London's Classic Restaurants
From harrumphing British establishments, to Cantonese canteens, to a trailblazing ocakbaşı, and lots more. These are London's classic restaurants.
A classic restaurant is like a classic car. They’re familiar to lots of people, often endearingly imperfect, and you’ll more than likely see Jerry Seinfeld sitting in one of them. We don’t think of a classic as something that solely equates to age though. Like, that stain on your kitchen wall isn’t ‘a classic stain’. It’s the scene of a so-so ragu you drunkenly cooked 10 years ago. Something as special as a classic restaurant needs more than longevity and more than perfect food. It needs to make you feel something.
You see, a classic restaurant doesn’t have to be faultless. It can have great noodles but bad lighting, average lasagne and an amazing atmosphere. But as long as it gives everyone that feeling—that indefinable rightness—well, then that’s what makes it a stone-cold classic.
photo credit: Aleksandra Boruch
Look up, high above Wong Kei’s sign, and you’ll learn that before it was the Cantonese canteen and Chinatown institution it is today, it was home to a renowned Victorian wigmaker. The excellent Instagram account caffs_not_cafes has a detailed post about this that’s very much worth reading. What’s clear is that this was a noteworthy building then, and it continues to be a noteworthy building now. Without Wong Kei and its slapped-on-your-table wonton noodle soups and roasted meats bathing in sweet, shining umami gravy, London would be a much poorer place. Not least for those who know the value of a steaming hot meal for under £10.
If someone were to invite you to lunch at Andrew Edmunds and tell you that it’s in an 18th-century townhouse and that the menu is scrawled on a blackboard, you might imagine a snoozefest. But a meal here is anything but. This restaurant is the epitome of an old-school British establishment. It’s a compact space that’s romantic and relaxed, and did we mention romantic? We don’t care, we’ll say it again. A meal at this candlelit spot will make you notice the green flecks in your childhood arch nemesis’ eyes. Bring a date, bring a friend, or just bring yourself. Andrew Edmunds is charming enough that, even though the food is excellent, you could come here for the hazy atmosphere alone and leave completely content.
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photo credit: Karolina Wiercigroch
There are few combinations better than nostalgia and a prawn cocktail. This is a fact of life that is never more apparent than at Sweetings, a classic City seafood spot that’s been serving oysters and sticky toffee puddings for over 130 years. We’re going to go out on a limb and say that its continued success comes down to the heady mixture of tankards of black velvets, white tablecloths, and waistcoat-clad waiters that still operate under the John Cleese school of hospitality. You definitely want the mighty fine fish pie on your table, but just be warned that Sweetings is only open Monday to Friday and exclusively for lunch service.
Bob Bob Ricard
Taylor Swift chose Bob Bob Ricard for her boyfriend’s birthday party. Whether that makes you want to instantly make a booking or scroll swiftly on, will depend on your feelings towards seminal hits such as Love Story. But our opinion is that if a restaurant is good enough for a multi-millionaire songwriter who makes being 22 sound even remotely fun, then it’s good enough for us. Despite only opening in 2008, Bob Bob Ricard quickly became known as ‘that fabulous place in Soho with the press for champagne buttons at every table’, and became an instant classic. Designed exclusively for people who believe they are destined to own a G6, it’s one of the most decadent, OTT restaurants in London, and importantly, the French-by-way-of-Russia food is just as rich and special.
There are no better words for Ciao Bella than the ones we’ve already written about it. They go like this: “To be honest, if you leave Ciao Bella analysing your spaghetti con polpette, then something has gone very wrong. There’s no doubt that this old-school Italian restaurant in Bloomsbury is so much more valuable than a bowl of perfect handmade pasta. It will feed you well and make you happy. So much so that when we eventually keel over, this is where we want our wake. Not because Ciao Bella will stuff everyone into a stupor, but because it’s one of the most perfect celebrations of eating out in London.”
We love a specialty. And the specialty at Roti King in Euston is soft, flaky roti canai. The Malaysian spot’s menu has grown over the years, as have their locations, but you’ll still find their signature roti served with a bowl of excellent curry, with your choice of dhal, chicken, mutton, or fish. While the rest of their menu, which includes things like nasi lemak and beef rendang, is all pretty great, if you only get one thing here, make it the roti canai.
How does one decide whether a restaurant is classic? Is it about the age? Or how often pheasant appears on the menu? To some people, it might be related to the amount of maroon velvet and gold detailing there is. Others may say a restaurant is classic by virtue of the amount of Prime Ministers that have dined there. Thankfully, for those partial to that bit of The Proms when the national anthem plays and everyone waves mini Union Jack flags looking like an army of nationalist oompa loompas, Rules has all these classic characteristics covered. The Covent Garden restaurant is London’s oldest, open since 1798. It’s also London’s most questionable, thanks to a mural of Margaret Thatcher. On top of that it’s also quite good, if you order correctly. Stick to beef and game, and all the things that will give you gout.
photo credit: Karolina Wiercigroch
Royal China Club
No one does dim sum quite like Royal China Club. The roasted pork buns have endless comfort factor, the pork and shrimp dumplings will make you a certified har kau addict, and the prawn cheung fun is an edible revelation that will have you booking this huge Baker Street restaurant at every opportunity for a big group meal. The flagship restaurant of the Royal China group, this sprawling sophisticated spot has been known as the place for excellent Cantonese cuisine since 2005. Although the whole peking duck is one of London’s best dinnertime sharing dishes, we recommend you come during the day so that you can get involved in that winning dim sum.
Oslo Court has been open since 1982 and honestly, apart from the appearance of a card machine, this place hasn’t changed one bit. It’s at the bottom of a big block of flats in St John’s Wood, so as soon as you realise you are in the right place, you can start the task of picking from their long menu of British classics. The food can be…eccentric, let’s say, and if you’re offended by steamed vegetables or waiters who describe every dessert as if it’s the Da Vinci code, then this might not be the place for you. But it’s a one of a kind, dessert trolley, time machine type of restaurant.
The French House
Of London’s many classic eating and drinking institutions, The French House is perhaps the most famous. Fondly referred to as ‘The French’ by its regular patrons and those who’ve watched one too many Guy Ritchie films, the Soho boozer-cum-devious upstairs dining room isn’t just a historical inclusion. Of course, the no mobile phones rules and famous patrons, both literary and the literally wankered, add a little glitz, but it’s everything about The French that’s fantastic. Whether you’re sinking cidres downstairs or settling in upstairs on a Thursday—their imperious steak et frites day—you always feel a part of something a little secret and potentially sordid.
photo credit: Karolina Wiercigroch
J Sheekey is the place to go when you want to show someone that you know a thing or two about the finer things in life. The finer things being grilled lobster, seared scallops, and you attempting to throw back a Jersey oyster in a sexy manner. The point is, this is an old-school restaurant that you can somehow still bring anyone to, and eat some really good seafood. There’s an oyster bar, dark green leather booths, and black and white photos hung up everywhere. The menu has a bunch of things mostly revolving around seafood—although there is a vegetarian and vegan menu you can request—and there’s something for everyone. Whether that’s the monkfish and tiger prawn tikka masala you hear the table next to you order without hesitation, or the fish pie that’s equal parts creamy and worth burning your tongue for.
The stairs of the India Club have seen a lot. Shoes have hurriedly walked up them and slowly descended from them for over 50 years. You may well get a little tingly feeling going up them before you enter the bustling dining room, and you’ll definitely get a little tingly feeling if you go via the carpeted bar. The legendary BYOB institution at 143 Strand was originally set up by the India League, post-independence, and has long been a base for the Asian community in London for work and play. With an always-satisfying £22 set menu involving bhajis, bhuna, butter chicken, and more, plus a £7.50 lunch deal, the remit of the India Club is and always will be for everyone.
Nine years before Gökyüzü opened on Green Lanes, Mangal 1 became the first Turkish ocakbasi restaurant in Dalston. Known for its legendary grilled meats, and in particular its tender sweetbreads, the BYOB spot has reigned supreme in a city that has numerous classic Turkish restaurants. It’s a classic for its cooking, its longevity, and also its story: one of the co-owners expanded down the road and opened a place, now run by his sons. It’s called Mangal II.
Padella is one of those restaurants that everyone and their extended family hypes up. Except with Padella, it actually lives up to the hype. The London Bridge spot has been serving handmade pasta since it opened in 2016, and it's still a no-reservations, industrial-looking place, with an A5-sheet-of-paper menu. And on that concise menu, there’s a handful of antipasti and a list of changing pastas, all for under £15, with a mix of seasonal numbers that you’ll wish are a year-round thing. Thankfully, their creamy pici cacio e pepe is a stalwart. Yes, it can be a long wait to get a table here, but it’s absolutely worth it. If you play it right and arrive just as they open for lunch at 12pm, or use the Dojo app if you’re nearby, then you can get excellent fresh pasta with minimal wait time.
photo credit: Karolina Wiercigroch
There are family-fun restaurants and then there’s witnessing E. Pellici’s manager Nevio Jnr. hollering to his mum Maria in the kitchen that the man at table six is from Scotland and also, they’d like the full English with extra black pudding. A daytime Italian cafe in Bethnal Green that’s been open since 1900, this place runs on strong cuppas, various formats of fried bread, and importantly, banter. It’s high-energy hilarity where you can indulge in The Best Fry Up Of Your Life circa 8am, or a truly epic portion of lasagne come afternoon. Be sure to inspect the pictures of celebrity patrons that line the ‘40s panelled wooden walls, and for the love of god, never leave the bread pudding unfinished or risk the wrath of our favourite adoptive restaurant family, the Pelliccis.
photo credit: Rob Greig
Walk into St. John’s white-walled bar area, eyes closed and, when you open them, you’d be easily forgiven for thinking you’d walked into some kind of restaurant heaven. The Clerkenwell institution is London’s most famous British restaurant. Its ‘nose-to-tail’ cooking approach, first defined by head chef and workwear icon Fergus Henderson, is known the world over. Its pies are, quite simply, an experience that every person should have at least once in their life. In fact, the whole restaurant is. From the signal-less bar and bakery area, filled with the noise of glasses clinking and madeleines baking, to the all-white dining room where a lunch will turn into a dinner, and dinner into the next day. Everything about St. John is simply and straightforwardly iconic.
photo credit: Karolina Wiercigroch
The first rule of dining at Hunan is not to tell everyone about it, except if you’re us, in which case that would be terrible for business. It’s one of the ultimate IYKYK restaurants in London, a Chinese fine dining spot located on a pretty street in Pimlico. There’s a ‘trust me’ tasting menu that changes every day, and though you don’t have a choice in what you eat, you should definitely trust the chefs. The food comes out in small, immaculate courses, and the prawn toast and crispy duck are both excellent, as is the seafood. It’s a lovely spot for a serene white tablecloth-type lunch or dinner that saves all the surprises for its food.
One of the great problems with chippies, or certainly one of the great problems in attempting to be a useful restaurant recommendation source that knows its way around a fat fryer, is that every person’s favourite chippy is the good one closest to them. Outside of a trip to the coast and that irreplaceable sea air seasoning, you’ll be hard pushed to find a chippy actually worth travelling for in London. Well, we think Fish Central is one of them. The Clerkenwell classic is a blast from the past in all the best ways. White tablecloths are paired with silver trays of tartare sauce and a meal involves prawn cocktail, cod and chips, and sticky toffee pudding.
Maggie Jones’s is named after a code name used by a royal whose real name happened to be Princess Margaret and the restaurant thought, huh, that’s a good name. We’re going to stop saying ‘name’ now and instead tell you that this is quite possibly the most charming restaurant in London. Set over two floors and packed out with rustic tables and wooden church booths, everything from the assortment of countryside paraphernalia hanging from the ceiling to their menu of British classics never fails to provide ultimate comfort. Their signature fish pie is one of London’s most iconic dishes, and allow room for Maggie’s apple crumble—it’s fantastic.
Not only is this Brick Lane bakery a classic Shoreditch hot spot for anyone looking for a late-night bagel (it’s open 24 hours), Beigel Bake is a place that’s been around since the ‘70s and likely isn’t budging anytime soon. It’s become an east London landmark, and you’ll almost always find a queue for their smoked salmon bagel and legendary salt beef sandwich. While they’re not necessarily the best bagels you’ll ever eat, we think this should be on your London bucket list. Because if you haven’t found yourself eyeing up the freshly baked bagels at an ungodly hour, you, my friend, have not had a full London experience.
Few restaurants maintain the gold stamped guarantee of a good time quite like Quo Vadis. The Soho restaurant and members club is a homely institution that’s also home to two classics. One comes in the shape of Jeremy Lee, QV’s amiable head chef who has made Dean Street not just his home, but a home to many others. The second is in the delicately poised shape of his famous smoked eel sandwich. Of course, it’s as good as everyone says, as is their bar. Perfect for propping up with a martini, alongside the superlative chips (that wordlessly come with ketchup and mayonnaise), pâté, pies, and a tower of ‘Quo Vadis profiteroles au chocolat’. Some classics flatter to deceive, but Quo Vadis is a restaurant that’s all about your comfort zone.
When you’re at this spot in Whitechapel, whether seated at one of the big family tables or stood outside, you’ll feel like you’re here. Like you’re actually in London. It’s loud, it’s full of families, couples, friends who are making the most of the no corkage fee, and it’s been serving excellent Punjabi food since 1972. There’s a lot to appreciate at this East End institution, not least the decently priced curries, grilled lamb chops, and sensational keema naan. Most of all, what makes this place a classic is the fact that despite the many top-tier Punjabi restaurants in the city, this will still be the one that springs to mind when someone asks where to find a really great curry.
The River Cafe is a restaurant that is so beloved and famous that it even has its own designer merch. This is an Italian institution that has been serving everything from rosemary pizzettas to whole pancetta-covered pigeons since a time when London thought antipasti was a movement against pastries. Yes, you should be impressed. It has earned its reputation through the glorious medium of exquisite food that goes far beyond spaghetti, and their signature Chocolate Nemesis tart that is oh-so rich. On that note, it’s worth knowing that a meal here will undoubtedly cost you a small fortune, but on the right summer’s day, sitting beside the Thames with a seafood risotto is one of the most life-affirming special occasion meals you can ever experience.
A great caff does not come without great characters. That is simply how they’re made. These days, the Regency has a mixed bunch. Thanks to its long established fame in both its home city and through Hollywood features (hello Daniel Craig in Layer Cake), the legendary Westminster cafe is just as popular with tourists as it is with blokes named Terry. One thing that never changes inside its beautiful black tiled building are the bloodcurdling cries that match the colour of the floor. ‘FULL ENGLISH! Double eggs! Extra black pudding!’. A fried breakfast here is never not an event.
There are many ways to start your day in London. Some of our personal favourites include telling our alarm to shut up, and having an impromptu passive-aggressive staring competition with the person who deigns to take your go-to seat on the Victoria line. But the ultimate way to start your day in London is with eggs benedict and a stack of berry pancakes inside The Wolseley. A huge, glossy, converted 1920s car showroom in Mayfair, this place serves European brasserie dshes alongside huge wrought iron chandeliers and an air of true sophistication. They’re open throughout the day, but from our experience, things tend to get a little lacklustre come evening. So to really make the most of this place, get involved in a glorious breakfast experience, bellinis encouraged.
This two-floor Italian spot, with its huge light-up sign on the corner of Gloucester Road, runs on pasta and good times. Open since 1967, there’s a strong old-school Italian energy going on here, with huge menus and a spacious downstairs dining room with a hanging disco light. This isn’t the kind of place you come to for a low-key catch-up. This is a loud, messy, group dinner kind of spot. A spot where you can share a hefty portion of fusilli alla siciliana, a chorizo-topped pizza, and a big fat slice of tiramisu, and leave £25 lighter. It’s rowdy, it’s fun, and the chaos is all part of its charm.