10 Adelaide St, Covent Garden, London WC2N 4HZ, UK
Like all of the best Spanish tapas restaurants, Barrafina has no tables. In London’s Covent Garden, all the eating is done at a long marbled bar, lined with red leather stools, and there are no bookings: you get here first, you get served, all the while watching the chefs at work. The idea is that it’s just like being in Spain (the inspiration for Barrafina was Barcelona’s Cal Pep), and it really is: the atmosphere is chaotic and the food comes from all corners. One minute you’re eating a ortiguilla (a type of sea anemone found in the Balearics) in a paper cone, the next a chicken wing served in a Canarian mojo picón sauce.
56 Shoreditch High Street
There’s a feeling of calmness when you walk into the stripped-back dining room at Lyle’s. Located at the industrial Tea Building in Shoreditch (the site of the old Lipton warehouse) the space is furnished almost entirely in white. The effect is a blank canvas for elaborate, beautifully presented food that revolves around seasonal ingredients: asparagus with walnut mayonnaise in summer; chicory, blood orange, and walnuts for winter (and that’s just the vegetables). In the evenings, proceedings revolve around a four-course tasting menu—the only option, which you can argue is part of the charm.
10 Shepherd Market, Mayfair, London W1J 7QF, UK
Kitty Fisher’s is the antithesis to the New York exposed brick brand of cool. Named after a Georgian courtesan, this tiny restaurant in Mayfair is rather a wood-clad room flickering with candles and exuding a intimate, “make yourself at home” vibe. The food is some of the best in London: the original chef, Tomos Parry, won the Young British Foodie award during his tenure, and his successor George Barson, formerly of the River Cottage, continues to surprise with innovative dishes cooked on the wood grill. If you can’t get a booking, fear not: a second restaurant, Cora Pearl, named for a 19th-century courtesan this time, recently opened on Covent Garden’s Henrietta Street.
36 The Cut, South Bank, London SE1 8LP, UK
Widely credited as one of the UK’s first modern gastro pubs, The Anchor & Hope is famed for its Sunday lunch, which include options as varied as wild rabbit and a seven-hour lamb shoulder served on a sharing plate to carve at the table. Despite this, it remains a popular drinking spot with a conventional bar separate from the dining room, serving spirits, wine and beer on tap. Located on the aptly-named The Cut, the road that links Waterloo station with the Young and Old Vic Theatres, mid week it’s filled with theatregoers. But you’ll also find locals, office workers, tourists, commuters, and friends who’ve crossed London to meet here. There are no rules; just a relaxed, lively atmosphere, cosy surroundings, and good food.
41 Beak St, Carnaby, London W1F 9SB, UK
Not many restaurants outside Italy advertise their cuisine as Venetian, but then there aren’t many quite like Polpo. Now a stable of six eateries, the brand began in 2009 as a Soho bacaro serving informal small plates with Prosecco and Aperol spritz. It quickly became something of a trendsetter, drawing queues down the street, thanks in part to it being one of the capital’s first restaurants to operate a no bookings policy. Now the pressure to get a table is off but the emphasis on delicious sharing food remains. The fritto misto and arancini are musts, and when you’re done, there’s a nightcap with your name on it in the basement Campari Bar. The original restaurant is in an 18th-century building that was once the home of the Venetian painter Canaletto, which you can’t argue, is a nice touch.
25 Warren St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 5LZ, UK
Honey & Co. began life as a tiny Middle Eastern restaurant behind Warren Street tube station, and while its size and location hasn’t changed, word has spread. There are only ten tables (and five seats at the bar counter for walk-ins) on offer so booking is essential, but once you’re in, it’s easy to see why critics rave about the aromatic lamb roasts and exquisite salads from husband and wife team Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer. A dish of poached quince with honeyed hazelnuts and fresh curd cheese has long been a staple on the menu, but there are also sumptuous breakfasts of green shakshuka (eggs baked in spinach, served with goat’s yoghurt and sesame bread) and sabich, packed with delicious roasted eggplant, plus an unavoidable deli of desserts. It’s criminal to walk past in the morning without picking up a sticky cherry and pistachio Fitzrovia bun, or to leave at night without the sweet and salty taste of kanafe, a Palestinian cheese pastry drenched in orange blossom syrup, lingering on the taste buds.
35 Saint James's Place
You can only drink two martinis at the hotel bar at Dukes Hotel in Mayfair. The bartenders won’t serve you any more—that’s how potent they are. This is the place to come in London if you secretly wish you were a member of a gentlemen’s club, and if you want a martini made with all the fanfare—the drinks trolley brought to your table, the bottle, straight from the freezer, shaken as you sit and watch. There are cheaper places to drink, that’s for sure, but do they have green leather armchairs and white-jacketed bartenders and portraits of distinguished 19th-century gentlemen looking at you approvingly from the walls? There’s also a cognac and cigar garden.
22 Great Chapel Street
Julia Forte turned the Star At Night pub, an old fashioned boozer in the heart of Soho, in the London Gin Club in 2012, when she decided to start specialising in her favourite tipple: gin. Now, her bijou bar is home to 350 premium gins, including those from small-batch producers and microdistilleries, one of the largest selections in the city—and she knows just the right way to serve them all. If you want to drink the best gin and tonic of your life, while chatting to someone who cares about that spirit passionately (and eating some rather good antipasti), seek Julia’s place out. Just make sure you book first—it’s table seating only, and it’s a rather popular spot.
In the shadow of Buckingham Palace lies Fortnum & Mason, the department store with a royal warrant famed for its loose-leaf tea, luxury picnic hampers and sweet treats, including an excellent selection of macarons. You can buy all of these inside the store, as well as browse the gentlemen’s department, and cast your eyes up to the spectacular atrium, but the real highlight of a trip here is the afternoon tea, served in a gilded Diamond Jubileee Tea Salon, opened in 2012 for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. An accompanying piano player sets the tone: at high tea, you can expect a charming display of finger sandwiches, individual pastries and cakes from the cake carriage, and scones served with Somerset clotted cream and Fortnum’s lemon curd. The extensive champagne list is also not to be ignored.
26 St John St, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 4AY, UK
It’s apt that St. JOHN’s flagship restaurant is located in a former bacon smokehouse on the fringes of Smithfield meat market; chef Fergus Henderson’s menu explores every cut of meat imaginable. The restaurant itself is brilliantly unfussy, retaining lots of the smokehouse’s original features, and the food very British, making St. JOHN something of a London institution. Dishes to try include crispy pig’s skin with watercress, or if you’re feeling a little more adventurous, try the grilled ox heart or kid liver. The restaurant’s own winery and bakery brilliantly fill in the gaps—you can even order a dozen airy Madeleines off menu.
69 Colebrooke Row, Islington, London N1 8AA, UK
Small to the point of accidental intimacy—just getting yourself seated could spark your next relationship—this is the kind of noirish bar that wants to fly under the radar. Which is, presumably, why they’ve never named it. To those in the know, however, it’s a place of pilgrimage. Its founding mixologist, Tony Conigliaro, is a legend in cocktail circles, combining an expert hand with an experimental mind. He serves the classics with a modern, scientific twist, like his Prairie Oyster, which uses molecular science techniques to create an “egg yolk” of tomato juice, or his Oriental, cognac infused with frankincense. There’s really little else to it: $15 house cocktails, and a small selection of snacks. But that’s what you came for.
12 Upper St Martin's Ln, London WC2H 9FB, UK
For those who love a chicken tikka or a lamb rogan josh, Britain is a famously fulfilling destination, with some of the best Indian food you’ll find outside, well, India. The curryhouses on Brick Lane will ladle out masalas and rice until your belly’s ready to burst, but for a different take, try Dishoom, which operates in five different London locations (and Edinburgh) and specialises in the finger food of Mumbai’s Irani cafés: a fabulous array of grills and snacks, from the delicious lamb kebab to the moreish keema pav (minced lamb or chicken), served on a bun in an environment that recreates the décor of the colonial railways. If you can make it here for breakfast, the bacon naan roll or the spicy scrambled eggs are the perfect way to set up your day.
8 Southwark St, London SE1 1TL, UK
Over the past two centuries, the covered market at Borough, not far from London Bridge, has become one of the country’s most famous foodie spots. From Wednesday to Saturday each week hundreds of traders gather to sell homemade breads, hand-reared pork, artisan chocolate and all manner of ingredients—plus excellent coffee, fresh juices and organic wine. Plentiful samples add to the convivial vibe, and restaurants around the market’s edge provide additional sustenance for longer stops.
Cromwell Rd, Knightsbridge, London SW7 2RL, UK
Museum cafes are often depressing affairs, white formica boxes where you grab a curling sandwich on your way to the next piece of tourism. But the main cafe’s trio of rooms are nothing like that. Designed, respectively, by William Morris, Henry Cole, and Edward Poynter in glorious Victorian excess, were the first museum cafe in the world, and they are today a rare example of a museum restaurant where you would be happy to spend time, revelling in the gorgeous details and stained glass windows. And the food’s pretty good too; you can get all sorts of hot and cold meals, and it’s a great stop for lunch or cakes, if you’re doing the museum trail at South Kensington.
41-43 Wardour St, London W1D 6PY, UK
Wong Kei is a place all Londoners know. It’s the go-to restaurant in Chinatown when you want a big plate of noodles or sweet-and-sour pork, and you don’t want to pay a lot for it. The service was legendarily rude. In the old days you would arrive at the door and be barked at: “Upstairs!” The multi-level restaurant is always busy, so you’re sent to whichever level currently has space. Then you sit at a table with others, and you order your food, which will be brought to you when the waiters can be bothered. Disappointingly, the service is now thoroughly civil; I can only hope it’s a temporary blip. Either way, this is a must-have London experience, and you’ll easily come away with leftovers.
160 Piccadilly, St. James's, London W1J 9EB, UK
It’s pronounced “Wool-zee,” and it’s a former showroom for the smart old cars that bear its name. Now a restaurant, it’s been restored to its original 1930s glamour with a gorgeous art deco slant. If you want a true taste of old Mayfair and St James—from the days when the streets were full of men in top hats carrying canes, and everyone had a gentleman’s gentleman—then a smart breakfast or lunch at the Wolseley can take you back in time. The food is classic British—and yes, that means there’s grilled kippers and kedgeree on the menu, as well as other retro dishes such as chicken Kiev—and the service is fabulous. Anything with eggs is a must—the souffle is particularly brilliant—and they also do a marvelous afternoon tea.
9 Conduit St, Mayfair, London W1S 2XG, UK
A gloriously eccentric venue, Sketch isn’t a restaurant so much as a collision of ideas, design, food, and frivolity in a large Mayfair townhouse. Its Parlour serves all day breakfast and then evening cocktails in an ambience that’s less Alice in Wonderland and more seriously deranged Hatter. The Gallery is designed by artist and comic genius David Shrigley, meaning that your afternoon tea with one-of-a-kind pastries and cakes come with a side order of wit and a pinch of bitter satire. Upstairs, the Lecture Room and Library delivers a Michelin-starred tasting menu, while there’s breakfast, brunch, and cocktails in the Glade. A trip to the bathroom involves sitting in your own individual egg; try not to be put off by the carpet of red wax oozing down the stairs on your way in.
44-46 Cranbourn St, London WC2H 7AN, UK
Drinks in London’s West End rarely come cheap. Even less so in the crowded environs of Leicester Square, but if you find yourself in the area, there’s a quiet, reasonably priced refuge known as the Cork and Bottle. It’s a basement level wine bar, and most people walk straight past its frontage (between a ticket agency and a pizza stall) without even noticing it. Down its metal spiral staircase, the cosy bar serves a great list of wines from around $5.50 a glass (as well as by the carafe and the bottle), and alongside an interesting menu it does a fabulous cheese platter (your choice from an extensive selection).
63 Worship St, Shoreditch, London EC2A 2DU, UK
This dark, downstairs bar, formerly called Whistling Shop, intimately recreates the gin palaces of the early Victorian era. And while the decor is faithful to the era, the cocktails offer a modern twist on the old classics: there’s even an in-house steampunkish laboratory where the mixologists create their intriguing concoctions. “Drunk For a Penny, Dead Drunk for Two Pence, Straw for Free,” offers the menu, with a wry wink to the promises made to customers at the height of the gin craze and memoralized in William Hogarth’s illustration Gin Lane.
14–16 Leather Ln, London EC1N 7SU, UK
The people behind the Department of Coffee and Social Affairs don’t just love their coffee, they love people too. They’ve got locations throughout London, as well as Bristol, Manchester, and now Chiacgo—including Carnaby Street and Tonic near Regent Street—but the one near Leather Lane Market is the mothership, and it’s a low-fi yet thoroughly pleasant place to hang out. It’s a great place to know, halfway between Farringdon and Holborn, and worth visiting early afternoon when the market’s still on. Oh, and the custard tarts are great.