Maybe the idea of talking to a stranger is alarming to you. Or, maybe, you buy birthday cards in packs of 30 and pick up new pals at the dentist. Either way, when it comes to restaurants, and even bars, there needs to be a certain atmosphere if you’re going to start chatting to your neighbours. We like to think of them as Friend Zones, but in a good way. Here’s our guide to spots where chatting to strangers definitely won’t get you any funny looks.
Call it a wine bar, call it a shop, call it a restaurant. It doesn’t matter. The point is, P. Franco in Clapton is exactly the kind of place you can turn around and ask your neighbour what exactly is in that ravioli that smells so good. They have a changing menu (and changing chefs), and, sure, you can choose what you like, but if you don’t get the pasta, you’re doing it wrong. If you’re not swapping numbers for merlot recommendations by the end of the evening, then that’s on you.
Dutch courage isn’t just for dates. After a couple of £11 Venice Beach Ice Teas and a salt beef slider in the Nickel Bar at The Ned, everyone doesn’t just like each other. They love each other. By 3am you’ll find yourself in a WhatsApp group with two Swedish diplomats, the daughter of someone from Downton Abbey and Top Bloke Simon, who’s a soil conservationist. Whatever that means. A bar of many talents, The Nickel Bar also serves breakfast from 8am, so if that after party at Sven’s gets a little out of hand they’ve also got the somehow inevitable Nedgroni hangover covered.
No one quite does indoor/outdoor drinking like the British. The bus stop and glorified lighter fluid during the teenage years, marquees and overpriced champagne during the wedding years. And, for all the years in-between, there are places like Peckham Springs. This spot by the station is buzzing from almost the moment it opens on a Thursday night. The cocktails are excellent value at just over a fiver, the food is from south London favourites like Forza Win and Mama’s Jerk, and the space is full of people who want to have a good time and a good chat.
There’s something about a roof terrace that gets people talking. Add NT’s selection of drinks to the mix, and next thing you know you’re deeply embedded in a debate about Elon Musk. Once you’ve all calmed down, grab another lychee martini and rekindle your love for house music as NT’s transforms into a fully fledged house of debauchery post-9pm. But, be warned, their cocktails come heavy on the tequila, so unless you want to be performing a live recital of last year’s break up by 2am, you should probably get a few slices of their New York style pizza as well.
The French House, or The French as it’s known to regulars, has been serving booze to fuel conversation for Soho for a very long time. Consistent red wine hangovers means that no one is entirely sure how long exactly. But it’s been ages, okay. This pub’s legendary status precedes itself, and arty sorts have been pitching up here 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 to share a French cheese plate over a bottle of pinot with a person you’ve just met but will definitely be the love of your life (for the next 12 hours, at least).
Seoul Bakery in Bloomsbury is a small space and small prices Korean spot that has the kind of excellent ghimbap that’ll leave a big impression. Everything from the kimchi fried rice to the walls covered in colourful Korean scribbles dedicated to BTS make this place popular, so there’s usually a pretty hefty queue out front. And that’s only your first opportunity to get chatting. Once you’re inside, their two six-person tables are all sharing and it’s casual enough that no one will judge you if you lean over and ask which dumplings they think you should go for. During the week you’ll find a lot of students here, so it’s an especially good shout if you’re young and new to town.
We’re not including Martello Hall because we once saw RPatz there. And yes, nothing makes friendship happen like teenage heartthrobs. We’re including it because this spot goes from day to night quicker than you can say ‘Bella and Edward 4eva’. The pizza at this London Fields bar/restaurant is really very good, and importantly served until 3am. Start with some wine on tap and stay for the inevitable ‘what’s a vegan viking pizza’ conversation with everyone from the bartender to the locals.
Maybe, you’re looking to talk to someone who, we don’t know, just maybe, you... like... fancy. But, only if they have a glowing personality too, right? Pergola has that rooftop vacation feel where a little flirty chat is golden. After all, what goes better with a £7 frozen margarita than a bit of friendly banter? A place like this doesn’t have to have that horrendous mating ground feel of the bars of your youth, where you half expected David Attenborough to appear from behind a goldfish bowl of booze to whisper, ‘here we see the lone wolf, advancing on a group of apprehensive students’. Don’t worry, there’s French street food, bao, classic burgers, and roomy day beds to recline on. It’s all completely above board. Grab a drink (or two), casually wander up to that person who’s caught your eye, and totally capitalise on the romance of the London skyline at golden hour.
The Electric Diner in Notting Hill has a prawn and chicken katsu burger that you’ll want to talk about. During the day, there’s table service, but come evening you have to head to the counter to order. You know what happens at counters? Conversations, that’s what. They’re ordering the apple old fashioned, and so are you. Next thing you know, you’re all sat in one of their plush red leather booths showing each other pictures of your pets and/or nephews. Come midnight, the music gets louder and a healthy dose of dancing is encouraged. Also, if you happen to have caught a film earlier in the day at Electric Cinema next door, bets are that half the other diners did too. And, there’s nothing like a shared passion for Wes Anderson to get those Facebook friend requests kicking off.
Like all good introverts, you’re totally fine with making new friends and talking to strangers. So long as absolutely no one asks you anything personal, there’s zero chance of a crowd, and your escape route is as thoroughly considered as that one in Shawshank Redemption. Luckily, Evelyn’s Table is an 11 seater basement kitchen where you sit shoulder-to-shoulder with your fellow diners whilst you watch the chef cook your dinner. Yes, it’s intimate. But it’s less mass date of your nightmares, and more your own private screening of Masterchef. As soon as the chef starts slicing your beef tartare or seasoning the lemon sole, and the wine starts flowing, chatting to your neighbours will become inevitable. And enjoyable. Then there’s the selection of sorbets to choose from. Look at that, we feel another conversation coming on.
Drink, Shop & Do
The idea of swaggering up to a stranger is probably as inviting as licking a wasp. No, what you need is an in. You need ‘something to talk about’. Drink, Shop & Do is a spot in King’s Cross where you can, er, drink, shop, and do stuff. Emphasis on the ‘do’. They have regular nights of frankly, incredible fun, from a pimp your pineapple masterclass, to a Simpsons quiz night, to musical bingo. They’ve also got a 22-strong cocktail list (go for the Fresh Prince), and the kind of food you can pick at whilst learning to cross-stitch. Think, parma ham and goats cheese flatbreads, fresh cakes, and a mini pie board. Chatting to people is easy here, you just feel like you’re mucking in to a particularly boozy Blue Peter re-run.