The best restaurants in London
We are often asked to recommend restaurants in London when friends, or friends of friends, or parents of friends are coming to town. These are our favourite places, covering a range from special occasion splurges, to casual Wednesday evenings when the weekly Ocado order hasn’t been delivered (that’s grocery delivery for you non Brits).
1) River Café – I had heard about the River Café and it’s American-born, MBE awarded chef Ruth Rogers for years before I moved to London and finally had a chance to visit. Here, elegant yet rustic Italian food is prepared with the highest quality vegetables and seasonal ingredients, in a beautiful open plan space on the Thames. This is a restaurant for a special occasion meal. There are always anniversary dinners and birthdays being celebrated, reservations are a must, and it costs around double some of our other favourite Italian spots in town. It’s worth it, though . One caveat we should mention: it’s not near anything else that you’ll be doing as a tourist, so you do have to make a special trip out of the way. If it’s a nice day, a walk along the river back towards central London is our favourite way to work off some of Ruth Rogers‘ delicate pasta. Coming from California, this restaurant feels familiar, but we can see how it would have been revolutionary in London when it opened in 1987. I would almost describe the food as ‘California cuisine’ by way of Italy, a bit like a Chez Panisse but capturing traditional Italian methods and ingredients. They have a series of famous cookbooks, and the hot pink pizza oven in the restaurant is iconic. The atmosphere is airy, bright, and buzzy, and the food is always memorable (the menu changes daily). [Location: Hammersmith, on the Thames)
2) Palomar – London is where we first discovered elevated Israeli cuisine, and Palomar holds a soft spot as being the first of these restaurants we tried. Located in the middle of Soho, the tiny bar seats at this narrow restaurant are always packed, and we love coming here for a pre-theatre meal (you must arrive as close to 5:30pm as possible to get a spot), or we come at the end of the night just before closing. Don’t sit in the small, stuffy back room, all the action is at the bar stools overlooking the bustling kitchen. First off, the food is phenomenal. Burnt courgette tzatziki, labneh, various dips, handmade pittas, seared octopus, grilled sea bass, beef and lamb shakshukit…it’s a middle eastern / Mediterranean feast, but beautifully presented as small plates that are perfect for sharing. The herbs, nuts, and spices garnishing every dish are impeccable, the wait staff might be enjoying themselves even more than you are, and the buzz of the restaurant is perfect for solo diners, or small parties. Their sister restaurant The Barbary in Soho is also excellent, and the seating is a big more comfortable around their circular bar. We come here every time we are going to see a play at the nearby Donmar Warehouse. [Location: Soho]
3) Chiltern Firehouse – This beautiful hotel in Marylebone, in a renovated former firehouse, is still going strong as THE see-and-be-seen London hotspot years after opening. We’ve seen a celebrity every single time we’ve come (the highlight was a New Year’s Day we spent curled up by the fire in the bar, sipping eggnog cocktails as Stephen Gaghan sat behind his laptop with his dog laying beside his feet). Owned by the proprieter of the Chateau Marmont in LA, the restaurant here feels like a scene and is a great place for people watching. Reservations are a must. The food is a bit beside the point. It’s decent, but very overpriced, and you don’t come here for the food. But for a special meal when friends are in town and you want to feel like you’re in the centre of things, it doesn’t disappoint. We particularly love the ladder shed bar, and recommend coming here for a drink.
4) Rules – This is the most quintessential, old school British restaurant (in fact they claim to be London’s oldest establishment), and we’ve been coming here on trips to London for years. From the moment you arrive, a porter with a top hat greets you, and ushers you in to this cosy, wood-panelled game restaurant specializing in British game. There is no better place to dine around the Christmas holiday, when pheasant feathers and baubles clutter the already crowded decor. Portraits of royalty and hunting dogs cover the walls, and there is a scandalous history of Kings and cabinet ministers coming for lunch with their mistresses. Edward VII is said to have entertained his mistress in the upstairs private dining room, and most recently Boris Johnson was in the news for spending Valentine’s Day at Rules in the company of a woman who was not his wife at the time. This review said it best: “[Rules] is always glowing, like the orphan hero of an Edwardian novel’s fantasy restaurant, designed to be watched from the outside: lush reds, bright lights, sweet meats, pies, puddings, and custards.” For more on the illustrious guests who have dined here (including Charles Dickens) read here. [Location: Covent Garden]
5) Dishoom – There are five outposts of this popular ‘Bombay café’ but we like the one in Shoreditch best. They have a large menu with twists on whatever your preconceptions are of Indian food. This is a restaurant to come to with a big group, and try as many different dishes as you can. The food is a series of small plates meant for sharing, and flavors are fresh and unique. They take reservations for parties over six, which is really the way to go because the wait to dine here can be long, and there’s no way to get around it. (We once tried a series of elaborate ruses to inflitrate the line which blew up in our face and is a story for another day. This place might as well be Fort Knox when it comes to their queue/pager system).
6) Rovi – We had to include at least one Ottolenghi restaurant, and Rovi has been the site of a few memorable dinners. The newest addition to Ottolenghi’s ‘modern Israeli’ empire, Rovi is a sleek, beautiful, comfortable restaurant with amazing food and perfect service. We’ve sat at the cushioned center bar stools for dinner with a friend, and come back for a four person birthday dinner in a corner booth. The space is impecably designed, and the soft wooden doors leading to the bathroom reminded us of places in Big Sur for some reason. The menu features small plates based around vegetables but loaded with flavor and sauces. You can accidentally eat vegetarian and feel completely satisfied here just by ordering from the small plates menu (courgettes with goat’s yoghurt and Malawah bread was a favorite, as were the tropea onions with whipped feta and green gazpacho). One of the best fish preparations we’ve ever had is the grilled halibut for two (it comes with an absurdly delicious coconut curry sauce), and the Jerusalem mixed grill can be served with meat, or vegetarian, for a nice sharing platter. Honorable mention goes to Nopi, an Ottolenghi restaurant we prefer for lunch, and any of his cafes scattered throughout London. [Neighborhood: Fitzrovia]
7) Smoking Goat – This hipster Thai restaurant in Shoreditch is our favourite East Asian food in London. We’ve spent three months living in Thailand and can attest that the potency of the spice and flavours are on point, while the setting is all East London cool. The portion sizes are enormous and the prices are good value, and the ambience and vibe are fun for a night out on the town, or a casual weeknight meal. We love this spot. [Neighborhood: Shoreditch]
8) Casse Croûte – We’ve already written about how this is one of our two favourite French restaurants in London, and it belongs on this list of top overall restaurants as well. We haven’t yet found a place that instantly tranports us to Paris the way this cosy little bistro in Bermondsey does. The daily blackboard menu has French classics (various rillettes, escargot, cassoulet…), and the charming French waitstaff are perhaps a bit nicer than you get in Paris, but authentic nonetheless. This can be a very cosy, romantic spot (it’s quite small and tables should be reserved to be sure you get a seat). The tiny bar is also one of our favourite solo dining venues in town. [Neighborhood: Bermondsey]
9) Lina Stores – If Wes Anderson had a small Italian restaurant in Soho serving delicious, fresh, handmade pasta, this would be it. The decor is pastel, twee and yes, instagram-worthy, but the food is unbelievably good, and well priced. Most pasta dishes cost between £7-£10, and portions are designed to allow you to try a few things, rather than one giant gut-busting bowl of pasta. We could happily taste our way down the entire pasta menu, though there are a few antipasti and desserts worth trying as well. We honestly haven’t had a bad bite from this restaurant, and it’s casual and inexpensive enough that we eat here regularly. They also have an authentic Italian deli around the corner that has a wide selection of imported goods if you need something to take home. [Neighborhood: Soho]
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