The Best Restaurants For British Food In LondonBone marrow, baked beans, and bowls of sponge pudding—this is where to eat the finest British food in London.
Mrs Ramsay, the matriarch of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, lays claim to what is maybe the most famous and everlasting quote about English food. In her eyes: “What passes for cookery in England is an abomination... It is putting cabbages in water. It is roasting meat till it is like leather. It is cutting off delicious skins of vegetables... A whole French family could live on what an English cook throws away.”
Anybody who’s been subjected to a relative’s blast-furnaced Christmas dinner can reliably say she has a point. But these days, the hot take that English, and indeed all British food, is terrible reads archaic. Yes, we’ve got pies and mash, fish and chips, and other classic (and not to mention brilliant) combinations. More often than not British cookery reads simple, but done well. And at these restaurants, it’s also superb.
St. John is the full English of British restaurants. It’s the dog’s bollocks, the bee knees, and without it and co-founder Fergus Henderson, London wouldn’t just be worse off, but it would be without the numerous chefs who have used St. John as their place of education. The Clerkenwell restaurant is a haven and home to the most traditional and understated of British cooking. From their famous bone marrow on toast, to a simple deep-fried mullet with ketchup, to one of their garangutan pies. The white walls of the restaurant are your figurative canvas to a meal of browns and reds, butter stains and before-bed madeleines.
One can only imagine the amount of wink-wink, nudge-nudge conversations that have gone on in the Regency Cafe over the years. And if you’re lacking in the requisite imagination, then just stick on Layer Cake. The quiet corner in Victoria is likely London’s most photographed old-school caff, but its breakfasts are a pretty picture too. Hunks of crispy fried bubble and squeak, bursting bangers, and rosy pink back bacon. It’s the etiquette as much as anything here though. There’s no space for shrinking violets when your order is bellowed from the front to collect.
When we first reviewed Sweetings we said that it was a restaurant “full of walking, talking, sentient signet rings, and the sound of the same anecdote, from different generations, about that moustached dinner lady in the school canteen.” That still stands today, as it always has done over this legendary seafood restaurant’s 130 year plus tenure in the City. Pewter tankards of black velvet (champagne and Guinness) are still served and the oyster bar is still there to be propped up every lunchtime. Don’t expect the menu to amaze, but for things like fish pie and sticky toffee pudding and the like to comfort.
Maggie Jones’s is as quintessentially British as Colin Firth, Jane Austen novels, or having an impassioned argument over whether you should put the cream or the jam on a scone first. This old-school Kensington spot is full of quaint home county nick-nacks, wooden church pews, and enough taper candles to make you feel like you’re in a period drama. Open for over 40 years, this place is alleged to have been a popular spot for members of the royal family (namely Princess Margaret). Their signature fish pie is one of London’s most iconic dishes but be sure to allow room for Maggie’s apple crumble—it’s fantastic.
The Quality Chop House follows the lead of traditional British cooking with subtle refinements. British classics aren’t reinvented in QCH’s Grade II-listed, low-lit, wood-panelled room in Clerkenwell, but rather perfected. Their confit potatoes have a BTS-style following of their own but it’s other things, like their mangalitsa black pudding with apple pureé, or their spongy slab of ginger parkin with butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream.
If you’re interested in cosplaying being a member of the House of Tudor, then Rules is your restaurant. The historic spot has no need for rose-tinted glasses as this place leans maroon, velvet, and murals of Maggie Thatcher. It claims to be London’s oldest restaurant, taking its place in Covent Garden a couple of centuries ago or so, and who’s to argue with that. You might find yourself arguing with some of the quality of food—think 1980s private school dinners—and the finances required, but come in game season and it’s worth playing monarchy make-believe.
At its best, Café Cecilia’s cooking feels inspired by the easy-to-fall-in-love-with elegance and simplicity of St. John, one of the restaurants where head chef Max Rocha first worked. Sage and anchovy fritti? Sensational. Chocolate and Guinness cake? Please. Beige and brown are always in vogue at this canal-side spot in Hackney. Especially when it comes to the deep-fried bread and butter pudding with cold custard. It’s one of the best desserts in London.
Few restaurants remain with the gold-stamped guarantee of a good time like Quo Vadis. This is in no little part thanks to Jeremy Lee, the head chef who has made this Soho institution a home and a home to so many others. Of course there’s the smoked eel sandwich, which is as good as everyone says, but there’s also the bar to prop up with a martini, the superlative chips (that wordlessly come with ketchup and mayonnaise), pâté, pies, and a tower of profiteroles au chocolat.
The inclusion of a chippy on a guide to British restaurants is essential, but the question of what chippy isn’t easy. London’s chippies tend to traverse the line between family favourite and just fine, but what Fish Central offers is a bit of everything. It’s an old-school fish restaurant in Clerkenwell—the kind where you bring nan and granddad because, after all, this was a hot spot when it first opened in the late ‘60s. Prawn cocktail features just the right amount of marie rose sauce, there are paddle-sized pieces of fried cod or haddock with chips, and desserts smothered with custard.
The definition of a gastropub has broadened in the last couple of decades. What was initially defined by lamb shank and creamy mash has grown into something else where you’ve got more chance of getting a celeriac crisp than a salt and vinegar one. It’s hard to say whether these are really pubs. Is the Marksman a pub? Whatever it is, this spot on Hackney Road makes some seriously delicious food. This is classic British grub done good. Enormous pies to share, crispy skin duck breast, brown butter tarts. This is a restaurant that looks like a pub and we are very into it.
On the other side of the metaphorical throne of British food sits Margot Henderson, head chef and one part of Rochelle Canteen. When it comes to havens there is perhaps none more serene, comforting, and beige-filled than the canteen. The Shoreditch restaurant still has a hush-hush feel despite its location behind a locked door in a former schoolyard being nothing close to a secret. The changing menu never disappoints. Ever. Be it pig’s head croquettes, guineafowl and bacon pie, or a huge ice cream sundae.
The Harwood Arms in Fulham is about as close as you can get to being an upmarket restaurant while still being a pub. It’s on a little street that feels more country than town and once inside, you’ll find neutral walls, deer antlers, sophisticated furniture, and a posh 1920s bar that we absolutely cannot picture Peggy Mitchell standing behind. You can expect dishes like whole baked lemon sole, strawberry and lavender trifle, and plenty of things involving fresh game.