Considering we are a nation entirely at the mercy of what we can only presume is a very pissed off, pissing-it-down-loving weather god, we bloody love eating al fresco. A singly ray of sunshine and we all leg it to the nearest establishment offering a pint like tiny booze-obsessed lizards. But sometimes you want something better than your local beer garden. Something cooler, something truly fun, something entirely unique.
That’s where this guide comes in. These are the Bowies of the London outdoor dining scene - the unique, interesting, once-in-a-lifetime spaces that are perfect for special occasions and making memories on those rare sunny London days.
Petersham Nurseries is your friend that actually refused to go on a sesh every single night of the week and saved money for - gasp - a deposit. Petersham Nurseries is that eye-wateringly expensive set of wine glasses you bought that shine like the top of The Shard on a beautiful, cloudless day. Petersham Nurseries is buying Bombay Sapphire instead of Gordon’s, and when we say Gordon’s, we do, in fact, mean Asda’s-own. What we’re saying is, Petersham Nurseries is adult paradise. A sophisticated Italian restaurant set inside a private garden in Richmond, you can come here and eat glorious things like Dover Sole straight off the bone and chicken smothered with wild garlic butter and dandelions, whilst being surrounded by beautiful plants. Then you can go and buy plants - god we love buying plants - from their nursery. See, undeniable, charming, grown-up heaven.
We concur with Belinda Carlisle. Heaven is a place on Earth. And guess what, it’s called Seabird. This seafood specialist spot on the 14th floor of The Hoxton hotel in Southwark has an outdoor space that feels distinctly New York rooftop meets Cote d’Azur vacation, complete with palm trees and arguably one of the best skyline views of London going. That being said, you shouldn’t dismiss Seabird as just a pretty face. It’s home to London’s best oyster experience, fun creative cocktails, and for a special occasion, you can’t get better than their whole lobster combined with a bottle of champagne and that view.
All pubs are unique in their own way. Sometimes it’s a unique take on a Bloody Mary, sometimes it’s a unique menu of Thai treats, and sometimes it’s a particularly unique smell coming from the men’s bathroom. But in the case of The Culpeper, it’s their rooftop garden where they grow their own fresh produce. In the middle of the City, it’s a jaw-dropper of a space that mixes cute foliage with stunning views of London’s most famous skyscrapers. Think of the overall aesthetic as business and pleasure. On the menu you’ll find high-end British dishes with a Mediterranean touch, like pork neck steak with salsa verde, and a samphire-soaked fish of the day. There’s a solid wine list too, or if you’re more of a pub classicist, plenty of draught pints.
Sometimes you want your al fresco restaurants to serve as a kind of secluded witness protection from the Central line - see River Café, Petersham Nurseries, La Goccia - and then sometimes you want an al fresco situation that celebrates London in all of its busy, aggy, fabulous glory. Case in point: Tavolino. A huge rattan-chaired terrace on Southwark riverside with panoramic views of Tower Bridge, you can easily become a little teary-eyed about how much you love this stupid, incredible city whilst you sip a top negroni here. Don’t worry, you can channel all those feelings into a big bowl of cacio e pepe or some handmade tagliatelle with a fiery nduja and pork ragu. Finish with an affogato del torre for that full dolce vita feeling.
There are many reasons why Londoners go categorically ape-shit for a boat. We’re a landlocked city with a great appreciation for Below Deck and who lovingly chant The Lonely Island’s I’m On a Boat every single time we so much as step a toe on a pedalo. Bless our hearts. Enter Barge East, an old Dutch barge that’s over 100 years old and has been docked in Hackney Wick and transformed into a ‘floating dining room’. On the deck you can sit al fresco and make your way through their menu of things like courgette flowers stuffed with beef tartare, seared pork neck, and big-deal roasts come Sunday. If you’re haunted by Titanic or just don’t really trust anything on water, then know that they also have a garden on dry-land that’s perfect for a glass of wine in the sunshine.
There are countless outdoor London locations that are dedicated to the honourable art of ‘having a big one’. You know, drinks, dancing, more drinks, a short snivelling cocktail-infused crying session in the bathroom, followed by yet more drinking and dancing. But few places do it as well as Costa Del Tottenham. For starters, this place truly manages to encapsulate that high-energy electric atmosphere of a Friday night at a big festival abroad, thanks to the DJs in the yard, regular big-name drag acts, and the colourful verandas. Secondly, there’s plenty of street food options to choose from, but on a sunny day with several of your favourite people, you can’t beat the jerk chicken. Just be warned that this place can book out weeks in advance so it’s most definitely a plan-ahead situation.
Many of London’s parks have a nice café where you can pick up some kind of mildly-soggy sandwich and pray that a squirrel doesn’t make off with your croissant, but our all-time favourite outdoor café is this one in Victoria Park. Directly overlooking the lake, it’s the perfect spot to eat something delicious involving avocado whilst narrating a swan argument featuring a little soothing fountain ASMR. Although they’re strictly a walk-in operation, any wait is worth it for what is arguably the most glorious way you can spend a sunny Saturday morning in the city.
Like Evita and Philippe Petit, some people just perform better up high. The same rule applies to us and dating. Put us on a rooftop and our flirtation skills flourish, especially if said rooftop is Forza Wine. Yes, there are several rooftop restaurants in London but none of them pull-off casual cool with a side of spectacular south London views like this wine bar in Peckham. Rather than leaning into that whole ‘rooftop paradise’ thing, they’ve kept things simple with industrial chairs and sleek tables that really lets the sunset speak for itself. The other thing that sets this place apart is the fact that the food is genuinely great. Like, really great. Expect things like grilled flatbread with taleggio, oil-drenched panzanella, aioli-loaded cauliflower fritti, and importantly, frozen negronis.
Remember five minutes ago when we were telling you that Petersham Nurseries is adult paradise? Well, they just so happen to have a sister restaurant in Covent Garden that we think also deserves the high accolade as one of London’s most unique outdoor dining options. La Goccia is basically what would happen if a spa and a florist had a beautiful baby that serves high-end Italian small plates. Set in a courtyard aptly called Floral Court - seriously how Secret Garden is that - this restaurant is undeniably expensive but it’s entirely worth it for a classy catch-up or a special occasion where you’re looking to impress through the medium of burrata and stunning metal chair mouldings.
Frank's Café & Campari Bar
Eating in car parks, once a passtime held by night shift workers and children of divorce, is now one of the best ways to spend an evening in London thanks to Frank’s. This multi-storey car park was converted into a huge, sprawling summer destination back in 2009 and the rest is London rooftop history. Yes, there are 360º views and strong beverages, but it’s the sheer volume of space that makes this place feel so unique. Come high summer when the crowds are in and the Campari is flowing, it feels like the only party in London you want to be involved in. Plus, the BBQ food offerings are great, and they’re all about seasonally-led produce so it’s 10 times better than that instant barbie situation you’d knock up at home.
Londoners can be fickle creatures. Give us a view, a firepit, and the promise of a glass of ’seccy and we’ll be there as soon as there’s a teeny tiny lick of sunshine. But Queen of Hoxton is a Shoreditch rooftop that’s stood the test of time. One of London’s OG New York-style open rooftops, this place really does commit to creating The Feelgood Vibe. Every season they redecorate, with previous themes like Las Vegas, the Yellow Brick Road, and bohemian Paris. Sure it might all sound a little eye-roll provoking, but the main thing you need to know is that in winter their outdoor wigwam is one of our places to be and in the summer the energy is always absolutely buzzing. If you’re a fan of waffles and having a bloody good time, then their drag brunches are a must.
Ciao Bella is a proper giggle-fest, laugh-out-loud snort of a restaurant. You don’t go here for the most perfect pasta or pizza in London. No, you go to Ciao Bella for the best possible time out on their famous pavement terrace. This place has been the life and soul of Bloomsbury for over three decades, with quickfire staff that’ll make you smile, generous portions of spaghetti al cartoccio, and almost alarmingly large meatballs. Come with a group, come with family, or come for your birthday. Trust us, you’ll have a good time.
Warning: The Faltering Fullback involves a lot of steps. Honestly, a couple of times we’ve been here, we’ve thought we might need a sherpa to make it to the top of their rambling, multi-layered garden. Everyone that knows and loves this Finsbury Park local will have a favourite area - and table - that they’re willing to fight for. And when we say fight, we mean passive aggressively stare at the competition until the table is available. Although the long menu of Thai food here won’t change your life, it’s a prime location for several pints or a lowkey birthday. Just don’t get too sloshed. Those stairs require at least a mild awareness of your own coordination.
If you have trust issues around the British weather, then, honestly, same. But you don’t need to stress about the weather forecast if you’re heading for an al fresco meal at Brat’s long-term pop-up in this Hackney arch, because they have a dreamy marquee that’s insulated and strung with those ever-trendy exposed lightbulbs. Although realistically the setting is just the tip of the unique dining iceberg here, because it’s the food that truly makes this spot pure magic. They’re serving all of their Basque grill favourites from their Shoreditch restaurant, including the charred anchovy-topped flatbread, the beloved smoky potatoes, and their whole turbot which we have spoken about more than Brexit and the comfort-level of Birkenstocks combined.
The River Café is an absolute legend. No, not in the way that you’re ‘a legend’ when you find a Bolt promo code just before payday, this place is actually legendary. A Hammersmith institution that opened in 1987, this place is the blueprint for high-end Italian spots in London. We’re talking fresh tagliatelle, radicchio salads, frutti di mare, and a dessert so beloved it even has its own designer merch. The green sophisticated terrace is where you want to be spending your time - and money - here. With the Thames to your left and a plate of £39 chargrilled scallops in front of you that taste like they’ve bathed in the nectar of pure happiness, River Café is still the al fresco spot for a truly memorable special occasion.