Out Food editors, April 2018. There are four different levels to this Smithfields spot, encompassing a ground floor cafe and bar, a first-floor bar dedicated to craft beer, a second-floor dining room and a third – and top – floor given over to food of a more fine-dining bent. There are private rooms to hire, too. Largely, the menus here focus on British produce and dishes. Expect bacon sandwiches, full English breakfasts and mushrooms on toast on the ground floor, steaks, burgers and seared scallops with black pudding, bacon and cauliflower purée in the second-floor dining room, and veal sirloin, cod with langoustine and roast monkfish with caramelised cauliflower, leeks, cockles and ham on the top floor. More than 60 craft beers feature in first-floor bar. Brewers include Five Points, Bru, The Kernel, Hiver and Hammerton. Cocktails, wines and an interesting selection of spirits also feature.
Venue says: “After an extensive refurbishment, our doors are once again open and the long-awaited evolution of Farringdon’s iconic site is finally here.”