Remember when ‘being given the counter’ was akin to being given the finger? Well, those days are over. In fact, they’ve been over for ages now, because there are now so many London restaurants where the seat at the counter is in fact the best seat in the house that it’s time for a shout out to the very best. Here’s our countdown of the top ten counters in town. You’re welcome.
Counter bars in London restaurants
At most sushi counters, you’re separated from the action by glass, so except for the cry of ‘irasshaimase!’ (welcome) as you walk in, there’s not much live theatre. But sit at the counter of this innovative (if pricey) Kensington restaurant, and you’ll not only find nothing between you and the fun-loving chefs, but they’ll actually go out of their way to entertain. ‘You want more blow-torch?’ Yes. Of course we want more blow-torch.
For a civilised counter bar experience, try this cool Fitzrovia hangout. It’s a roomy and stylish space where care has gone into every designer detail (even the loos are gorgeous), and the plush, swivelly high-backed teal seats at the long bar are no exception. Chomp on fashionable small plates (salt beef croquettes; mussels with Merguez sausage) or larger portions of NY-LON cooking (beef burgers with bone marrow; roast pheasant for two).
It’s counter or nothing at this achingly cool slider bar. It’s not a place to recline and relax – the seats are hard and backless, the music loud and grungy – and the food comes straight from the kitchen, so there’s not even much to watch. But the moreish Manhattan-leaning small plates (mac ‘n’ cheese, clam chowder), mini burgers and exotic salads will make you lean in, sit up, and take notice.
For an olde-world oyster bar with hustle and bustle, the counter at the original branch of Wright Brothers is the place to be. Seats are wooden and high-backed, so you get all the buzz of the room behind you, but are protected from the crush. If slurping down slippery little bivalves isn’t your thing, there’s a huge daily specials board plus stalwarts such as devilled whitebait or dressed Cornish crab.
Don’t come to José for bottom-pampering: the stools are hard, backless, and decidedly un-swivelly. But then again, so are all the seats here, so you’re no better off at one of the few chest-height tables. And frankly, this no-bookings tapas joint from super-talented José Pizarro is so popular (there’s another branch in the City), you should really be grateful you got somewhere to perch in the first place.
Seats at this deluxe counter bar are arranged in a horseshoe shape, so if you get bored of looking at your date, you can eye up someone more attractive on the far side. They are high-backed, leather-clad and swivelly, so you can relax in comfort as you tuck into oysters or the great-value fish pie. Fancy a change? Try the central counter (another horseshoe) at the new-look Ivy.
On paper, the counter at this Peruvian hotspot doesn’t sound great, with its hard, backless stools, smack-bang in the thoroughfare to the rear dining area. Yet the chefs are so fun and flirty, offering recommendations as you eat and handing plates of cured fish and grilled meats straight to you, that if you want to feel like you’re in the thick of the action, this is where to be.
Although the rear dining area of Bocca di Lupo oozes glamour, if it’s theatre you’re after, grab one of the leather stools up at the bar, where you can watch the small (and occasionally large) sharing plates from every region of Italy being lovingly assembled. Book online and specify the ‘chef’s counter’, or take your chances with a walk-in: they always hold a few of the leather-clad seats back.
These were hot seats well before counter dining in the capital became an official ‘thing’. Watch in awe as the chefs’ nimble fingers rustle up plates of exceptional high-end tapas. In the last 18 months it’s gained two equally brilliant Covent Garden siblings, so you might even be able to get your bum on one of the sexy red leather stools at this original without a horrendous queue. Shhh – don’t tell everyone.
At this ultra-buzzy Soho joint, it’s possible to book a table at the back. But where would be the fun in that? The real action is up at the counter, on one of the turquoise padded stools, where you can watch as the incredible ‘Jerusalem food’ (flavours from the Med through the Middle East) is put together. Expect to be jostled and become BFFs with your neighbour.