Islington is the spiritual home of every North Londoner. Or at least if should be. Around Upper St it’s got a Vue and an Everyman. A Sainsbury’s and a Waitrose. A ’spoons and, well, not ’spoons. It’s an area of idyllic looking streets, with pubs off the beaten track and pubs to get beaten up in. Restaurants range from directly in the mix to the once unheard of ‘converted garage’. With that in mind, you can end up at a restaurant in a seemingly nondescript residential area, but be sure to know that we sent you there with good reason.
Bellanger is the Islington outpost of the Corbin & King empire, owners of The Wolseley, Brasserie Zédel, and others. It looks beautiful, the service is polished, and you can order anything from a light snack to a very filling three-course meal. There’s no time of day when you shouldn’t come here, but late afternoons are perfect for tea or an early drink. At dinner, order veal schnitzel, sausages, and a tart or cake. Bellanger looks and feels very grown-up, but it’s not stuffy - you can be a jackass here, as long as you’re a well-behaved jackass.
This spot opposite Islington Green is probably smaller than the vast majority of household kitchens in Islington. You can imagine any number of wealthy, middle-aged sorts coming in here and being shocked that a restaurant can operate in something the size of their laundry cupboard. Afghan Kitchen doesn’t just operate though, it serves hearty, tasty Afghan food in a minimalist setting. The food is saucy, like literally. Things like chicken in yoghurt and fish stew are perfect, and are excellent to mop up with their homemade bread. The nature of the space makes it ideal for a very personal party. Why host in your own kitchen when you can take over somebody else’s?
The appeal of this place is simple: all-you-can-eat buffet at an amazingly low price. Most all-you-can-eat buffets are as appetising as mouldy bread, but here it’s genuinely good if inevitably a little carb-heavy. Get the ace onion bhajis as soon as possible after they come out of the kitchen. Prepare yourself for some pretty intense anti-meat propaganda on the walls (‘Cancer danger in your fry-up!’), but applaud the restaurant for letting homeless people eat for free. And bring a couple of beers – there’s no alcohol license.
This simple Indian has been dishing out low-priced curries and tandoor-cooked grills for years. Go for lamb cutlets and kebabs, excellent ‘snacks’ (you know them as starters), and standard dishes based on the roadside eateries of India. It’s a bit of a party place, and the atmosphere is loud when the place is full. In other words, it’s a place for mates rather than dates. The ideal plan is to assemble five or six of you, push two of the plain wooden tables together, and then cover them completely with food. And beer.
Llerena is a tapas restaurant opposite the town hall on Upper Street that’s so slight you could miss it. Once you are inside there’s bar seating around a single beer tap, some more counter seating up front, and a cosy dining area at the back. This simple set up some sums up the approach. It’s an unpretentious and refreshingly inexpensive spot specialising in products from the family farm in Extremadura, a region southwest of Madrid. Whether you’re here to eat ham and cheese over a glass of beer while catching up with friends, or for a quiet and intimate date night, it doesn’t disappoint. And, as good as the ham is (and it’s some of the best we’ve had outside of Spain) you shouldn’t overlook the other tapas, or the stews. The morcilla mondonga, in particular, deserves a mention. It’s a spicy blood sausage drenched in tangy tomato sauce, and it’s unmissable.
Another space that’s a bit blink and you miss it, Sushi Show has been serving up very decent sushi down Camden Passage for a while now. You can pop in to grab a takeaway, or sit at the bar opposite the window and watch the fools who don’t realise what they’re walking past. The sashimi is reasonably priced and cut fresh in front of you if you sit at the smaller kitchen bar. If sushi isn’t your thing then there’s also a small selection of donburi bowls as well. The downstairs has a sort of secret room that is great to know about if you and some friends want to get dinner somewhere that feels a bit hidden away.
El Inca Plebeyo serves Ecuadorian food in a simple space that’s covered in colourful paintings, tiles, pottery, and tablecloths. Ceviche and grilled meats are the big dishes, and at the weekend they serve hornado, a national dish of slow-cooked pork that’s worth coming out of your way for. There’s always music playing, and group dinners are great here - try to get the big table at the back where you can see the kitchen in action.
Yipin’s menu covers a lot of the map of China, but you should concentrate on the Hunan and Sichuan sections – that’s where the chefs are from. This is upscale Chinese in an upscale area and therefore not cheap, but big portions mean you don’t have to max out your plastic to get well fed. Many dishes contain massive quantities of chilli, fresh and dried. You can eat them all or just swallow a mouthful of napalm - it comes to the same thing. Order spiced fungus (a kind of wild mushroom), numbing and hot beef, and stir-fried pig knuckle.
A lot of Islingtonians come to Kipferl to soothe a hangover, and they’ve come to the right place. This hearty Austrian cooking is perfect for the fragile-headed, as long as you don’t try to order the two best dishes by name: Bauernfruehstueck, the Austrian equivalent of a Full English (just point), and the Bergkäse omelette (blink twice). The menus go right through to dinner, but for us, this is more of a daytime place. Jammed at weekends, it’s a good choice for a weekday lunch (daily soups are great) or afternoon break. Please eat cake with your kleiner brauner (Austria’s version of a flat white).
We wish ‘funnest’ were a word so we could call Little Georgia the funnest restaurant in Islington. It looks fun, with its decorative posters, vintage telephones, and hunting horns. And the waiters are fun: smiling, jokey, and eager to advise about ordering. Order a shot of Georgian vodka and let them guide you through the menu. The all-Georgian wine list is inexpensive and great. The soundtrack is also all-Georgian, and if you’re lucky, the owner will get up and dance with one of the extremely handsome waiters. The original LG, in Hackney, is smaller and more intimate, but this big brother is equally good for big groups and dates. It’s good for anyone, really – except people who hate to have fun.
Oldroyd serves some of the best food in N1. The menu contains fairly simple dishes with French, Italian, and Spanish influences, and it’s all inventive but not show-offy. Dishes that sound ordinary, like a pork chop with lentils and salsa verde, pack maximum flavour into every item on the plate. Prices are low for this quality, especially the set lunch. The single problem is Oldroyd’s size - it’s made up of two rooms smaller than the bathrooms in some five-star hotels, and the upstairs space can feel cramped when busy. That’s no excuse for not going though, especially for a weekend lunch or an intimate date night (bag a table by the window upstairs).
Ottolenghi is the place that made London fall in love with salad, firing dozens of fresh flavours onto each plate in a way that wasn’t just healthy but exciting. Salads are the main draw here as at the other Ottolenghi venues, and a selection of three makes a satisfying lunch. But the first thing you see is the beautiful spread of cakes and pastries in the front window, and you should give in to temptation. If there are two of you, try to snag one of the small tables rather than sit at the long ones that provide most of the seating.
Meat, smoke, and salt. If you like the sound of that, you’ll like Rök Islington (and the original branch in Shoreditch) a lot. They cook just about everything over a fire or through preserving in salt, while combining ingredients from all over the place. One regular dish on the always-changing menu is scallops served with ’nduja (Calabrian sausage spread) and seaweed. Sounds odd on paper, but wait till you taste it. And it’s not all meaty mains here: the side dishes (especially the cabbage) are some of the best things on the menu. Rök is a bare-wood, hard-chairs, brightly-lit kind of place – not a place to bring a date, unless they truly love meat, smoke, and salt.
Like nearly everyone else, we come to this original Smokehouse (there’s another in Chiswick) to eat some of the best fire-cooked meat in London. You’re not going to need starters, but you’ll order them anyway, so have the pork tacos and prawn toast. After that, get whatever form of beef, pork, or lamb is on the menu. Lamb shoulder is their speciality. And the Sunday roasts are among the best in N1. Formerly a pub, Smokehouse has a beer selection that itself makes a visit spiritually rewarding. Some people come just for a quiet pint. But it’s at its best as place to come with a gang for way too much beer - and way too much meat to wash it down.
Ask anyone in Islington where they go for brunch, and you’re almost sure to hear about Sunday. This is one of the hottest places in Barnsbury, a breakfast/brunch/lunch place that’s always packed out at weekends – and sometimes even during the week. It’s worth queuing, even in the rain, for consistently well-executed standard dishes and a few more out-of-the-ordinary ones. The pancakes are some of Islington’s fluffiest. Eggs benedict is awesome. Just be patient.
This is a vegetarian restaurant, but non-vegetarians love eating here, too. Flavours from all over the world pop up on the menu, everything from quinoa salad through Thai green curry to grilled halloumi. If the thought of all that healthy eating bums you out, grab the cocktail list. The Gate is a five-minute walk from the Angel and right near Sadler’s Wells Theatre, so come in for a light dinner or drinks before the show. Booking’s advisable.
This old-fashioned caff has been going since 1959, and it’s an Islington institution. The menu divides into standard caff fare, including enormous breakfasts and Italian dishes. And all at crazy low prices. Big plates of pasta are the favourite at lunchtime, when it’s packed out with locals. And when it’s really busy at mealtimes, you might find yourself sharing a table – but this only adds to the lively atmosphere. The owners manage the crowds well (both when seated and when waiting), and service is speedy. Just mind your time. Other customers need your seat.
bars and pubs
Admit it: the UK’s only 100 per cent certified organic pub had to be in Islington. If it were Ealing or even Clapham, you’d have been disappointed. Right? The sense of N1 worthiness may make you cringe, but eating here is fun. Yes, it’s on the expensive side – but organic never came cheap. The place looks like your standard gentrified London pub, with enormous windows on two sides of the corner space giving it a nice glow during the day. Want to save the planet, one pint at a time? The only way is in Islington.
Tony Conigliaro may be the most famous bartender in London, with other celebrated places in his stable, but this one – officially called The Bar With No Name – is the original. And one of the best bars in London. It’s a tiny place, so you have to book - and well in advance for weekends. The drinks are all originals yet never make you think they’ve been invented just for the hell of it. If there are two of you, ask for the table at the back, near the bar. A cocktail at 69 followed by dinner at Oldroyd or Bellanger is Islington’s greatest itinerary for a date. You may worry at first about the 90-minute booking slots, but you’d need a titanium liver to spend 90 minutes drinking here.
This beautiful pub is a bit of a trek from public transport, which also makes it a welcome break from the crowds on and around Upper Street. The area feels like you’ve stepped through a magic curtain into a place where people no longer exist. Seriously, we once walked around the place for over 20 minutes and didn’t encounter another human. Inside The Drapers Arms, you’ll find a bar downstairs with three ales on tap and great bar snacks. Upstairs is the dining room, where you’ll find sharing roasts, killer pies, and a well-priced wine list. Head for the garden in good weather. Book at weekends.
When beer lovers wonder what heaven is like, they probably imagine Earl of Essex. There are around twenty on the daily-changing list, mostly British, including their own brewed on the premises. Come here with a bunch of friends and try to taste everything on the list – for educational purposes. Or just come and relax with a pint and a basket of cheese fries. Either way, you’re in heaven.
Boris Johnson lives down the road, but don’t let that scare you away: this is one of the best pubs in Islington. Cask ales and craft beers are the big draw, but they also do cocktails. This is the sort of pub you go to if you want to settle down for an afternoon of schmoozing or watching the big match on a large-screen TV. If you want a meal at the weekend, book.
This is a lovely old pub, with lots of dark wood and a basement where they brew their own ale. The fairly straightforward menu includes a roast suckling pig (for 12-17 people) that you can order with 72 hours’ notice. Not having anything close to 12-17 friends, we’ll go with a couple of other people but skip breakfast that day. Just one warning: the kitchen is in the main room, and you might leave smelling a bit like a pork chop if you’re sitting nearby at mealtimes.
The Lord Clyde succeeds in keeping its old-fashioned boozer character even while transitioning to gastropub status. Locals pile in at weekends for a quiet pint (the small corner room’s the place to go) or Sunday roasts in the big back dining room. Gin is a speciality, with twenty on the list, including a strong showing of smaller distilleries.
Though technically a little way off the Islington map, this tiny place (seating for 12) is a one-minute walk from Angel tube. Coffee is made to rocket-science levels of technical sophistication, but you don’t need to work at NASA to appreciate it. You just need to love great coffee.
CoffeeWorks serves some of the best coffee in London, and this branch also has a sizeable menu of quality food, particularly the salads. Weekdays are easiest for bagging a table, but you’ll still find lots of laptop slaves throughout the day. Like any remotely decent food source in the area, it’s rammed both days of the weekend. In warm weather, get an iced coffee and drink it in the garden.
This is a great place to come and work during the week. The coffee is good, and the all-day brunch menu reasonably priced. They take a lot of trouble to make ordinary dishes special, even making their own baked beans to serve with the enormous Full English – a meal that will keep some people going all day and others all week. At weekends, expect the full-on Upper Street crush.