Welcome to The Infatuation’s London Greatest Hits List.
Don’t worry, this isn’t Now! That’s What We Call A Restaurant. It’s more like Madonna’s Immaculate Collection. Or the Best of Bowie, if we’re being modest. We carefully select (and update) a list of places in London that you should definitely be eating at before any others. Whether you’ve been in London for years, months, days or hours, these are the restaurants you want to make bookings for.
Just like you wouldn’t introduce some poor kid to New Order without first playing them Joy Division, explaining the tragedy and revival, and ultimately boring them senseless, we wouldn’t send someone unfamiliar with London to a new place in Shoreditch without telling them to go to these places first. And nor should you.
If you’re looking for what’s hot right now, check out our Hit List a guide to the new, recently-opened restaurants that are worth checking out.
The first thing we can say about Noble Rot is that if you haven’t been and you’re reading this, stop, leave where you are and get in a taxi. Noble Rot is a wine bar, first and foremost, much like David Bowie was a singer, first and foremost. This place is undeniably special. Its bar looks out onto Lambs Conduit Street - probably London’s loveliest pedestrianised street - and it’s a place you can get very comfortable with a glass of Burgundy, be it spring, summer, autumn or winter. Don’t get too comfortable though because you’ll want to have dinner in the restaurant, which feels a bit like the the bistro of your dreams. It’s all dim lighting and the buzz of conversation. If you’re able to take yourself out of the moment you may think you’re in heaven. Then the bread will arrive and you’ll realise you are in heaven. This is the best bread in London, seriously. The menu changes daily and it’s a classic, beautiful, French-British thing. Anyway why are you still reading? We’ll see you there.
There are some restaurants in London that take you out of the city for an hour or two to somewhere a little more serene, where there’s less to worry about. Rochelle Canteen is one of these places. It’s the only old school you’ll actually want to go back to - admittedly it’s in a former bike shed, but that probably holds good memories for some people. Everything here is done simply, and, as a result, it’s all simply very good. Seasonal vegetables are always in and if there’s a pie on you pretty much have to get it. This is a very much meat, fish and, vegetables type of place. Three or four ingredients that taste like a lot more. Rochelle is the ideal place to get breakfast, lunch, or an early dinner when the weather is holding out because you’ll feel like you’re one of the only people in London to know about it. Problem is you’re not, so we very much recommend pre-planning and booking.
There are some places that make you smile as soon as you walk in and leave you grinning on exit - BAM is one of these. It’s a small, smoky and screechy place. Dishes are being cooked and smoked in the same room as you, hard rock is pounding out the speakers, you and your neighbours are knee-to-knee. It’s a great atmosphere, and that’s before we get to the food. The menu at BAM is quite hard to describe. Not least because it changes. Calling it fusion is probably the safest thing to do. At any one time you’ve got a glittery flatbread with cod’s roe, Chinese spiced fried guinea fowl, and miso scrambled eggs. You get the idea. Or do you? Or do we? Whatever, it’s all delicious, interesting and good fun.
Gymkhana is the best Indian restaurant in a city famous for its Indian restaurants. You come here when you want to eat posh Indian food, but also when you want to taste just how good said cuisine can be, in a dining room that feels like an upscale colonial-era club straight out of a Rudyard Kipling novel. Everything we’ve tried here - from a simple lentil dhal to a fancier guinea fowl main - has been nothing short of stunning. Dinner is a power move that’s sure to impress, but we love it at lunch when you can get an incredible meal for a relative bargain. Either way, whether you’re newer to the cuisine or you’ve grown up eating it, you’ve never eaten Indian food like this before.
Contrary to popular belief, we Brits hate queues. We especially don’t like the thought of queuing for food. This is the unfortunate downside of coming to Hoppers in Soho. But the upside for patiently waiting is eating the best Sri Lankan food in London. Even if you’re not an expert in Sri Lankan food, it’s familiar enough to immediately understand, but also different enough from standard Indian or Bangladeshi cuisine to feel adventurous and exciting. The signature hoppers (crispy, bowl-shaped pancakes) and the bone marrow curry make the wait more than worth it.
So often restaurants in London take themselves too seriously as restaurants. Escorting you to your seat. Guiding you through the menu. Would madame like some more water following the sip she has yet to take? Sometime it’s just not very comfortable, is it? P. Franco is the opposite to this. It’s like being at a good friend’s house where you can help yourself to whatever and they’ll bring out a few treats without a word said. This is a wine bar and restaurant that knows how to show people a good time and, importantly, how to let people enjoy themselves. The chefs here change every six months, so the small plates don’t often stay the same for long, but it’s always very good. It’s the sort of place you go for a couple of glasses and a plate of pasta then find yourself in the same seat three bottles, three hours, and three separate menu orders later.
Tapas have been a big hit in London for years. Despite loads of competition, the Barrafina restaurants keep us going back again and again. We love the lively atmosphere, the bright interiors, and the friendly and knowledgeable service. All of the seats are at the bar, and the food is uniformly excellent. Get the classic tortilla, stuffed zucchini flower, and whatever seafood is on the specials board that day. There are now three locations in London, and you’ll be happy at any of them.
Everyone knows there are six categories of Indian food in London: supermarket, takeaway, the ‘one down the road’, Brick Lane, Dishoom, and dead posh. That was, until Gunpowder came along and created a category of its own. The food here is an innovative take on traditional dishes - your spicy rasam soup, for example, comes in a shot glass, and your keema mince is packed into an incredible little crunchy ‘doughnut’. This little no reservations place near Spitalfields Market is one of the newest places on this list, but it’s quickly become one of our absolute favorite restaurants in London.
A classic in the middle of the West End’s theatre district, J Sheekey is an old-fashioned spot for fish and shellfish. It’s a late-night hangout for theatre and movie folks, but for all its elegance, it’s unpretentious and relaxed, especially at the bar or outdoor terrace. Prices for luxuries like lobster are predictably high, but at the same time, the legendary fish pie will set you back less than twenty quid - surprisingly reasonable for a place like this. The combination of elegance, location, and classy cooking makes Sheekey a classic and ideal for impressing out-of-towners or a low-key special meal.
The River Cafe opened in 1987, the same year the very first Zelda game was released on the NES, and when everyone still thought Bono was kind of a cool guy. It was literally one of a handful of good London restaurants back then, and it’s still one of the best places to eat Italian food today. The River Cafe hits the sweet spot between superb food and ambience. It’s good to visit at any time of year, but summer lunches here are legendary and worth saving up for, as the prices are firmly in nosebleed territory. Come here for a special occasion.
If you’re looking for a fun start to any evening out in London, a seat at the bar at The Palomar is the place to begin. Sure, you can book at the tables in the back room, but where you want to be is at the long front bar of this excellent Israeli restaurant. It’s loud and lively, and you’ll have a great time watching the cooks prepare your food while exchanging some banter with the bartenders. The small plates are all delicious, and go down particularly well with a cocktail.
Who would have thought that one of the best Chinese restaurants in London would be sat opposite the Arsenal Stadium up in Highbury? Xi’an Impression is a place that will surprise you - by where it’s located, by how inexpensive it is, and by how bloody good the food is. Come with a few mates and order, at a minimum, the hand-pulled noodles, the cold noodles, the chicken in ginger sauce, and one of the beef buns. At a maximum, go nuts on the other authentic Sichuan staples on the menu. Even it pains you to be this close to the Emirates Stadium, it’s worth the trip.
Koya Bar is one of the best places to eat Japanese food in the city. In particular, their thick udon noodles dunked in hot soup are some of the best you’ll find outside Japan. Make sure a couple of their side dishes are on your table too - get the ‘fish and chips’ and pork belly, which are both brilliant. You’ll want to eat at the bar, where you can watch the chefs prepare your food. Breakfast here is also a nice peaceful antidote for when you can’t stand the idea of sitting in a noisy room with a savage hangover while the table next to you takes pictures of their lattes.
Close your eyes, just for a moment, and picture the platonic ideal of a gastropub. Now that they’re open again, hopefully the image in your mind looked something like this: there’s proper wood trimming and smoky dim lighting, a great beer selection, and maybe even some outdoor seating. And there’s absolutely excellent food. Good work - you’ve just pictured Anchor & Hope in Southwark. They serve Mediterranean-influenced food that changes with the season, and each time you’ll find new things on the menu. Come before a show at the Old Vic, but also come any time.
It’s hard to think of a place suited for a variety of occasions as well as the Wolseley - think of it as the elegant Swiss Army knife of restaurants. The breakfasts here are an essential London experience, and you’ll get brownie points for life if you bring the in-laws for afternoon tea. It’s an impressive space, all high ceilings and pretty columns, and the food delivers all day. Even though it only opened in 2003, it feels like it’s been around forever.
Bocca di Lupo is still one of the best places to eat Italian food in London. A low-key Soho location and a dining room full of people with nicer houses and trendier friends than you doesn’t hurt, but it’s the first-rate regional Italian dishes (specifically from places like Rome, Veneto, and so on) that make a meal here so memorable. The pastas and grilled seafood are excellent, and the kitchen does the nose-to-tail thing well if that’s your jam. You’ll want to sit at the bar, and come for a snack and a glass of Barolo, or for a full-blown get-together with friends if you’re feeling loaded.
St John is famous for popularising the nose-to-tail style of cooking, but there’s plenty even if you don’t like eating things like pig’s trotters or kidneys. Everything they cook here is simple in concept but sensationally good, from their much-imitated roast bone marrow and parsley salad down to baked-to-order madeleines. For the full experience, book in the main dining room, or head to the bar for a more casual experience where you can order small plates and terrific cocktails.
An old school English greasy spoon is a beautiful thing, and it doesn’t get much more old school than East End classic E-Pellicci. You’ll hear plenty of authentic Cockney accents and the vibe is incredibly warm and welcoming – you’ll immediately be made to feel like part of the community. As for the food, the Full English breakfasts are huge and the tea is strong.
This Taiwanese small plates restaurant has become legendary both for its famous pork buns and also for the lines needed to get in. We like the buns (the pork confit bao is the one to get) but some of the other dishes, like the trotter nuggets and beef soup with braised daikon, are actually the true must-orders. It’s an in-and-out kind of place, but it’s perfect for bringing a couple of friends so you can order everything on the menu. And don’t be surprised if you want to order a second round of everything.
Long before dinner in East London meant paying a tenner for some artisanal tacos in Shoreditch, Tayyabs was the go-to place for Londoners to let their hair down and relax with some pretty damn delicious Punjabi food - we even used to travel from Hammersmith to eat here. The crowds to get a table here - to physically get to the table, not to reserve it - are legendary and booking doesn’t seem to help either. Once you’re in though, it’s Perfect For getting lairy and having an unpretentious night over a few platters of sizzling lamb chops. It’s BYOB so grab a few Red Stripes at the off licence around the corner before going in.