Having the pressure of cooking in the kitchen: feral, tear-inducing, an overwhelming experience that leads you to donning a chef hat to introduce your signature dish, Beans A La Toast Noir. Getting to watch the professionals in the kitchen while you sip wine: delightful, life-affirming, the crème de le crème of chic laziness. Whether you spend 80% of your free time watching MasterChef and the other 20% convinced you could do a better job, or you’re just in the market for a unique counter dining experience, these are the restaurants where you’ll get an exciting glimpse behind the scenes. A bellow of ‘yes chef’ encouraged.
Humble Chicken is a yakitori bar in Soho. A combination of words that has the potential to amount to superficial tourist fodder, but that’s not the case. It’s a completely thrilling place to be thanks to its open flames, twirling skewers, and unceasing provision of poultry on a stick. Sitting at the counter of Humble Chicken, watching the flames be fanned, and having a procession of parts presented to you is an exciting, theatrical type of eating. And it’s one that tastes very good too.
The Clapton wine bar and restaurant is always crammed full of happy drinkers and those after a coveted spot around its two induction hobs. If you’ve got a friend who’s a whizz in a tiny kitchen, this is the place to mimic that feeling. Resident chefs come and go but, while you’re never entirely sure what you’re going to get, you do know that it’s going to be good. So good that everyone feels at home in this kitchen.
photo credit: Jamie Lau
Look, if you ever think one of our homemade dishes involves dry ice please know that we’ve just been overly zealous with our vape. We like to leave the fancy theatrics for restaurants like Yashin Sushi. It’s a small but decidedly upmarket Kensington spot that excels in drama by way of raw fish. The counter seating enables a whole lot of expert knife envy and thoughts around whether it’s socially acceptable to lean over and grab a little truffle-infused ponzu jelly. Don’t be deceived by the talk of dry ice and creative takes on the classics, this is truly some of the best sushi in London.
Like paddle boarding and hitting the high notes in Adele songs, hand-making pasta looks easy but definitely isn’t. Believe us, we’ve tried it and have the flour on our kitchen ceiling to prove it. Leave the hard work up to the professionals at Bancone, a Covent Garden spot that’s famous for its silk handkerchiefs (thin sheets of pasta covered in egg yolk and walnut butter). A seat at the counter will give you a front-row view of the beef shin ragu sizzling in huge saucepans, industrial portions of pepper being added to the cacio e pepe, and the various rich butters being whipped into shape.
The okonomiyaki specialist in Bloomsbury provides the sizzling entertainment of pancakes being cooked and fried in front of you. It isn’t just like you’re in the kitchen, it's like your table is the kitchen. Unlike other restaurants where the food is cooked in front of you, Abeno doesn’t feel the need to show off. It’s more normal than novelty. Nevertheless you’ll still be spellbound as dancing bonito flakes are placed on top of your sizzling pancake.
You smell Chishuru before you see it. A teeny tiny West African restaurant in Brixton Village, the scent of pumpkin seed pesto, green bell peppers, and scotch bonnet sauce wafts from its doors and is a siren call to spice fans everywhere and anyone who’s previously tried the unmissable peanut sauce. The fact that this place is so small is actually a massive bonus because it means that no matter where you’re sitting, you’ll be able to see the owner and head chef grilling a whole quail on the charcoal grill, before she circulates through the restaurant checking that everyone is having a great time. At Chishuru, it’s impossible not to.
The first thing you’re likely to see through the windows of Jen Café is a lady methodically filling and sealing dumplings. That’s the kind of kitchen we want to be in. There are two things you should be getting at this tiny Chinatown spot and both are of the dumpling variety. There are the plump boiled pork Beijing dumplings or fried ones. Neither, in our eyes, are optional.
From the music to the low lighting, The Palomar in Chinatown is a fun restaurant throughout but the bar is where the magic happens. And when we say ‘where the magic happens’, we mean witnessing a chef tossing a frying pan of cumin broccoli and the hypnotic rise of the kubaneh bread. The menu here changes regularly but you can expect things like beetroot carpaccio, octopus-loaded hummus, and the never-ending flow of expert tahini. Dinner, a cooking show, and plenty of delicious spices all rolled into one.
Evelyn’s Table feels like The Palomar graduated, invested in a designer bookshelf, and now enjoys a little white wine on a Saturday night if the babysitter is free. Although this intimate 11-seater is only two doors down from The Palomar and is owned by the same people, the kitchen table experience at this place feels more serious, but in a fun, grown-up way. Be prepared for hearty pastas, British seafood, and a lot of ooh-ing and ah-ing over the chefs’ cooking and dicing skills.
La Mia Mamma
At the tender age of four we learnt life’s most valuable lesson. If you stand in the kitchen for long enough, someone will eventually let you lick the bowl. A few decades down the line and this knowledge brought us to La Mia Mamma, a restaurant on the King’s Road that provides the ultimate light relief from daily life. It's packed full of real Italian ‘mammas’ who walk around in aprons while demanding you try this ladle of lasagne because you’re looking a little thin. It’s the ultimate taste testing experience combined with big smiles, strong negronis, and London’s best cacio e pepe.
One for the fish fans, Temaki does some of the best, erm, temaki in London. Not a plot twist but this is the kind of counter experience where you’re constantly on the edge of your seat wondering if that BBQ eel is coming in your direction. Please note that it’s impossible to have dinner at this small counter-only restaurant in Brixton Village and not flirt with the idea that you need to own a bamboo sticky rice pot.
In case the person at the pasta station hand-making taglioni like they’re crafting Venus de Milo’s abs doesn’t give it away, Officina 00 is a restaurant that takes pasta seriously. They serve a short changing menu of pasta dishes and for every classic pappardelle with meatballs, you’ll find a bold samphire-fresh crab tagliolini and a deliriously rich lamb shank genovese occhi. Fancy yourself as something of a spaghetti-making connoisseur? You can also book a pasta-making workshop here.