Clockwise from top left: Tea service at the Delaunay; Dabbous, interior; tipsy cake, kitchen, and dining room at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.
L ondon’s reputation as a food destination hasn’t always been so golden. As recently as the 1990s, the advice usually given to American tourists was to eat at ethnic restaurants rather than seek out British cuisine. Thankfully, that all has changed, with quality fine-dining options that can now be found throughout London neighborhoods such as Covent Garden, the East End, and Fitzrovia; even the go-to ethnic restaurants have kicked it up a notch. Considering London’s vibrant, growing restaurant scene, the one thing a visitor definitely shouldn’t do is rely on a dated London restaurant list or a long-past newspaper article. To dine like the locals means scoping out the exciting places, both old and new, that London has to offer. It’s also worth noting that many offer a prix-fixe lunch menu, making it possible to dine well in London without spending a fortune.
The Best London Restaurants for British Cuisine
Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, dates back to 1798 in Covent Garden and is as classic British as it gets, serving game, steak, kidney pie, and puddings. But for an ingenious twist on British fare, head to Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, in Knightsbridge. Blumenthal, the wildly inventive chef and owner of three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, opened Dinner in London’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel in 2011 with a menu of dishes based on recipes dating back to the 1500s, executed and served with Heston’s own special touch. Signature dishes are the meat fruit (c. 1500), an appetizer that resembles an orange (it’s actually mandarin jelly) but is filled with a chicken liver parfait; an entrée of spiced pigeon, ale, and artichokes (c. 1780); and the tipsy cake dessert (c. 1810), composed of a syrup-infused brioche and spit-roasted pineapple slices. In the Blumenthal spirit of innovation, the pineapple even has its own specially designed piece of preparatory equipment on view in the glass-walled kitchen, allowing some insight into the alchemy that happens daily. The restaurant’s setting is special, too: a brasserie-styled room designed by Adam Tihany that boasts expansive views of Hyde Park. (Rules: 35 Maiden Ln., 011-44-20-7836-5314, rules.co.uk; Dinner by Heston: Mandarin Oriental Hotel, 66 Knightsbridge, 011-44-20-7201-3833, dinnerbyheston.com)
The Best London Restaurants for Continental Cuisine
The Delaunay, operated and owned by veteran restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, is the new kid on the Covent Garden block. When it opened in 2011, it instantly became a people-watching celeb magnet with good food, and for good reason: Corbin and King are also the hitmakers behind the Ivy, an old favorite in Covent Garden that still attracts celebrities seeking international comfort food. The Delaunay menu’s signature dishes take their cues from Central European cafés: Wiener Schnitzels, strudel, and Salzburg soufflé, served in an elegant space marked by wood-paneled walls, green leather banquettes, and lots of glistening brass fittings. And if you’re looking for A-listers, check out the banquette tables along the left side of the restaurant. ( The Delaunay: 55 Aldwych, 011-44-20-7499-8558, thedelaunay.com; The Ivy: 1-5 West St., 011-44-20-7836-4751, the-ivy.co.uk)
The Best London Restaurants for French Cuisine
The venerable Le Gavroche in Mayfair has been serving classic French dishes since 1967. Le Gavroche, first opened and operated by Michel and Albert Roux, and now by Albert’s son Michel Roux, Jr., has been the training ground for the likes of Gordon Ramsay, Marco Pierre White, and Bryn Williams, among other notable chefs. But the new kid on London’s French fine-dining block is the Ledbury in trendy Notting Hill, where Australian chef Brett Graham is celebrated for his contemporary French cuisine served in a casual atmosphere. Opened in 2005, the Michelin two-starred Ledbury is revered for its culinary strengths as well as its presentation: The food on the plate looks like a still-life painting and includes the freshest and most seasonal ingredients. Two favorite dishes are available year-round: the flame-grilled mackerel with smoked eel, Celtic mustard, and shiso; and the roasted breast and confit leg of pigeon with red vegetables and leaves, foie gras, and cherries. The artfully composed plates are complemented by the dramatic interior design, which includes floor-to-ceiling windows, a mirrored wall, and sweeping drapery. If the weather is fine, ask to sit at one of the outdoor tables that overlook a quiet, tree-lined side street. (Le Gavroche: 43 Upper Brook St., 011-44-20-7499-1826, le-gavroche.co.uk; The Ledbury: 127 Ledbury Rd., 011-44-20-7792-9090, theledbury.com)
The Best London Restaurants for Indian Food
London has long been an epicenter for Indian cuisine in the Western Hemisphere, and it’s on fine display at Veeraswamy, which opened in Mayfair in 1926. The grande dame of English Indian cuisine, it serves traditional fare such as rogan josh and chicken tikka in colorful, exotic surroundings that evoke a maharaja’s palace. The newer school of Indian cookery in London shines brightly at the Cinnamon Club, opened in 2001 near Westminster Abbey, which serves modern Indian dishes in a former grand library with a trendy Bollywood-type bar in the basement. At the Cinnamon Club, chef Vivek Singh combines locally sourced ingredients with Indian spicing and classical cooking techniques. The result is food that is inventive and playful. Be sure to try tandoori breast of Anjou squab pigeon with chickpeas and tamarind; and roast saddle of Cumbrian wild red deer with corn and millet kedgeree. The Cinnamon Club even opens weekdays for Indian breakfast, serving dishes like quinoa upma with curry leaves and coconut chutney. (Veeraswamy: Victory House, 99-101 Regent St., 011-44-20-7734-1401, veeraswamy.com; The Cinnamon Club: The Old Westminster Library, 30-32 Great Smith St., 011-44-20-7222-2555, cinnamonclub.com)
The Best London Restaurant for Modern European Cuisine
The most exciting newcomer on the London dining scene is Dabbous in Fitzrovia, which opened in January 2012. Chef Ollie Dabbous started his career at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and went on to work at a number of top restaurants around the world before opening Dabbous, where the menu reflects his light, Nordic-influenced approach to food. The decor of this small restaurant is industrial chic, with bare tables and exposed piping. In the basement bar, the resident mixologist creates cocktails with homemade syrups and infusions; be sure to try the Sloe Gin Punch with homemade sloe gin, Bombay Sapphire, hawthorn syrup, ginger ale, fresh fruits, mint, and cucumber. Already, Dabbous is known for dishes such as mixed alliums in a chilled pine infusion; barbecued Ibérico pork with savory acorn praline, turnip tops, and apple vinegar; iced lovage; and custard cream pie. The prices are very diner-friendly for the quality of the food and service. (39 Whitfield St.; 011-44-20-7323-1544; dabbous.co.uk)
The Best London Restaurants for Casual Dining
A number of no-reservation (and less costly) places have sprung up that should be on your list, too; they’re fun, trendy, and serve great food.
Restaurateur Russell Norman runs a clutch of eateries that fill the bill in Soho and Covent Garden, with some taking reservations for lunch but leaving the evening tables as first-come first-served: Polpo is a Venetian bacaro serving a mackerel that never tasted so good; Spuntino is counter service only, complete with tattooed waiters and a to-die-for truffled egg toast; and Mishkin’s deems itself a “kind of Jewish deli with cocktails”—consider the whitefish knish with parsley liquor. Meanwhile, Barrafina, owned by brothers Sam and Eddie Hart, is an authentic Spanish tapas bar, also in the West End, with only 23 seats at the counter. Its motto is “Sourcing not saucing,” so the ingredients are the freshest they can be.
If you are looking for dining options at or near Olympic Park, head over to Westfield Stratford City, a complex home to shops and popular chains such as Busaba Eathai (Thai), Jamie’s Italian from Jamie Oliver, Yo! Sushi, and Wahaca (Mexican), among other restaurants.
Susan Kessler is co-editor of the Zagat London Restaurants Survey, as well as a freelance writer. In the past, she covered the London dining scene for the James Beard Foundation Newsletter, and was the former food editor and decorating editor of New Woman Magazine. She is the author of The New Woman Fast and Fabulous Menu Cookbook.