Everyone knows London. It is vast and smoggy, teeming with people. It’s home to the Queen, the Houses of Parliament and red double-decker buses. The underground in rush hour is like a well-oiled machine at full speed – step out of the lines of militant commuters and you will endure violent cussing, with you pressed to the wall to avoid a stampede. This happy city has been my home for the last few months and I finally left it yesterday, my car packed to the ceiling with bedding and kitchen supplies. With this departure I have realised how much I will miss the city – the winding streets of Soho, the twinkling Christmas lights on Oxford Street, the endless theatres of the West End.
This list of restaurants is a love letter of sorts to London. These cafes and restaurants have become some of my favourites, places I consider to be great value for money serving exciting, mouth-watering food. Inevitably, I never managed to eat at all the places on my list, generally preferring a local Leon to trekking across town to a famous Thai restaurant reviewed by Jay Rayner, but these are eight of the best and well worth a visit!
Meanwhile, I’ll be heading back to Manchester to move in with my one and only Calum, where we will buy new furniture together and I will convince him to take down the Christmas tree at last. So, on my behalf, please sample the following’s delicious cuisines…
Honey & Co.
This tiny restaurant is a treasure. Customers sit on stools or spill out on to the porch, crammed together at small tables to taste the Middle Eastern mix of food produced in its kitchen. The husband-and-wife team from Israel have worked with Ottolenghi and have continued to spread the food joy with a drizzle of tahini and sprinkling of pomegranate seeds. My friend, Harriet, and I ate here last year, squashed on an outdoor table, and wolfed down butternut squash, labneh, figs, sweet pomegranate chicken parcels and green tahini meatballs. Sedate and stuffed we then eye-balled the cake display. The teetering piles of cakes, cheesecakes, babkas are enough to make a diabetic break out in sweats. Undeterred by my unpleasantly full belly I bought a slice of chocolate, hazelnut and cinnamon babka and ate it on the tube home with no regrets.
25 Warren St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 5LZ
Another restaurant which packs itself tightly with enthusiastic customers is Bao. People go for one reason and that is bao. Its delicious bao. The chain’s image is of a man stuffing a whole bao in his wide mouth so customers are already prepared for the gastronomic profanity that takes place inside the small restaurant. Sparsely decorated with a couple of benches and trestles, there is a clinical authority to the place which is refreshing. With the pencils available you mark your choice dishes on the disposable menu and each plate arrives as soon as it is cooked. The buns are as soft as marshmallow, melting on the tongue, while the full flavour of crunchy deep fried chicken, confit pork or, unusually, lamb shoulder blasts your taste buds.
53 Lexington St, Carnaby, London W1F 9AS
I’m noticing a theme here, as yes this is another small restaurant, although covering two floors. This is a necessity as there are so many people eager to indulge in the carby, cheesy goodness. Padella is a pasta restaurant and for the few hours Fiona and I were there, perched on our bar stools around the open kitchen, a chef fed what seemed like yards of dough through a crank-handled pasta machine. With its carb-heavy menu it’s a restaurant for a cold night, or simply for pasta fiends as the portions are small encouraging shared plates. Just call us Lady and the Tramp as we shared gnocchi drenched in sage butter, chilli-spiked puttanesca crunchy with breadcrumbs, and beef shin ragù, the pasta wafer thin and easily wound round a fork to gobble in greedy mouthfuls.
6 Southwark St, London SE1 1TQ
The greasy spoon is a British staple; a cafe filled with burly builders in hi-vis jackets, demolishing plates of eggs and bacon. Fantasia is not a normal greasy spoon. Opening the door you are immediately hit by the scent of freshly squeezed orange juice as opposed to bacon fat. Scribbled on chalk boards, high on the wall, are the breakfast and lunch options including a full English breakfast for only £5.95. To my delight, this plate of fried eggs, bacon, sausage, hashbrowns, beans, tomatoes and toast was accompanied by a hot drink of choice and a glass of their signature orange juice. You don’t require much from a greasy spoon, but Fantasia delivers it and more.
2 Ascot Parade, Clapham Park Rd, London SW4 7EY
Now, I have described small restaurants, but 26 Grains is ridiculous. Roughly the size of a large walk-in wardrobe, this restaurant squeezes its minute kitchen behind the bar. The chefs double as front of house staff, furiously concocting dhal or porridge, garnishing the bowls then throwing themselves out into the chaotic crowd calling the customer’s name. 26 Grains is a porridge restaurant. Already that divides the clientele but, for something that has been consumed for centuries, porridge is up-and-coming folks. Sweet porridge with rose and rhubarb, pear and cacao crumble (my recent selection, known as Nordic Pear, a perfect lunch for my uncontrollable sweet tooth), or savoury with spinach and Sirracha is all served here, alongside stodgy soups, bulgur, bircher muesli or smoothie bowls with granola. After all, if they didn’t serve 26 grains, we’d all be disappointed.
1 Neal’s Yard, London WC2H 9DP
Cosy and dim, Polpetto is like a secret cavern, a thick curtain concealing the restaurant from the chill outside the front door. Customers on stools sip the plentiful happy hour drinks while the hungry people, me included, are led to secluded tables. The food is styled as Italian tapas; plates of pasta, gnocchi, fish and pizzettas a brought forth as soon as they are ready which you and your companions can dole out onto plates. Fiona, my regular dinner companion, and I fell for the white pizzetta with four cheeses and wild mushrooms, creamy and salty, as well as the buttery seabass and leeks. Although the desserts are no doubt delicious, we were sucked in and order one to share after observing a neighbouring table with a large glass bowl of tiramisu. Along came a drinking glass of creamy dessert which we meekly split between us, caught out by our own greediness.
11 Berwick St, Soho, London W1F 0PL
For another date with Fiona, we agreed to take the plunge and wait the hour or longer for a table at Dishoom. Thankfully it’s not nearly as tiny as the other restaurants on this list as the chain constantly has customers queuing for a coveted table in their sixties-styled dining rooms. If you are prepared to wait, the food is worth it. The newspaper-sized menu lists all the dishes, many dragging your eye, such as chicken thighs grilled with garlic and ginger, juicy calamari coated in breadcrumbs, and the sweet crisp slaw of cabbage and pomegranate. Embarrassingly, we could barely scrape the surface of our shared meal, carting a doggy bag filled with chicken and rice away with us. And, I thank the big Bombay god that a Dishoom is soon to open in Manchester as I plan to return and finish my meal.
12 Upper St. Martin’s Lane, London WC2H 9FB
A pub with faded floorboards and wooden beams is not difficult to find in London, but The Orange is the fresh side of rustic without falling into cliché. It is the perfect destination for a lengthy Sunday lunch accompanied by wine and good friends. Calum and I wrestled our way through the throngs of people in the downstairs bar to reach the stairs for the dining room. There, with his family, we ate our way through roast lamb or beefburgers with shredded beetroot, followed by sticky toffee and banana pudding, all washed down with a few bottles of wine and the merry roars of laughter from our fellow guests. A perfect setting for a Sunday.
37-39 Pimlico Rd, Belgravia, London SW1W 8NE
Foleys, On Cafe, The Table, Temper, Lao Cafe, 500 Degrees, Caravan, Nanban, VietCafe