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. 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.
An old-school English greasy spoon is a beautiful thing, and it doesn’t get much more old-school than this East End classic. You’ll hear plenty of cockney accents, the vibe is incredibly warm and welcoming, and you’ll immediately be made to feel like part of the community. As for the food, the Full English breakfast is huge and the tea is strong - don’t order a latte unless you want everyone to know that you’re from out of town.
It is essential. Absolutely essential, that you say yes to mustard when you order a salt-beef bagel at Beigel Bake. Standing outside this white fronted, 24/7 East End bakery and biting into a bagel before hitting the inevitable (yet unexpected) dollop of eye-watering, nose-leaking mustard is a quintessential London experience. These are, without doubt, the best bagels in London.
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.
Coming to London and sending someone for a pizza seems a little bit odd, we admit. It’s not like we’re New York. There’s a city that has a serious rep for their ability to form a slice. Nor are we Naples, who pretty much invented the things. But we do, we do, have the next best thing. L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele is probably the most famous pizzeria in Naples, and the only other place in the world where they have another outpost is little old London. This is a damn fine reason to make sure you head to Stoke Newington for a Margherita and a marinara (the only two varieties on offer) whilst you’re here.
You should go to Shoreditch to check out the neighbourhood’s restaurants, shops, and galleries. And you should absolutely book lunch at Rochelle Canteen. It’s hidden away behind a gate in a quiet square a few minutes away from the high street, and 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.
The are plenty of options for you to experience the uniquely British custom of afternoon tea, but afternoon tea at The Savoy is the best place to feel like an old-fashioned aristocrat, which is probably at least a small part of why you’ve come to London. The Thames Foyer, where you’ll have your tea, is a beautiful space, and it’s easy to get carried away with the whole experience because they look after you so well. Make sure to book as soon as possible to get a spot.
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. Borough Market, which is the most famous. It’s 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. 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.
Afternoon tea at Sketch is like having scones and clotted cream in 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.
We’re sending you to Duck and Waffle primarily so you can look out the windows. The view from the top of the Heron Tower is spectacular, but unlike most tall building restaurants, the food’s actually pretty good too. Think posh British cuisine with a twist, like Aberdeen Angus beef tartare or smoked eel with creme fraiche. Brunch here is a good decision (though book ahead), and it’s open 24 hours if you need something late night.
As you may know, Londoners are pretty serious about football (or soccer, depending on where you come from) and if you happen to care a little bit about this too, we have a two-for-one offer for you. Head up to Xi’an Impression in North London, where you’ll find some of the best Chinese food in London, conveniently located directly across the street from Emirates Stadium, where Arsenal plays. Order the hand-pulled noodles, the cold noodles, the chicken in ginger sauce, and one of the beef buns. Then cross the road to take a picture next to a statue of a famous footballer you’ve probably never heard of.
This Taiwanese spot is famous for its long queues, and you may be wondering if it’s worth waiting to try the food here. Overall, we’d say it is, though the best way to go about it is to pop in for a snack around 4pm, when you should be able to get in quickly. It’s an in and out kind of place, so it works well for this. The bao buns are the namesake, but you definitely want to try some of the small plates like trotter nuggets or beef with aged soy as well.
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.
Wherever you go in the world, you want a ‘unique’ experience. Lots of restaurants think that what makes a place ‘unique’ is the food. But watching someone pour liquid nitrogen on top of a snail while you sit in a beige room full of white table cloths isn’t unique. It’s ten a penny. There’s more to uniqueness, and Black Axe Mangal gets that. It’s loud, smelly, a little bit mad, and at times you won’t know what you’re eating - either because it doesn’t look like anything recognisable, or because you can’t hear, or you weren’t paying attention because you’re having such a good time. This is what eating out in London is all about.
When people ask us about visiting a classic London restaurant, the first and only restaurant that we suggest is J Sheekey. It’s a classic place in the middle of the theatre district and an old-fashioned spot to enjoy a few glasses of wine and eat some high quality shellfish. For all its elegance, J Sheekey is also unpretentious and relaxed, especially at their bar or outdoor terrace. As for the crowd, it’s a late-night hangout for theatre and movie folk, which means, actually, tourists like you should probably come here.
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 and made it to a table. A meal at Tayyab’s is 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.
As we said, above, if it’s your first time in London, you’re probably going to end up at Borough Market at some point. And if you find yourself overwhelmed by the food stalls and organic soap stalls, head to Padella. You’ll sit at the bar and eat handmade pasta for £5-6 that’s as good as any in London these days. Get the pappardelle with slow-cooked meat, or the ravioli with herb butter and goat cheese. There’s a chance you’ll have to queue, but unlike half of the stuff at the market, the food here is actually worth it.
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.
If you’re one of those travellers into finding a city’s hidden gem, add Gunpowder to your itinerary. This tiny Indian restaurant is close to Brick Lane, but it’s different from anywhere else. Whereas Dishoom is a pretty by-the-book introduction to London Indian, Gunpowder puts spicy soup into shot glasses and stuffs meat into a alien-looking doughnut, and serves the best tandoori lamb chops in the whole of London. We’ll level with you - Gunpowder isn’t that well-kept a secret, but we almost guarantee that your ‘world travelling’ cousin didn’t eat here when they were last in London.
This Spanish tapas bar is an absolute must-visit for any first timer - you’ll walk out wondering exactly how a simple pan con tomate or prawn could be that good. There are three locations in the middle of town, and you’ll be great at any of them, though we’d send you to Covent Garden if we had to choose. This location is on a beautiful street, and there’s a cool curved bar that gives each diner not just a view of the kitchen, but also of each other. There’s always a wait, but there are definitely worse things in life than hanging out with a glass of cava and a plate of ham until a space opens up.
At some point you may to want to eat some fancy Italian food, and Bocca di Lupo is where to do it. This classic Italian restaurant in Soho hits all the right notes - amazing pastas, excellent grilled meat and seafood - and ups the ante with regional dishes from across Italy. There are tables, but the bar is where you want to be sitting to get a good view of all the action. Call ahead if you can, as it gets very popular in the evenings.
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.
For a cheap and fun introduction to the London Indian restaurant scene, Dum Biryani is your spot. A biryani is a staple side order of an Indian feast, but at this restaurant, they make it the main event. The vegetable and chicken versions are excellent, but the lamb shank one is the one to get. We like to get one biryani for every two people, while supplementing with the fantastic coconut king prawns and hot wings. You’ll eat in a laid-back basement room with Tupac and Kanye playing over the speakers. If you head here for lunch, you can grab a biryani for a steal at £7.50.
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.
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 in 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.