The First Timer’s Guide To Eating In London
Coming to London for the first time ever is exciting and intimidating. Let us take some of the pressure off by suggesting where to eat.
Visiting London for the first time? Just moved here dragging several IKEA body bags with you? Let us help you out. Because you need a drink and something to eat. This guide isn’t a definitive list of London’s best restaurants, nor its most classic spots. It’s just what we’d do if we were in your shoes, if we just moved here, or were visiting with a weekend in front of us and a whole lot of options to sort through.
THE ESSENTIAL SPOTS
Brick Lane’s institution is an artefact from the area’s history as a hub for London’s Jewish community. However, these days it needs no introduction and nor do its golden beigels. The salt beef is the obvious choice—an enormous hunk smeared with watered-down English mustard and sliced gherkin stuck in for good measure. Given that it’s open 24 hours, if you haven’t wiped English mustard-induced tears from your eyes in the early hours of the morning then you should get about doing that, pronto.
Dim Sum & Duck
Dim Sum & Duck is known for three things: two are in its name and the other is the inevitable queue that snakes down King’s Cross Road. Now, there may still be a little wait on a midweek lunchtime, but at least the majority of London is doing that whole earning-a-living thing at that time. Unlike many dim sum restaurants in London, the little King’s Cross spot makes and serves their peerless xiaolongbao, heaving char siu, cheung fun, and bobbing wonton soup day and night. Get a table whenever possible.
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Sure, you probably have ‘Madame Tussauds’ written down on your travel itinerary. Pick up your pen, scribble a line through it, and write ‘get pissed at Noble Rot’ there instead. Whether you come for dinner and drinks, or just drinks and more drinks, we promise that you’ll have a much better time at this Bloomsbury wine bar. According to some very smart people—yes, us—Noble Rot is not only the best wine bar to drink in, but it’s also the best restaurant in London. Come for one glass that turns into three bottles, eat their dream-inducing bread, do some proper people watching from the bar area, and regret nothing when you wake up feeling a little tender the next morning.
Londoners are pretty serious about football and if you’re partial to pairing the sometimes beautiful game with an always-beautiful meal, then we have a two-for-one offer for you. Head up to Xi’an Impression where you’ll find some of the best Chinese food in London, conveniently located directly across the street from the Emirates Stadium where Arsenal, north London’s ‘finest’, play. The hand-pulled belt noodles here are second-to-none, slippery and chewy and almost impossible to share without making a mess and being filled with regret. Not as much regret as if you prioritised the football over a meal, though.
At the end of your meal at Singburi, you will finally take a breath. The last chunk of moo krob would have long been eaten, the final bit of jungle curry sauce wiped up with your finger. It’s at this point you’ll realise that this meal—this brilliant, frenetic, sour, spicy, sweet, and superb blitz of a Thai extravaganza—will soon be over. And that’s when you’ll realise how brilliant Singburi is. The BYOB Leytonstone spot is undoubtedly London’s finest Thai restaurant. Full of energy and flavour and often a complete faff to get a booking (call, call, and call again), there are few restaurants in London as reliably vibrant as Singburi. Don’t expect to break the bank but do expect to want to come back every week.
Quality Chop House
Going to the Quality Chop House is like entering that fictional family member’s home. You know, the one who’s very rich, lives in a country manor, and is into candles. Not in a Diptique way, but in a banquet hosted by Henry VIII way. This Clerkenwell spot knows how to be a British restaurant. Meaning you’re going to be fed and watered extremely well. It’s hearty but refined, so you’re just as likely to be eating venison as you are some superb handmade pasta. And it suits both lunch and dinner. There’s no excuse not to go. Not one.
photo credit: Aleksandra Boruch
JB's Soul Food
London isn’t lacking in jerk options, but it is when it comes to the two Cs: consistency and char. JB’s has no problem with either of these. The little spot off Peckham High Street makes jerk full of spice, sweetness, and a welcome hit of smokiness. A small portion of chicken will set you back just £3 and on weekends their jerk pork is the thing to get. Inside it’s definitely more takeaway than a taking-your-time kind of place, but there are a few tables and a bit of counter space to lean up against.
We know people who have got the express train from Heathrow to this Knightsbridge spot on a 12-hour layover in London just to get a full English in this iconic dining room. It’s a big, converted 1920s car showroom. It’s grand and bright, but just a little medieval thanks to the black pillars, vaulted ceiling, and huge wrought iron chandeliers. It’ll impress even your most demanding second cousin. Because short of having Olivia Coleman serenade you with God Save The Queen over your toast, this is the most British way you can start your day. Yes, it’s £23.50, but it’s a huge fry-up, and if you’re rolling as a pair, sharing this and another dish is an excellent game plan.
Sessions Arts Club
Sessions Arts Club may just be London’s hottest restaurant for the rest of time. No other lift in London takes you to a room quite as gorgeously (and purposefully) dilapidated as this one. If there’s one restaurant your friend has been eyeing up on Instagram, it’s more than likely this instant classic in Clerkenwell. Enormous ceilings, peeling wallpaper, candles flickering, and a dish of squid and pasta that is as beautiful and as elegant as its surroundings. The only problem is getting a reservation. But you’re going to have to put some effort in if you don’t want to end up at Angus Steak House.
This family-run bakery and restaurant in north Acton has been around for years. And it’s one of the few places we’d travel across the city to eat breakfast at. While the menu has enough range to keep most people happy, with Lebanese classics like shish taouk and batata harra, the thing that makes it worth going out of your way for is the baked stuff. Their clay-oven mana’eesh are perhaps the best you’ll find in London and from £3 a pop, are also some of the best-value. Our go-to order is a couple of lahm bi ajeen and spinach mana’eesh, all with additional cheese. Because… cheese. When served in a tray surrounded by labneh, foul modames, and falafel, it’s a complete Levantine breakfast spread, at an excellent price.
From Dalston up to Harringay and, in fact, dotted all over the city, London has a tonne of brilliant Turkish restaurants—but Gökyüzü is the place you should start. The ginormous ocakbasi grill restaurant on Green Lanes is an OG London legend for very good reason. Çöp shish, kofte, and any meat coming off the grill here is a guaranteed winner. Juicy and charred and, often, greedily picked up by one of our flatbread-gloved hands to smear in cacik or douse in chilli sauce. It’s a combination that a lot of Londoners grow up eating, loving, and sharing—and continue to for the rest of their lives.
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 by London Bridge 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 before making a decision, and definitely take a look at our guide. In short, the Kappacasein cheese toastie, Bread Ahead vanilla doughnut, and oysters from Richard Haward get our vote.
Roll up to Sông Quê in a group on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday or, sod it, most nights, and you’ll find that approximately 90% of east London appears to have had the same idea. The reason being is that this now institutional Vietnamese spot on Kingsland Road is one of the best around, and it’s also excellent when you need to book a big group dinner. Don’t be put off by the almost encyclopaedic menu. Just know that a £10 bowl of phở is essential, alongside some crispy squid and a pancake to share. Add a couple of beers in and you’re sorted.
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.
One restaurant, one chef, one roti beef rendang that will inevitably become two when you need to double check that a roti can be this gloriously soft and flaky. Yes, this low-key, homely Malaysian spot inside Queensway Market is the kind of place where sharing seems like a good idea—the fried chicken, laksa with king prawns, assam pedas seabass, and that roti beef rendang are all essential orders. But you’ll quickly become as protective over the food in front of you as a poodle with a chicken bone. Chef Normah, we love you. Just be sure to book ahead as it’s a small space.
photo credit: Aleksandra Boruch
Mangal II is part of the old-school of N16′s Turkish restaurants, but it’s the only ocakbasi restaurant we know that’s mixing the old with the new, and also with low-intervention wines. The menu still features homemade kofte, grilled onion salad, and grilled lamb chops, but you’ll also find deep-fried chicken livers alongside a feta slaw, or courgette fritters with beef sucuk fat mayo and dill oil. The Dirik brothers have taken on their father’s restaurant to try and do something different and it’s very much working.
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. 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.
Arguably the definitive East End caf, open since 1900, these days E. Pellicci manages to juggle being both a tourist destination for those seeking a glorious, coronary-inducing fry up (featuring both bubble and squeak, and hash browns) of the most English variety, and those who have been coming here for donkey’s years. If you’re looking for a more low-key experience in terms of busyness, come in the week. That said, Nevio (owner, son, geezer, and front of house) and his family always make sure Pellicci’s is a lively and lovely place to be.
We’re pretty sure someone royal was born in Claridges. That, or, someone comes from the palace to spray the place with royal air once a week. That’s one of the reasons why you’re going to be paying £75 for tea. Another is the Mayfair location, the live pianist and cellist, and the fact that everything here—from the sandwiches to the scones—tastes just a bit better than it does almost everywhere else. You’re also going to definitely want to spend some time with the pastries. The vanilla bourbon religieuse alone blows the sweet section of every other afternoon tea out of the water.
This cult Malaysian restaurant is in a basement in Euston and specialises in roti canai—soft, flaky flatbreads served with a bowl of delicious curry. The dhal one is £6.50, but the mutton version is our favourite and worth the extra pounds. They also serve brilliant versions of Malaysian hawker stall staples like char kway teow, nasi goreng, and a curry laksa for under a tenner. There can be queues at peak hours but that’s no surprise given it’s BYOB as well.
The Fryer's Delight
If you’re visiting from anywhere outside the UK, the likelihood is you'll want fish and chips at some point. The Fryer’s Delight is the most aesthetically pleasing chippy in London. We know we’re not meant to care about these things, but, honestly, it’s hard to resist a smile when you sit down in one of the Bloomsbury spot’s bright red formica-table booths. This place isn’t trying to be old-school, it just is. The fish and chips themselves are tasty enough, but it doesn’t really matter as a solid portion of haddock, chips, and mushy peas is well under a tenner, and also a bit priceless in a place like this.
If the combination of the words ‘butter’, ‘chicken’, and ‘wings’ interest you, as well ‘whisky’, ‘vending’, and ‘machine’, let us introduce you to Brigadiers. The Indian barbecue restaurant in the heart of The City is a straight up good time. Superb bone marrow biriyani, butter chicken wings, and the best lamb chops in London. Come and watch the football at the bar and retire to the pool room afterwards. Or sit in a mahogany-clad booth and crack into the martinis on tap. Whatever happens, you’re not leaving here early.
The River Café is as famous as Buckingham Palace. OK, it’s not quite as famous, but last time we checked you couldn’t get this Italian restaurant’s taleggio pizzetta and zesty lemon tart at the Queen’s gaff, so that counts for something. This big, bright, and deeply classy restaurant on the Thames in Hammersmith has been serving fresh tagliatelle, radicchio salads, and their oh-so-rich chocolate cake since 1987. But importantly, they still do all of the above better than any other restaurant in London. The prices are sky-high but it’s entirely worth it for a special occasion and a slice of London restaurant history. Not to mention a slice of that chocolate cake.
The French House
The French House, or The French as it’s known to regulars, has been serving booze to fuel conversation in Soho for a very long time. Consistent red wine hangovers mean that no one is entirely sure how long exactly. But it’s been ages. This pub’s legendary status precedes itself, and arty sorts have been pitching up here since way before you knew how to pronounce kir royale and talk about the novel you haven’t started writing yet. Upstairs the candlelit dining room is the place for a long, long lunch over oysters and steak frites, or a pinot-fuelled dinner ending with a perfect Paris-Brest or an eye-rollingly good chocolate mousse.
Sometimes you just want to eat pasta. But sometimes, you want to eat some really good pasta in a really great setting. That’s what Bancone in Soho is all about. And for somewhere with this much marble, and this much saffron butter on the menu, it’s very good-value too. Go for the silk handkerchiefs (sheets of skinny pasta covered in hazelnut butter and confit egg yolk), or the slow-cooked 10-hour oxtail ragu pappardelle. Even if you come for a quick lunch, a couple of negronis probably won’t hurt either.
When you’re looking for some high-quality sushi, head to Sumi. This spot in Westbourne Grove is more down-to-earth than its omakase sibling in White City, with a calming interior and a covered front terrace offering a mix of big sharing tables and tables for two. Despite being a lot more low-key, the sushi is still the same sky-high standard, so even with a small-ish à la carte menu of main dishes like mushroom gohan, and a sushi menu of nigiri, sashimi, and handrolls, you can’t really go wrong with this exceptional fish.
photo credit: Karolina Wiercigroch
Royal China Club
No one does dim sum quite like Royal China Club. The roasted pork buns have an 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 dinner time sharing dishes, we recommend you come during the day so that you can get involved in that dim sum.
The now-legendary first restaurant of the Taiwanese mini-chain is famous for its long queues. Now, you may be wondering if it’s worth waiting to try the food at Bao in Soho—it definitely is. 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 and be eating pillowy bao in no time. It’s an in and out kind of place, so it works well for this. The bao are what a lot of people come for, but you definitely want to try some of the small plates like trotter nuggets or beef with aged soy as well.