Table or counter? Most people will, more often than not, choose the former. Especially if there’s more than two of you. But if you are eating in a pair, then there are plenty of restaurants where the counter is the better option. Especially if you’re uncomfortable with looking the person next to you in the eye. The best counters are lively, entertaining, and occasionally give you edible treats because you laugh at anything and everything the chef says. Here are 14 restaurants where you should always choose the counter.
Oysters at the bar is what several members of our team would describe as ‘a mood’ and if that’s the mood you’re after, then the counter at J. Sheekey is where you should be heading. As far as old school seafood restaurants go, this Covent Garden classic is our favourite. It’s got the plush leather bar seats, backs and all. It’s got gold detailing. And, most importantly, it’s got four different types of oyster (as well as everything else).
P. Franco is home to east London’s busiest and best restaurant counter. Although we’ve managed to get our hands on Glastonbury tickets with less effort than it takes to get a couple of seats at this walk-in only wine bar, when you are able to pitch up here it becomes one of London’s most unique and enjoyable restaurant experiences. The set-up - essentially a kitchen island with a couple of induction hobs manned by whichever guest chef is on - is like being at the best wine-stocked dinner party in the world, and the small plates, although always changing, are always to a high standard.
If you’re looking for a restaurant counter that’s pretty much got it all, stools with backs withstanding, then Kiln is your answer. Sharing a claypot of crab glass noodles alongside a Burmese-style beef curry as flames crack off the pans opposite and beads of sweat roll down chefs and diners alike is, pretty much, how we picture heaven. Thankfully, this counter isn’t just a figment of our imagination. It’s right there, on Brewer Street in Soho, and you should be too.
You approach the counter at Scully in the same way you would an Attenborough documentary. With confusion, with fascination, and ultimately, with delight. Nothing served in this St. James’s restaurant is what we’d classify as run of the mill. One chef will be scooping a pile of soft aubergine onto yoghurt, as another wields tweezers big and small for various exotic-looking herbs and leaves. All of it could be pretentious, but it isn’t. Instead it makes for a unique dinner: flavour and experience-wise. And, their stools have backs.
Barrafina are probably the most famous counter restaurants in London and though there are more exciting options around central, their Coal Drops Yard location is a no brainer if you’re around Kings Cross in need of some tortilla and a glass of wine. It’s an excellent option for lunch or dinner. Particularly if, like us, there’s never a time you aren’t in the mood for some pan con tomate.
Pasta is not the sort of food that should be left waiting. It shouldn’t be left waiting to get to your table. Nor should it be left waiting to get in your mouth. Especially when it’s as good as the pasta at Padella is. That’s why the counter at this always rammo Borough Market restaurant is the best option. It means that unbeatable pici cacio e pepe is just a couple of wrist flicks away from your plate, and, if you’re moving solo, then it’s far easier to get a seat as well.
At Berenjak there is only one place in which you can sit opposite a slowly revolving, glistening, hunk of meat on a stick, and that’s the counter. This corridor-shaped Persian spot on Romilly Street is an excellent place to know about in Soho. Not least because sitting up at the counter means that you get their freshly made taftoon bread hot from the oven, as well as their kababs and dips as well. Plus, there’s always that hypnotic shawarma to gaze at.
On the right day, with the right lighting, Levan’s street-facing counter might just be the best place to eat in London. This casual all-day Peckham wine bar changes their menu all the time, but you can expect sharing plates like buckwheat gnocchi, sprouting broccoli tempura, pear tarte tatin, and generally things that will make you smile like you just saw a daschund in a hotdog costume. Come night time though, you’ll want to sit at their kitchen counter, partially because it makes for good entertainment, but mostly because watching someone carefully slice up your jambon de bayonne is a very special kind of sexy.
Here’s a fun fact: Bancone means ‘counter’ or ‘bar’, so it would be a pretty sad state of affairs if it didn’t make it into this guide. An intimate little Covent Garden spot, this Italian restaurant serves a short, changing menu of affordable handmade pasta with things like confit egg yolk, saffron butter, and beef shin ragu. Although there are a few tables here, most of the restaurant is counter seating around their big, open kitchen where you’ll see the chefs constructing chocolate brulées or pan-frying lobster and garlic. Just be sure to not get so distracted by the kitchen theatrics that you forget to order their signature silk handkerchief pasta - it’s excellent.
To us, any mention of the counter at The Palomar is pretty much code for a great evening. In fact, in the future when someone says they’re ‘feeling a bit palomar’ just go ahead and presume they’re having a really, really good time. Thanks to its excellent kubaneh bread, intimate feel, and constant buzz, you usually have to put your name down for the bar and come back later. But any waiting will feel entirely worth it once you’re a couple of ‘It Won’t Kill-Ya’ cocktails in, and the servers are coaching you through the best of the menu. Trust us, you’ll feel peak party no matter which night of the week it is.
Evelyn’s Table feels like The Palomar graduated, invested in a designer bookshelf, and now enjoys a little white wine on a Saturday night if the babysitter is free. Although this intimate 11-seater is only two doors down from The Palomar and is owned by the same people, the kitchen table experience at this place feels more serious, but in a fun way. Be prepared for hearty pastas, British seafood, and a lot of ooh-ing and ah-ing over the chefs cooking dicing skills.
Okay, it’s confession time. There’s actually only one counter at La Mia Mamma that we’re really interested in and it’s the one directly behind the front window. This two-person counter is undeniably home to the best seats in this whole restaurant because of your proximity to the people that make this place so special: the mammas. Basically, the closer you are to this Chelsea spot’s troupe of Italian female chefs, the more pasta you’re going to eat, the closer you’ll be to any ‘happy birthday’ singalongs, and generally the better your life is going to be. The menu here changes regularly depending on which region of Italy they’re focusing on, but be sure to order their cacio e pepe - it’s our favourite in London.
The nemesis of counter dining is the common stool. Nobody wants to spend half their meal Googling whether it’s normal to get pins and needles in their left ass cheek, which is exactly why we’re such big fans of the counter dining at Kama By Vineet. This upmarket 26-seater Indian restaurant inside the Harrods Dining Hall, not only has some seriously excellent butter chicken but the counter seats are more tall, beautiful, sophisticated armchairs than wooden butt numb-ers. Basically, the seats here are pretty much the Victoria’s Secret Angels of counter seating and it’s a top place to eat their pistachio lamb chops and chocomosas.
Honestly if anyone ever asked us what our favourite hobby is we’d smile and say “eating affordable handmade pasta, obviously”. Is that a hobby? Well, that’s irrelevant. The point is that Lina Stores serves some decent fresh pasta and looks like a Wes Anderson daydream. The counter here is not only very cute, but there’s more pastel mint green going on than in a toothpaste advert. This little Soho spot can be cramped, so we’d recommend sticking to a strict two-person rule here. More importantly, get two portions of the truffle and ricotta agnolotti.
You know what? Sometimes using a shampoo with argan oil or wearing a nice watch isn’t enough to make you feel sophisticated. And when that’s the case, there’s the marble counter at modern brasserie Frenchie in Covent Garden. The bar here is not only very good looking, but the high-backed chairs are comfy, the bartenders are fun, and the cocktails come much quicker than if you were sat on the banquette seating with the other fools. Don’t miss the bacon and maple syrup scone. Or the manicotti. Or the banoffee and caramelised pecan dessert.