Visiting London for the first time? We have some advice. Avoid Oxford Street completely. Do go on a pub crawl of some sort. Hit up some markets, because we have some brilliant ones. And definitely don’t tell anyone you’re coming, so you’ll have fewer distractions and more time to eat your way through the city.
This First Timer’s Guide isn’t meant to be a definitive list of the city’s best restaurants, coolest restaurants, or places where you might spot Harry Potter or Stephen Fry. It’s where we would go if we were in your shoes and had an entire city to eat our way through and about three days to do it. Let us lead you.
BREAKFAST, BRUNCH, LUNCH & AFTERNOON TEA
You arrived in London expecting to feel like a Lord or a Lady, but you’re staying in a cramped AirBnB in Archway, and you’ve already dodged more tramps than you care to remember on your way to the flat. This is not what you signed up for. Get back on track with breakfast or afternoon tea at The Wolseley, an historic, over the top grand cafe that’s housed in a former vintage car showroom. It’s a stunning place, and the excellent food and service is well worth pulling on a proper shirt for. It’s popular at any time of day, so book ahead.
Afternoon tea at Sketch is like having scones and clotted cream in on an Alice In Wonderland themed spaceship. This massive space is made up of several rooms, each with somewhat different themes, and each slightly insane - in a good way. As for the eating and drinking, the cakes and finger sandwiches are nice, but you’re really here because there isn’t anywhere like it in the world. And make sure you go to the bathroom while you’re there. That’s the best room in the building.
An old-school English greasy spoon is a beautiful thing, and it doesn’t get much more old-school than East End classic Pellicci’s. You’ll hear plenty of Cockney accents and the vibe is incredibly warm and welcoming, and you’ll immediately be made feel like part of the community. As for the food, the Full English breakfasts at Pellicci’s are huge and the tea is strong - don’t order a latte unless you want everyone to know that you’re from out of town.
Having brunch at Nopi is like buying an Audi - you’re basically saying that you still know what’s cool, but you don’t particularly feel the need to shout about it. It’s the flagship restaurant of chef Yotam Ottolenghi, patron saint of middle-class England, and while there’s definitely a cool vibe about it, brunch here is accessible and appealing to pretty much everyone. The food at Nopi is loosely Middle Eastern, but all you really need to know that their almond croissant is the best in London, and their shakshuka and corn cakes are exactly what you want to eat at 11am. The restaurant’s location just off Regent Street makes it an excellent spot to meet friends.
Good Indian food is to Londoners what good Mexican food is to Texans. It’s a privilege but also a birthright. Within the last few years, Dishoom changed the game by creating an Indian restaurant that looks and feels modern, yet also serves food of the same quality that you might conceivably eat in the subcontinent. There are several Dishooms located around town, and there will always be a queue regardless of which one you visit, though the Soho and Shoreditch restaurants are the ones we’d hedge our bets on. Either way, make sure the chicken ruby curry and lamb chops are on your table.
You should go to Shoreditch to check out the neighbourhood’s restaurants, shops, and galleries. And you should absolutely book lunch at Rochelle Canteen hidden away behind a gate in a quiet square a few minutes away from the high street, which is housed in an old refurbished school canteen. The process of finding Rochelle is part of the appeal, of course, but the British food and nicely curated wine list are impeccable as well. It’s lunch only most days, but the restaurant does open for dinner at the weekends during the summer.
London isn’t particularly famous for its Chinese food, but if you’re going to eat it anywhere, eat it at Shikumen. It’s a sleek-looking Cantonese restaurant that serves polished versions of classics like roast duck with pancakes, and it does one hell of a dim sum breakfast at the weekends. The food at Shikumen is a cut above the standard fare you’ll see in Chinatown, and while the restaurant’s all the way out in Shepherds Bush, it’s an easy enough trip on the Central Line to get there.
If you did some advance research on the food scene in London, you probably heard that we have a lot of food markets around town. While not all of them sell cupcakes with Hugh Grant’s mug on them, all of them are loaded with good food, and few more so than Borough Market, which is the most famous. Borough Market is particularly known for fresh produce, but there are literally a hundred food stalls dotted around. The best thing to do is scope the vendors out first before making a decision, and definitely take a look at our guide (link). In short, the Kappacasein cheese toastie, Bread Ahead vanilla donut, and oysters from Richard Haward get our vote.
Away from the crowds at Borough, this is where actual London locals come to hang out and eat their weight in scotch eggs and soup dumplings. And unlike Borough, which has a monopoly on produce and lost tourists, almost all of Maltby Street Market is focused on street food and hanging out. Walk from one end to the other and eat everything, but if it’s there, the steak and chips and scotch eggs are can’t miss items.
Ramen restaurants never used to be a thing in London, until a few blokes went travelling to Japan and NYC and discovered you could make some nice soup, some nice noodles, and flog it to punters for a tenner. If you want more than nice noodles, however, Bone Daddies is your spot. The Soho original has a Japanese rockabilly vibe that’s perfect for the start of an alcohol-fueled night, and it’s also excellent if you want a trendy Soho dinner that’s very affordable. The sides are excellent and worth ordering - the soft-shell crab and ribs are both very good.
Every Sunday, Brits gets together and settle down with friends and family for a bit of special time together. No, we’re not talking about the infamous daytime raves at Inferno’s in Clapham - we’re talking about the Sunday roast. It’s a ritual for a bit of rest, merrymaking, and way too much roast meat and potatoes, and they don’t come much better than the roasts at the Bull and Last in Highgate. It’s a bit out of the way, but Bull and Last is a real local’s spot with a full arsenal of traditional English ales and plates of roast meat loaded with Yorkshire puddings and lots and lots of gravy. Plan for an evening nap, or at least to lay still for a few hours.
The experience of hitting the East End for a curry is an experience that’s as old as London itself, and as authentic as it gets. Tayyab’s, a Punjabi restaurant near Whitechapel, is the best place for that experience, and you can’t really say you’ve been to London before you’ve fought your way through the heaving scrum at the door made it to a table. A meal at Tayyab’s basically like rugby, except you get lamb chops at the end. It is important to note that you should go to the off-license (corner store) before you head inside as it’s BYOB. Grab a few Kingfisher beers and get ready to have an excellent night.
St John is one of the best restaurants in London, and famous for popularising the ‘nose-to-tail’ style of cooking that every tattooed chef in this city practices these days. Beyond blood, guts and offal though, St. John is just a really bloody good British restaurant that cooks meat, fish and game simply, and everything from a soup to a plate of freshly baked madeleines is superb. The roasted bone marrow with sourdough toast and parsley salad is a must-order, though if you don’t want a full dinner, the bar’s a brilliant place to grab some casual plates of food and a glass of their house wine.
You could conceivably go to the fish and chip shop that’s closest to your hotel and get a decent fish supper, but Poppies is where you really want to be. Besides being incredibly consistent, it’s also a fish and chip shop that you can actually sit down and eat in. Get a regular cod or haddock and chips, and don’t be afraid to drench it in vinegar.
Dining at the counter is a thing in London now, and nowhere is this done better than at the Palomar. An evening here might be the most fun you can have in a restaurant in London, mostly due to the nearly unexplainable energy that you’ll feel the second you walk in the door. The Israeli small plates are excellent, but you’ll really remember the banging tunes, the bartenders who’ll tell you what to eat and offer you shots, and stumbling out at midnight feeling like you own this town.
Hoppers combines the casual Soho experience (no bookings, anything-goes vibe) with some of the best curry you can eat in London. The cuisine focuses on the Sri Lankan ‘hopper’ (a flaky, crispy bowl-shaped pancake) that’s perfect for eating with an assortment of chutneys and spicy curries. The black pork curry is the one to get, and the devilled shrimp dish is incredibly good as well. The waits can be long, but they’re definitely worth it.
You might have arrived in London with thoughts of Indian food and gastropubs, but rest assured that every single Londoner has a casual Turkish restaurant in their life. Mangal Ocakbasi is the best casual Turkish restaurant around. There’s fire and smoke and the smell of spiced lamb, but it’s actually a relaxed place to eat some excellent grilled meat, freshly-baked flatbreads and salads. For a Turkish restaurant, the menu’s short, but everything on it is of very high quality. Get the adana kebab which, at a tenner a pop, is a great deal.
Most steakhouses in London are ripoffs of famous places in Chicago and New York, but Hawksmoor is one of England’s true originals. While you shouldn’t prioritise a visit here over a curry or a really good kebab, if you’re going to eat a bloody slab of meat, this would be the place to do it. The Spitalfields original and the Covent Garden restaurants are the best ones, but no matter which one you visit, you’ll find a bar that knows how to make a damn good cocktail and bar food that will probably ruin whatever meal you have planned later. But it’s not a decision you’ll regret.
While we still haven’t figured out how to exit the European Union without looking like twats, we have, at the very least, figured out how to make a good pizza. Franco Manca was the first to do it properly and on a consistent basis. The original and best restaurant in Brixton arcade still slings out perfect Neapolitan pies, but each Franco Manca delivers hot, crispy-chewy pizzas with good toppings like Gloucester Old Spot ham, wild mushrooms, and buffalo ricotta. They have quite a few dotted around the city so finding them shouldn’t be a problem, and it’s also a great move for a cheap dinner.
If you’re in town, there’s as much of a chance of you going for a stroll along the Southbank as there is of a pigeon taking a shit on you in Trafalgar Square. Which is to say, very good. Make the tourist thing easier on yourself with a trip to Anchor and Hope in Waterloo for a pint and excellent pub food, like slow-roast pork with fennel, or pear and almond tart with clotted cream. Anchor and Hope was one of the first gastropubs in town, and is still one of the best. You might want to skip the eating part altogether, but it would be a shame to miss out on the eating-in-the-pub thing you flew all the way here for. Or maybe you just flew here to drink. Either way, your call.
Putting a franchise chicken restaurant on this list might seem downright bizarre, but Nando’s is probably the most popular restaurant in London, and definitely Britain on the whole. There’s something about spicy chicken written in the Magna Carta somewhere, and you really don’t know food in London until you know a Nando’s experience. You’re one of us now.