SEPTEMBER 2019: London’s love affair with no-bookings restaurants shows no sign of fizzling out, judging by our latest list of recommendations. We’ve added 21 venues, ranging from The Counter at Sabor in Mayfair (brilliant rustic-style tapas) to Din Tai Fung (the Covent Garden outpost of a Taiwanese chain). Other highlights include Borough Market’s rollicking El Pastor and its dinky King’s Cross sibling Casa Pastor (Mexican tacos etc), hip Hackney izakaya joint Peg (Japanese-ish small plates) and Gloria (a fun-loving OOT trattoria in Shoreditch). Also in Shoreditch, we must mention Smokestak (brisket heaven) and Smoking Goat (Thai BBQ and booze).
No-booking restaurants in London
There’s no flashy name and no flashy decor, yet this pint-sized Soho spot delivers exceptional seasonal cooking at lovably affordable prices, with back-up from an ever-evolving and great-value wine list. Expect well-constructed dishes with European overtones, from octopus with chorizo and potato to confit duck with runner beans and mustard. Around half the tables are kept back for walk-ins, but groups of up to six can now book for lunch and dinner.
Scurry under the arches on Maltby Street if you’re hankering after a fix of natural wine topped off with some sustainably sourced food. Located within Gergovie Wines’ warehouse, this brilliant no-bookings joint specialises in bottles and by-the-glass selections from boutique European producers, while the exciting and ever-changing blackboard menu summons up modern British dishes with an occasional nod to the continent – as in juicy roast mallard with tangy apple sauce, crispy bacon and turnips.
Singletons and walk-ins make a beeline for the gleaming marble counter at this sleek Covent Garden pasta joint, eager to watch the chefs and devour the hand-crafted fruits of their labours. Pick of the crop is a relentlessly Instagrammed dish called ‘silk handkerchiefs’ (actually fazzoletti swimming in walnut butter with confit egg yolk), although we also adore the beef-shin ravioli with saffron and sweet parsley oil. Antipasti and desserts bookend the main event if you’re in the mood for three courses.
With ever-flowing queues snaking down Lexington Street, Bao’s Soho branch is possibly London's most famous no-bookings restaurant – although those who've braved the weather know that it’s worth the slog. Fluffy Taiwanese buns may be the main event (check out the Horlicks ice cream version), but it’s also worth picking up some street-food snacks such as pig’s blood cake or mapo aubergine with chi shiang rice. Note that Bao’s branches in Fitzrovia and Borough Market take bookings.
If you love Palomar, you’ll also be smitten by its sibling The Barbary – a fizzing eatery filled with smoky aromas, music and laughter. Arrive early and be prepared to wait in Neal’s Yard for a stool at the no-bookings horseshoe-shaped bar, where up to 24 punters gorge on Israeli-born dishes and ideas gleaned from Africa’s Barbary Coast. Don’t miss the slow-braised, robata-grilled octopus with orange and bay leaves (arguably the best tentacles in town).
The queues are endless and fans clamour for perches at Barrafina’s gleaming L-shaped marble counter, but patience is amply rewarded at this no-bookings tapas star – flawless cooking is a given here. Your money might go further in Spain, but who cares when the chefs can dole out dazzlers such as oozing tortillas and milk-fed lamb’s sweetbreads to go with picks from a knockout Spanish wine list. Barrafina’s branches at Dean Street, Drury Lane and King’s Cross are also no-bookings.
Tapas-style sharing is the deal at this hip Thai café – a Peckham favourite with an all-weather outdoor space and an exhilarating menu of esoteric dishes far beyond your usual pad Thai clichés. Drop by for obscure street-food options such as fermented fish with coconut cream relish alongside more westernised seasonal ideas (salt-baked celeriac with bergamot and chilli ‘nahm jim’ sauce, for example). Groups can book for lunch or dinner, although numbers are limited (see website for details).
There’s always space for walk-ins and the owners run a waiting list at peak times, so it’s worth giving this dark, loud, rock-themed über-kebab concept a whirl – just don’t be put off by the penis graffiti out front. Earthy lamb offal flatbread is one of the highlights, along with excitingly punchy charred hispi cabbage with fermented shrimp butter and the dangerously named Dexter Mission Chinese Deep Throater. Cocktails come courtesy of drinks wizard Ryan Chetiyawardana (of Cub fame).
Walk-ins who arrive at peak times can have a pre-chomping sharpener in the cocktail bar before decamping to their table at this trendy take on a British chophouse. Deliciously crusted, smoky meats and fluffy herb-flecked flatbreads are the main attractions, and they’re best sampled by ordering the signature ‘all-in’ stack of beef, pork and lamb. Although Blacklock likes walk-ins, you’ll definitely need to book ahead for their sell-out Sunday roasts. Further branches in Soho and the City.
‘In keeping with the Japanese tradition of fast-paced service, we don’t take reservations’ says the Bone Daddies website, so head on down for your speedy rock ‘n’ roll ramen trip. The flavours are bold, the dining room’s tightly packed and staff are quick to deliver their bowls of seriously rich noodle goodness. We’re sold on the chicken bone broth specialities, especially the standout Tantanmen 2 with wheat noodles, sesame and chilli. Expect something similar at Bone Daddies’ other branches across town.
Noise, smoke, clubby vibes, strong cocktails and belting Turkish BBQ are the attractions at this no-bookings 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 – although the brilliant cauliflower shawarma is a must-order. Also try the Berber & Q Shawarma Bar in Clerkenwell.
Big-ticket dining at bus-ticket prices just off Piccadilly Circus, Corbin & King’s homage to the grand Parisian brasserie is a huge art-deco set-up that attracts all-comers out for a good time – and you don’t necessarily need to book. Affordable French staples are the big draw and set menus are terrific value – think steak haché with frites followed by dark chocolate délice. Otherwise, dip into the carte for steak tartare, choucroute, beef bourguignon and tarte au citron.
Venue says Our à la carte menu is available from 11.30am, as are the Prix Fixe menus starting at £10.95 for 2 courses & £14.25 for 3 courses.
Former taco pop-up Breddos is now in the big time – and making the most of its dinky Clerkenwell hideaway. Mould-breaking global riffs are the head-turners here, from baja fried fish with pickled red cabbage, habanero mayo and salsa molcajete to sweet potato with macadamia nut mole and feta. You can book, although plenty of spaces are always kept free for walk-ins (staff will take your number while you pop off for a drink if it’s busy). Also try Breddos in Soho.
Fried chicken with a Korean twist – that’s the USP at this rocking Covent Garden spot. The vibe is somewhere between a basement house party and a Prohibition speakeasy, there’s a liquor bar in the middle and a playlist of absolute bangers, while the game-changing KFC (Korean fried chicken) and K-Pop burger are top of the hit list. You’re welcome to walk in at any time, although there are bookable ‘family-style’ tables too. Branches in Islington and Dalston.
Home to Spanish tapas queen Nieves Barragán Mohacho (ex-Barrafina), Sabor is a highly distinctive set-up spread over two floors on Heddon Street. If you’re dropping by on spec, head for the ground-floor Counter, a no-bookings tapas joint dealing in brilliant rustic-style small plates. Our top picks? The oozing chorizo tortilla, the baby squid/breaded hake double act and the rhubarb and mascarpone tartaleta. The food’s all-round flawless and eating here is such fun – especially when you’re so close to the action.
The Covent Garden outpost of a world-famous no-bookings Taiwanese chain famed for its dumplings and regional street food, Din Tai Fung is a cult phenomenon – so expect to queue. It’s more expensive and more fashionable than Chinatown, but the food is worth it: don’t miss the signature xiao long bao (delicate soup dumplings), the bouncy, golden prawn pancakes or the wontons with black vinegar and chilli oil. Hyper-efficient service comes as standard.
Whirling ceiling fans, sepia prints and other retro wheezes set the scene for some post-colonial romping at Dishoom’s swish King’s Cross outlet. The whole set-up is very design-conscious and slick, but there’s no arguing with the food – a spicy all-day repertoire running from bhel pooris to biryanis. Expect crazy queues in the evenings: hot shots of chai tea are provided while you wait, or you can retreat to the basement bar. Also try Dishoom in Covent Garden, Carnaby, Shoreditch and Kensington.
Hidden from the street by heavy, deep-blue curtains, Ducksoup is one of those properly romantic Soho restaurant-wine bar hybrids. It’s worth waiting for a space at the busy counter although the ground floor is given over to walk-ins in the evening. The ‘natural’ wine list is written on chalkboards, while the menu is scrawled onto a plain white sheet of paper: expect globe-roaming seasonal plates ranging from charred celeriac with salty ricotta and chunks of walnut to hanger steak with bitter winter greens.
If you need cheering up, this no-bookings Mexican hideaway beneath the arches by Borough Market should do the trick. Owned by the Hart brothers (of Barrafina fame), El Pastor is a taco joint with pedigree and a rollicking fiesta vibe that’s sure to make you happy. Order the mighty ‘al pastór’ pork taco, the DIY short rib or the ‘gringa’ quesadillas with fresh salsas and a blast of loud Latin music. Also try sibling Casa Pastór in Coal Drops Yard, King’s Cross.
It may be a no-bookings joint, but this singular steak hangout has a long, shiny bar serving long, shiny cocktails, so you can pass the time with a drink if it’s packed. As for the menu, £10 pays for a long, thin ‘flat iron’ steak, sliced into fat mini-slabs and served with a dinky pot of lamb’s lettuce. That’s it, apart from some proper sides and affordable wines. There are two branches in Soho, plus outlets in Shoreditch, King’s Cross, London Bridge, Spitalfields and the Arcade Food Theatre, New Oxford Street.
They don’t take bookings for dinner, but it’s fun, fun, fun all the way at this boisterous Shoreditch spot – a cross between a chintzy curio-filled emporium and your Italian nonna’s parlour. You’re here for the good times, although there’s some very decent trattoria food on offer too (if you’re prepared to wait). The carbonara for two is a huge, rich bowlful of jollity, and it’s worth kicking off with some snooker ball-sized crocchè (Italy’s answer to jamón croquetas).
Served fresh from the wood oven, the pizzas at this Neal’s Yard venue wouldn’t be out of place on ‘Man v. Food’. Thankfully, most of these thin-crusted beauties are available by the slice – although you can order a whole 20-incher, which is enough to feed you and two of your pals. They’ll even let you have more than one choice from the topping selections if you ask nicely. This branch is for walk-ins only, but Homeslice’s outlets in Fitzrovia, Shoreditch, Bank and White City also take a limited number of bookings.
With its vintage/modern interiors, no-bookings policy and focus on street-food dishes, this Sri Lankan stunner is one of Soho’s slicker drop-ins. The eponymous hoppers (savoury pancakes) are crisp and chewy in all the right places, the karis are full of flavour, and starters such as goat roti are unmissable. Simply pop yourself onto the electronic queue, nip off for a drink and wait for a cheeky message telling you it’s time to chow down. Note that Hoppers’ Wigmore Street offshoot takes bookings.
A ‘master butcher and cookshop’ by day (look for the carcases hanging the window), Hill & Szrok morphs into a no-bookings suppertime haunt with its massive marble slab becoming a communal table and more high stools by the counters – all primed for a nightly parade of walk-ins. A short menu spells out the evening’s free-range rare-breed cuts – steaks, rack of lamb, pork chop and so on, preceded by duck rillettes or fried pig’s head with sauce gribiche.
With a steamy charcoal grill holding centre stage and a menu offering a mishmash of Japanese-inspired creations, laid-back Inko Nito is something of a godsend after negotiating Oxford Circus – and you don’t need to book ahead for a space at one of its communal counters. The standout breadcrumbed fried chicken comes with yoghurt and peanut dip, and the signature ‘nigaki’ is sushi’s unholy answer to the open sandwich. Don’t leave without trying the coconut soft serve, sprinkled with Japanese granola.
Spawned from José Pizzaro’s namesake restaurant further along Bermondsey Street, this tapas bebé has the genuine feel of rustic Spanish hangout – all plain brick walls, timbers, tiles and stools. Food-wise, expect fantastically fresh renditions of the classics at easy-to-swallow prices – from pan con tomate, patatas bravas and padrón peppers to prawns al ajillo and pulpo gallega (octopus with olive oil and paprika). You can’t book, but José’s doors-wide-open attitude is bang-on for this increasingly trendy neighbourhood.
Join the queue and head to the ground floor of chef Ben Chapman’s Soho barnstormer, where a stainless-steel counter (for walk-ins only) gives terrific views of the theatrical open kitchen. Taking inspiration from rural Thailand’s by-the-roadside stalls, Kiln’s intense, edgy and stripped-back dishes are mostly cooked on the chargrill or over coals in a ceramic charcoal burner – wondrous charred meats, curries and stews await. Drink spice-friendly wines, cool cocktails or eastern-flavoured iced teas.
Traditionally done out like a Japanese udon-ya, this casual no-bookings eatery wouldn’t be out of place in Tokyo. A blond wood counter dominates the long narrow space (chefs on one side, diners on the other), but it still feels spacious and airy. Koya classics such as udon with mushrooms and walnut miso (kinoko) are available here, as is breakfast – try the udon noodles in earthy broth topped with fried egg, bacon and shiitake mushrooms. Note that Koya City also takes bookings.
It started as a Brixton pop-up and now Kricket is back in SW9 with a snazzy permanent site under the railway arches. The food is everything you would expect, and more – a succession of killer Anglo-Indian small plates ranging from the astounding house bhel-puri to dinky Goan sausage croquettes and Keralan fried chicken with pickled mooli. Walk-ins are always welcome, and you can wait at the bar if it’s busy. Also check out Kricket in Soho and White City.
Promising outré kebab bliss within striking distance of Oxford Circus, Le Bab is a proper sit-down affair with a posh twist. What sets it apart is the fact that its specialities are served ‘open’ and painstakingly arranged over thin, house-made flatbread – a bit like Scandinavian smørrebrød. Fillings change seasonally, with preserved and fermented ingredients adding to the Nordic vibe. Half the restaurant is held for walk-ins, but you can also book online. Alternatively, try Maison Bab in Covent Garden.
Epic queues come as standard at barnstorming Meat Liquor’s original branch on Welbeck Street, although staff occasionally come out with trays of palate-sharpening deep-fried pickles for the assembled hordes. Inside, it’s deafeningly loud with throbbing music and a hell-raising rock ‘n’ roll vibe matching the X-rated cocktails and gut-bustingly delicious food – the ‘dead hippie’ burger is a must, but it’s full-on stuff all the way. It’s the same story at Meat Liquor’s other branches, from Islington to East Dulwich.
Next to its acclaimed big brother Moro, teensy-weensy Morito is a slice of Spanish street life teleported to Clerkenwell. It’s always frantically busy and walk-ins invariably have to wait, but perseverance pays dividends – especially if you bag a spot by the kitchen. Inventive tapas and stonking Spanish regional wines are the stars, but staff are delightful and the whole place is properly buzzy. Walk-ins can also be seated at the window counter in Morito’s Hackney Road offshoot.
A south London cousin of Islington’s Trullo, this sleek, speedy no-bookings pasta joint serves up dishes that are small enough and cheap enough to let you overindulge. The daily menu might run from tagliarini with anchovy butter and pangrattato to fettuccine with Cobble Lane ‘nduja, mascarpone and lemon, although pappardelle with eight-hour Dexter beef-shin ragù is a fixture. You can linger over wines and desserts, but everyone queuing outside will hate you.
Dreamed up by Stevie Parle (of Craft London and Palatino fame), this cheap-and-cheerful, no-bookings pasta pitstop is a terrific addition to the Soho scene. Everything is handmade (gluten-free if requested) and the rolling menu delivers some big hits – don’t miss the magnificent bucatini ‘cacio e pepe’ (cheese and pepper), the malloreddus with sausage or the chilli-spiked mixed seafood paccheri to share. Expect gold-dust alfresco seating, effervescent staff, communal tables, loud music and concrete floors – you get the picture.
Standing on the Hackney site once occupied by Legs, Peg serves up Japanese izakaya-style small plates in an achingly hip but effortlessly friendly setting. This is a fertile hunting ground for walk-ins who seek out the high bar stools and communal tables in search of grilled chicken body parts from the grill, katsu sando (a chook ‘sandwich’ with white cabbage and pickled mooli) and other hits from the tiny menu. Just add a vinyl soundtrack, switched-on staff and accessible prices.
Introduced to London by Alan Yau in 2008, this smart Soho outpost of a Milanese bakery chain remains popular with walk-ins throughout the day. It’s a good-looking spot, and the food is varied enough to keep punters coming back for more: cakes, pastries and breads are supplemented by various filled focaccia, hot dishes, slices of pizza and lots of attractive salads. The bakery is self-service, while the adjoining pizzeria offers table service and a marginally calmer atmosphere.
A permanent Shoreditch home for the cult street-food vendors, this stygian semi-industrial space feels like a medieval nightclub complete with throbbing beats and a man-tastic meat-loving vibe. Walk-ins are welcome at any time, and lucky punters go ape for the kitchen’s beef brisket – served as a single hunk of flesh or shredded and snuggled inside a pillowy bun with a lick of barbecue sauce and bone-marrow butter. We also rate Smokestak’s lavishly seasoned, long-smoked beef ribs very highly.
Most tables are kept free for walk-ins at this brazen Shoreditch reincarnation of Soho’s teeny-weeny Smoking Goat, which promises smack-in-the-face Thai BBQ against a jam-packed industrial-meets-rustic backdrop of smoke, loud music and high-strength alcohol. The food is laced with volcanically hot ‘mouse-drop’ chillies, and the flavours will hit you for six (try the lardo fried rice or the signature fish-sauce chicken wings) – although your wallet won’t be seriously dented, even if you go heavy on the booze.
People were queuing outside this huge East End curry house long before it became the big thing in London, and Tayyabs remains as frantically busy as ever – don’t come here expecting a relaxed chilled-out Ruby. Also, if you arrive without booking, expect to wait up to an hour for a table. No matter, because the food at this Punjabi stalwart is a bargain and the flavours are bold – tuck into fiery grilled lamb chops, rich dahls and masala chana. Corkage-free BYO is a bonus.
The folks at Xi’an Biang Biang know a thing or two about pulling and twirling strands of starchy goodness, so drop by for some excellent hand-pulled ‘thin’ noodles or their hot-ticket biang biang ‘belt’ versions – bowls of chilli oil-slicked ribbons slathered with any number of delicious sauces and toppings from ‘special’ spicy beef to ‘big plate’ on-the-bone chicken. Yes, it’s going to get messy. Also try Xi’an Impression, Biang Biang’s little brother by the Emirates Stadium in Highbury.
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, take pot luck at one of the long faux-rustic tables and graze from the all-day line-up of mezze and charcoal grills – with some Arabic bread, olives and torshi (pickles) on the side, plus a cup of refreshing mint tea to quench the thirst. There’s an offshoot in Fitzrovia.
Find restaurants where tables are just as in demand
In the list below – surely the ultimate guide to the best restaurants in London – you’ll find it all: zeitgeist-defining celebrity haunts, the best new restaurants in London, Michelin star restaurants with starched linen napkins and restaurants serving down-to-earth cheap eats. What they all have in common is that they serve some of the best dishes in London at fair prices, with service befitting the setting. In short, if you’re looking for a great meal, you’ve come to the right place.