London restaurants: where to dine, and where not to dine

Dabbous Rhubarb Pudding - London restaurants - FooDiva

Dabbous’ rhubarb pudding

As soon as my sister left Dubai for London last year, I started planning a holiday to the foggy city. Before then, most of my escapades to Europe have been to Paris, arguably the culinary capital of the world and my husband’s home. Yet, with twelve Parisian escapades under my belt and a penchant for discovering new places, London was calling. Less grandiose than the City of Light (or love, depending on your experience), my most surprising and satisfying discovery was London’s ever-changing culinary scene.

As a notorious itinerary maker, planning our meals and booking tables at various restaurants before taking off is something that I relish. Call me pernickety, but to me, food is as crucial a part of any holiday as are visiting museums, art galleries, or major sights. With a plethora of great restaurants with myriad cuisines and concepts to choose from, London is a delicious city for foodies. To even choose where to go or compile a list of top restaurants is a gargantuan task that even the most seasoned restaurant reviewer won’t find easy. You will always find ever-changing menus with local produce and seasonal ingredients put to test. One is really spoilt for choice.

So here’s a FooDiva round-up of my 11 favourite restaurants that I’ve tried over the course of two recent visits over the last year. To save you some disappointment, I’m also adding 6 restaurants that are best to avoid. A couple of points to note – most of these establishments offer seasonal menus, so you may not be able to eat the same dishes. And secondly, the round-up is missing many other restaurants that I have yet to try, and many casual eateries and street food trucks that London is famous for. One more reason to return!

Tried-and-tasted top 11 favourites, in alphabetical order:

Barrafina - London restaurants - FoodivaBerners Tavern - London restaurants - FoodivaDinner By Heston Blumenthal - London restaurants - FoodivaFrenchie London - London restaurants - FoodivaKoffmann's - London restaurants - FoodivaMews of Mayfair - London restaurants - FoodivaPortland restaurant London - London restaurants - FoodivaRabbit restaurant London - London restaurants - Foodiva

  • Barrafina – what a gem! Freshly made, generous, and exquisite Spanish tapas with quick and friendly service make Barrafina the perfect lunch spot. Some must-tries include the milk-fed lamb brain, crab croquetas, the braised ox tongue, arroz de marisco, and the fennel and pear salad. It is very easy to over order and while away a few hours at Barrafina, but no regrets there. Three locations in Soho, Covent Garden and Theatreland – the former boasts one Michelin star. No reservations policy, and oddly can only accommodate up to four people per table.
  • Berners Tavern at the London Edition hotel – a majestic and elegant dining room that is simply too beautiful and romantic to miss. We went there twice, once for breakfast and another time for brunch, and on both occasions, the food did not disappoint. One of British chef Jason Atherton’s restaurants, everything from the airy waffles to light pancakes and perfectly executed eggs were delicious. My personal favourite were the Moroccan eggs, a take on the classic North African shakshouka, topped with yoghurt, it was pungent with flavour. Looking nothing like a tavern, Berners is still on my list for lunch or dinner.
  • Dabbous – with one Michelin star, the set lunch menu at Dabbous is great value for money. At £28 for three dishes, it’s an excellent option for a quick yet delectable lunch stop. Portions were on the small side, but dishes were simple with great flavours and sharp execution. I tried the Middle Eastern inspired barbeque lamb with mint and lemon, and finished with a refreshing and texturally perfect rhubarb, geranium and poppy seed crumble served with an ice-cold rhubarb juice. Simply sublime.
  • Dinner by Heston Blumenthal – with two Michelin stars, a number 45 ranking on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (just plummeted from no 7!), and a unique concept emphasising historical British gastronomy, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal serves reinvented and modernised bygone foods from the 14th century onward. While the food inspiration may be medieval, service was professional and the dining room modern with great vibes for a weeknight, which is when we tried Dinner. The starters and desserts were excellent, especially the ‘meat fruit’ starter, a playful take on chicken liver pate wrapped in mandarin jelly, and the ‘tipsy cake’ with pineapple dessert – airy, warm, and wonderful.
  • Dishoom  the place to go in London for affordable and delicious Indian food served as tapas, sharing-style. We tried Dishoom in Covent Garden (there are other newer outposts in Carnaby, Kings Cross and Shoreditch) and given the long queue in rainy weather, it must be popular. They don’t take reservations unless you’re a group of six or more, which we were thankfully. The two-storey restaurant was packed, with a buzzing atmosphere. Must-try dishes? The black house daal, chicken ruby, lamb biryani, chicken tikka, keema pau, and all their deliciously warm naan breads. 
  • Frenchie – another gem imported from Paris, Frenchie is one of London’s newest fine dining addresses and chef Gregory Marchand’s first London outpost (and nickname, hence the venue name). The menu is seasonal and a cross between French cooking techniques and British seasonal ingredients. Perfect execution, delicious flavours, and friendly service, this place is a must-try. If you happen to visit in the spring, my favourite dishes include the rhubarb foie gras, bacon scones with maple syrup, and the pigeon with beetroot and kumquats. As unsavoury as it may sound, the bitter sweet chocolate tart with bacon ice cream was exceptional. If you only have one night in London, Frenchie is my top recommendation.
  • Koffmann’s – Koffman’s by French chef Pierre Koffmann is a classic fine dining establishment. Very formal, quiet, and catering to a serious crowd, it’s the perfect venue for a business dinner. Yet, the food and service were excellent, especially the roasted chicken a deux and the strawberry panna cotta.
  • Mews of Mayfair – the classic British Sunday roast was simply succulent. Tucked in a quiet alleyway in the middle of posh Mayfair, the Roast and Toast menu stands at £20 for two dishes. Do try the tender roast sirloin served with a deliciously moreish Yorkshire pudding. Service was bordering on pompous, but the food and wine make up for it.
  • Portland – we tried Portland before it won its well-deserved first Michelin star. It’s a small, cosy place with wonderful food and an affordable wine list that changes every month. The menu is seasonal relying mostly on fresh ingredients. From appetisers all the way to a delicate yuzu curd and green tea dessert, the food was delectable and the experience positively memorable.
  • Rabbit – seasonal, farm to table cooking and an ever-changing menu made to share, this casual, charming restaurant is almost hidden on Chelsea’s busy King’s Road. Rabbit is our go-to place whenever we can’t think of another dining option. The owners and chefs also operate the farm from which most of their seasonal ingredients helm, and the restaurant is the classic definition of ‘farm to table’ sustainable British food. Portions were on the small side, so over ordering is expected. Try the rabbit tagliatelle with tarragon, the broad bean hummus to share, or the mushroom ravioli – all delightful choices.
  • Social Eating House – if you don’t mind somewhat pretentious service but love homely British cooking that awarded chef Jason Atherton one Michelin star, Social Eating House is a solid choice. The ambiance was vibrant and trendy and the food purely comforting. An excellent wine list is on offer, complimented by playful starters (think upscale mason jar food) and tasty desserts.

6 restaurants best avoided:

Bar Boulud - London restaurants - FoodivaBarnyard - London restaurants - FoodivaBocca di Luppo - London restaurants - FoodivaSosharu - London restaurants - Foodiva

  • Bar Boulud – as a fan of New-York based French chef Daniel Boulud, his restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Knightsbridge was a let down. The packed restaurant oozed ambience and great vibes but the food was average at best. How can a Boulud restaurant serve oily and under-seasoned French fries? Moreover, service was spotty and unreliable. Overall, a mediocre dining experience that was not worth our bill.
  • Barnyard  Barnyard is chef Ollie Dabbous’ take on modern British food. After an exquisite experience at his Michelin-starred namesake, we expected another wonderful lunch, if the reviews were to be believed. The experience was inconsistent at best – half the food was good and fresh (the chicory salad is one to fondly remember), but the rest was inedible. With dry and unchewable homemade sausage rolls, and a Yorkshire pudding that smelled and tasted like bad eggs, the discrepancies between Dabbous and Barnyard were disappointingly striking.
  • Bocca di Lupo – a hyped yet disheartening Italian restaurant. Portions were small and not filling. My pasta bolognese was dry and overcooked, I didn’t even finish it. The tagliata that our waitress recommended be shared for three people could very well feed only one, and at a hefty price, we left hungry. The rhubarb baba au rhum dessert was the only redeeming dish. I wouldn’t waste your pennies.
  • Dean Street Town House – a botched Sunday roast experience. The meat was served cold and dry; the roast potatoes were under-seasoned, the ‘seasonal’ vegetables appeared to be frozen then steamed, and the Yorkshire pudding was oily. The cauliflower gratin had hints of cauliflower but was mostly tasteless. Underwhelming food served in a beautiful Georgian-style room, but with the food so dire, the decor faded away.
  • Locanda Locatelli – if I were a Michelin inspector, I would strip Locanda Locatelli from its sole Michelin star that it so proudly boasts. By all reviews, it’s supposed to be the best Italian in London and yet service was abhorrently bad, our waitress was nowhere to be found on several occasions, and the food was below average. I ordered the linguini agla scampi (langoustines) and allow me to summarise the experience for you in one sentence. I’ve had much better pasta (and a tastier tiramisu) at Jamie’s Italian (for way less)!
  • Sosharu – the new Japanese-cum-sushi spot by Jason Atherton. The setting and decor are beautiful but the food was very, very average. Nothing tasted bad, but nothing was stellar. I was not impressed with any of the six dishes on the lunch tasting menu. The strawberry kakigori dessert felt like a lazy attempt – crushed ice with a drizzle of strawberry coulis – it looked pretty but tasted of nothing and to place it on a tasting menu was a glaring faux-pas. Add to that, very slow service, inconsistent dishes, and extremely dirty bathrooms (I apologise, but this had to be said), I would not go back there even if they paid me.

For additional inspiration, check out the top 50 London restaurants by Marina O’Loughlin in The Guardian. Tell me, which restaurants have you tried and loved in London? Do you have any botched experiences to share?

Till my next visit,

SJ

Who is FooDiva’s guest reviewer SJ? By day, she is a professor of political science. By night, she shares her cooking, travelling and dining out adventures on Instagram here.

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6 Responses to “London restaurants: where to dine, and where not to dine”

  1. Matt Broderick June 15, 2016 at 12:06 pm

    Great article – I have tried many of these and can confirm that they are fab. I have been lucky and not tried the poor ones mentioned – in fact, the only place that springs to mind for a really bad experience is Shaka Zulu in Camden. The food was good but the incessant bongos, dancing and noise left me with a headache (no, it was not the wine!).

    My favourite (and I am constantly banging on about this) is Adam Handling’s. He used to be in a hotel in St. James’ Park but is now housed in Shoreditch (his first restaurant of his own – The Frog) and opened a couple of weeks ago. Koffman himself visited this week and it seems that Adam has hit the ground running. If you visit – make sure you have the beetroot dish and the yuzu dessert.

    One of my favourite London spots is the Trafalgar Tavern – perfect for some delicious whitebait and the sea smells from the river make the whitebait taste even better. Wander up to Blackheath and the Royal Observatory after to enjoy the best panoramic view of London there is.

    My final favourite is Black Axe Mangal – if you want something to blow you away then get to Islington for the culinary equivalent of a heavy-metal gig. Serving Turkish-inspred kebabs and not caring how it looks is brave but my word, the chef (Lee Tiernen) pulls it off. If you read the reviews for this place, you will be sure to visit!

    • SJ June 15, 2016 at 12:59 pm

      Thank you for the recommendations, Matt! I’ll be sure to try them out on my next visit! London has so many solid dining options, it’s really hard to choose where to eat!

  2. Dave Reeder June 16, 2016 at 5:22 pm

    Eating in London? It’s easy…

    I have three ‘go to’ places that never disappoint:
    1 – Pizza Express. Any branch, though I like the one near the British Museum the most as it’s a converted dairy with old school white tiles. Nothing fancy and the pizzas are smaller than they used to be, but with a roughish glass of red you can’t go wrong…
    2 – Wahaca. Thomasina Myers’ take on neo-Mexican food is a delight! If you’re in Soho, don’t think of anywhere else – great tequila, killer food, nice ambience. Probably my number one spot in London at present.
    3 – Hedone. Hey, it’s not cheap and it’s way out in Chiswick but the modern European food here is just stunning. Check the menu. Book a table. Enjoy.

    • SJ July 3, 2016 at 9:43 pm

      Thank you for the recommendations, Dave. Hedone is next on my list! I’ve been wanting to go there for a while but can never find a table… Will plan ahead for it next time Im in London.

  3. FooDiva July 3, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    Thanks to you I hardly had to do any research for my recent trip!

    I can vouch for your feedback on Dishoom, Frenchie, Barrafina and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal – all wonderful and very diverse experiences. I also tried the Wahaca chain (at Westfield) – as Dave mentioned, Thomasina Myers’ take on Mexican street food – the cactus tacos were excellent. Cocktails at Charlotte Street hotel were also fantastic – lapsang souchong mezcal sour in particular! Food not particularly good though.

    If I had to pick one out of these to return to, it would be Barrafina (and I’d like to try their other locations). Just loved sitting at the counter watching the chefs work away. So much atmosphere in Soho. The food was bursting with flavour. My lunch could have easily ran into dinner! That street has many good restaurants – Ceviche and newbie, Hoppers too.

    For a hotel recommendation, I stayed at a boutique hotel, La Suite West in Bayswater, one of Anouska Hempel’s babies. Slick design and very affordable.

    Thanks SJ 🙂

    • SJ July 3, 2016 at 9:49 pm

      Very happy that you liked the recommended restaurants, Samantha! Your trip looked fantastic! Barrafina’s menu is very rich — it deserves a second visit. I loved the atmosphere of the place too. I never have to stay in a hotel when I visit but I checked out the Firmdale Hotels chain once — Charlotte Street hotel is one of them — and the rooms looked fantastic! I might go check out the bar next time 😉

I’d love to receive your feedback, so feel free to comment any time.