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Photograph: Time Out
Photograph: Time Out

Revealed: Time Out London’s 2021 Best of the City award winners

The greatest events, parties, restaurants, bars and cultural institutions in London this year

Edited by
Kate Lloyd
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If we’ve learned one thing from this year, it’s that London is resilient. When the big outdoor hospitality reopening in April cruelly coincided with torrential downpours, we dutifully sat sipping pints under dripping-wet pub garden umbrellas. And you know what? We were ecstatic about it. As everything unlocked, Londoners flocked to restaurants, bars, cafés, theatres, cinemas, galleries, clubs and museums, reminding ourselves why we love this city. Now we know that, no matter how shit everything gets, Londoners still know how to laugh, they still buzz with creativity and new ideas. So here’s to celebrating the greatest things that happened this year. Aligned with all the other Time Out teams around the world, we’re announcing our Best of The City award-winners for 2021. Expect the pop-up nightclub that became the saviour of electronic music in lockdown, a brand-new queer music festival, an old gallery that’s come back to life, an amazing family-run Thai restaurant, exhibitions, theatre shows and some brilliant sustainability initiatives. Want to feel great about the future of our city? Read on… 

Disagree with our choices? You can still vote for your beloved venues in our Love Local Awards. Support your favourite here. 

Food & Drink

  • Restaurants
  • Thai
  • Leytonstone
  • price 1 of 4

Londoners, it’s time to re-think what you know about Thai food because no one does it quite like tiny, family-run restaurant Singburi. This fiercely old-school, cash-only establishment has no website and no deliveries. It just posts on Instagram each week to showcase its legendary blackboard menu of specials. Ranging from fiery chopped rabbit larb to crispy pork belly moo krob, all of them are outstanding. Currently operating as takeaway only, fingers crossed it’s open for dine-in and BYOB again soon.

  • Bars and pubs
  • Cocktail bars
  • Dalston
  • price 2 of 4

Damn good drinks and friendly attentive service? Sign us up. This award-winning, tiny, neighbourhood café-cocktail bar has been on the World's 50 Best Bars list for three years running and it’s easy to see why. There’s a no-nonsense approach, no showy bartender moves and certainly no umbrellas, but a delightful weekly changing cocktail menu using interesting ingredients. For those who want to pare back on the sauce, there’s also an excellent selection of low-ABV drinks on offer.

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  • Restaurants
  • Coffeeshops
  • Stoke Newington

Right by Rectory Road Overground station, this place offers sublime coffee, sausage rolls and fresh homemade bakes. But the thing that people travel far and wide for? The mighty fine weekend food menu including Nashville-style hot fried-chicken sandwiches, egg buns, tater tots, birra consommé tacos and smash burgers. Glee-inducing stuff.

Yes, the queue for Sonora Taquería at Netil Market on the weekend can be off-putting, but it really is worth the wait for some of the city’s finest tacos. They’re focused on northern Mexican food and handmade flour tortillas. Choose from barbacoa made with short rib and beef cheek, carne con chile, pulled beef in charred chile verde sauce, and napales cactus leaf with refried beans – guaranteed good times and good eating.

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  • Restaurants
  • Contemporary European
  • Clerkenwell

Sessions Arts Club is self-described as an ‘urban sanctuary’. Located in a Grade II-listed former judges’ dining room at Sessions House in Clerkenwell, it’s probably one of the best-looking newcomers to hit London's restaurant scene. Its distressed-chic green-and-pink walls scream faded grandeur and the stunning arched windows let the light flood in. A truly spectacular dining room! Oh, and chef Florence Knight’s pristine plates of Tuscan food aren’t too shabby either.

  • Bars and pubs
  • Wine bars
  • Battersea

Walking into this newly opened Battersea wine bar is a lot like basking in the warm glow of a late-summer afternoon. With its bright yellow walls, gigantic plants and cosy fireplace vibes, it’s the ideal place to hunker down and sip on biodynamic and minimal-intervention wine without any of pretentiousness. Take a sip from bottles from all over the world and choose from a range of classics, vintages and funky numbers.

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  • Museums
  • History
  • Lambeth

Come rain or shine this is one of the best places to sit outside in: the museum’s internal courtyard is bright and airy, you're surrounded with plants and the air feels somehow fresher than elsewhere in the city. Expect simple seasonal food done really well, and a relaxed, chilled atmosphere to watch the world go by in. A proper gem by the river.

 

Culture and entertainment

  • Theatre
  • Shakespeare
  • South Bank

Shut for almost two years – though the backdrop for numerous
government cultural policy photo ops during the pandemic – nothing said 'theatre is back’ in 2021 like the Globe finally reopening in May. And the work was glorious: after being deprived of any Shakespeare at all since last March, the summer season was a joyous bardic riot.

  • Museums
  • Art and design
  • New Cross

This relatively new art gallery has quickly become the best place to see art in London. It puts on super-adventurous, challenging contemporary art, without any regard for sales or commercialism, and with no bullshit. Its shows are intelligible, approachable and unintimidating, without compromising on concepts. It’s given space to artists at the start of their careers like Issy Wood and Olivia Sterling, and more established names like Mika Rottenberg, and put on brilliant historical exhibitions, like its jawdropping Chicago Imagists show a while back. It should be a model for other London institutions, showing how you can present wild, new ideas without being a dick about it.

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Best museum: Courtauld Gallery
  • Art
  • Galleries
  • Aldwych

With impeccable timing, the venerable Courtauld has reopened after a three-year renovation to remind us Londoners what an amazing gallery it is. The main attraction is upstairs, where you’ll find works by Degas, Monet, Cézanne and Manet in gorgeously redesigned exhibition rooms. This is one of the world’s best collections of Impressionism, and it’s never looked better. If you want to get excited about the future, the Courtauld is opening a whole exhibition dedicated to Van Gogh self-portraits in February 2022, which promises to be one of the year’s most important and revelatory shows.

Best cinema: Genesis
  • Cinemas
  • Independent
  • Stepney

Time Out’s award-winning cinema for 2021 has emerged from the hellscape of multiple lockdown closures with a spring in its step. What makes it such an East End treasure? It’s partly the luxy modcons at budget prices (it offers £5.50 tickets most weekdays) that make it as easy on the wallet as the eye. This is a seriously sexy cinema, make no mistake – but there’s also a baked-in sense that the people here really care: about films, about the filmgoing experience and about you, the person who is interested in trying a homebaked pizza named after one of the Kray Twins (ask for the PepperRonnie, arf arf). It’s not standing still, either, with new outdoor space The Yard expanding its realm outdoors for when it’s eventually sunny again. 

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  • Cinemas
  • Tottenham

If you’ve broken a sweat in the sprawling labyrinth that is The Cause, you’ll understand just how special it is. Situated close to Tottenham Hale tube station, the makeshift venue has a real DIY-feel that welcomes everyone into its family with a whole lot of dance floor love. But it’s the last month before this club closes its doors for good – so if you can get down for one last boogie, we strongly recommend you do so.

Housed in five listed buildings, formerly belonging to the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich’s swanky new creative hub includes a 1,200-seat theatre, five rehearsal spaces, a picturesque courtyard and a wealth of creative studios and offices for local artists and small businesses. It only opened in September but has already transformed this Thamesside former industrial site into a properly exciting place to be.

City life

Londoners Daisy and Liv Tinker are twins and the dual creative force behind A South London Makers Market, a carefully curated hub for independent creatives. The pair have a flair for making handmade goods look gorgeously covetable, using their visual merchandising and editorial expertise to create wonder-inducing tableaux of homewares, ceramics, and jewellery. And they’ve also got an enviable knack for creating a sense of community, whether it’s through buzzy online sales or exciting in-person events in quirky venues across south London and beyond.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Victoria Park

‘Viccy P’, as her pals call her, has been a true friend to Londoners through 2021. Her verdant acres have been a perfect exercise ground for some of London’s most chic canines. Her fine café has served up warming coffees to chilly groups of friends enjoying outdoor get-togethers. Her cascading fountain and picturesque lake have been the backdrop to innumerable selfies. And, most of all, she’s hosted some parties to remember: not least All Points East, the post-lockdown bacchanal that taught Londoners how to have fun again.

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It’s pretty rare for a public artwork to create a whole buzzing community but that’s just what Little Amal managed to do. She’s a 3.5 metre tall puppet of a refugee child, who towered over passers by’s heads as she made the journey from the borders of Syria to London and beyond, echoing the journeys made by real refugees. At every step of her journey she’s been met by parties, pro-refugee demonstrations, singing, dancing, and even fairground rides, in a moving affirmation that London’s a place where everyone’s welcome.

Sustainability

  • Restaurants
  • British
  • Hackney Wick
  • price 4 of 4

Silo is leading the way for restaurants in showing that food can be environmentally sustainable while still delicious and financially viable. Its innovative back-to-basics concept of producing natural, high-quality food that respects the environment, while creating zero waste, will hopefully be the future of more and more venues across London. (Picked by expert judge Hannah Peck, Cool Earth)

  • Art
  • Galleries
  • Aldwych

This new group exhibition, running until February 2022, looks at the climate crisis from the perspective of artists living across the global south. It brings alive the importance of the discussions that were happening in Glasgow, at the COP26 conference, on the need for wealthy countries to compensate and support poorer countries that are already suffering the impacts of climate change, created by more industrialised nations. Expect to learn about environmental damage, and the climate crisis, and its ties with historical colonialism.  (Picked by expert judge Hannah Peck, Cool Earth)

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This is an accessible and free community garden built to educate Londoners about sustainable practices. Open for use by communities all around London to hold live music, workshops and events, you can find it in Holborn. It’s part of the Lord Mayor’s Culture and Commerce Task Force’s Enhancing the City Initiative to fill repurposed commercial spaces across the city with curated, creative activity in order to animate the area. (Picked by expert judge Hannah Peck, Cool Earth)

Special awards

This year, grey old London turned into a technicolour wonderland thanks to artist Yinka Ilori’s magical way with primary hues. His Launderette of Dreams was a highlight: he teamed up with his old primary school and Lego to create a playful installation full of wit and wonder. But his other exploits have included creating a rainbow-tinted basketball court in Canary Wharf, giving Greenwich Peninsula a signature makeover, crafting two installations at London Design Festival, and acting as creative director of the Brit Awards. What a year for the prince of the paintbrush.

London’s homelessness crisis found an unlikely saviour in the ‘SoloHaus modular solution’ this year: but behind the cryptic name is a very workable housing project for people in need. 33 new modular homes have been built in Haringey on disused, council-owned land. From the outside, they look like grey shipping containers, but step inside and you’ll find sleekly designed, well-furnished spaces that put a lot of Rightmove rentals to shame. With each pod home costing just £80,000 to create, this could be a practical solution to London’s housing woes.

Read more about the pods for the homeless

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How creative can you really get with a croissant? Well, ask the pastry wizards at Criss Cross and the answer you’ll get is ‘very, very creative indeed’. Glazed til they shine like fine ceramics, tinted every hue of the rainbow and filled with innovative flavours from matcha to truffle to seaweed, Criss Cross has pushed the boundaries of patisserie further than anyone would have thought possible. Eating a croissant for every meal of the day never looked so tempting.

Read our news post about the dedicated croissant caff

There are few things grimmer for environmentally minded souls than having to chuck out a malfunctioning toaster or a screen-of-death afflicted laptop: electronics are massively costly for the planet to make, and very hard to effectively recycle. Luckily, The Restart Project has stepped in to help people repair their ailing devices. It throws repair parties, helps schools and organisations hang on to their computers for longer, and even campaigns for more sustainable electronics for all.

Events and parties

Debuting in October across 16 canalside venues around Hackney Wick, east London’s first LGBTQ+ festival spotlighted the area’s vibrant and hugely varied queer party scene, from longstanding and established nights like Pxssy Palace and Inferno to more niche ones like Harpies, Hungama and Transmissions, and even lockdown-spawned events like Queer House Party. It showed just how massive a contribution London’s queer community makes to the city’s culture.

London’s longest-running LGBTQ+ music festival could never be accused of taking itself too seriously. As always, the late-summer event in Brockwell Park provided a welcome antidote to the city’s more studious festivals with a camp, pop-filled line-up that didn’t have you panicking about making it back from the portaloos on time for the next act, but provided plenty of fun, relaxed and nostalgic vibes. We can’t wait for next year’s two-day edition! 

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