Insider Guide: essential London restaurants

Trying to keep up with London’s food scene is silly business – but all the more fun for it. From historic institutions like St. John to new-school natty wine bars like Top Cuvée, food writer and Londoner Lydia Winter picks the essential London restaurants you need to try

Words by Lydia Winter
Last updated: June 16, 2022
Best London restaurants | a delicate dish with drops of green oil is served inside an art deco style coupe glass at Da Terra
Da Terra's Italian-Brazilian influenced dining

London’s food scene is dizzyingly, dazzlingly delicious; the city’s best restaurants a smorgasbord of culinary excellence that runs the gamut from world-leading Michelin stars to historic institutions to tiny BYOB neighbourhood favourites and noodle shops that have gained cult status, like Shuko Oda’s Koya. Each week there’s a clutch of new openings and pop-ups,  so much so that even as an insider, it’s hard to know which way to turn, and trying to check them all off becomes some sort of mad wild goose chase.

It’s hard to identify a prevailing food trend at any given time – we’ve had tacos, bao, regional Thai, pasta – but the overarching theme these days is a focus on seasonal cooking and sustainable sourcing, and so it should be. During the warmer months, London’s array of outdoor restaurants really comes into its own. Consider the recommendations below a short tasting menu of a city that’s totally obsessed with food: use it as your starting point and get ready to tuck in, preferably after an aperitif (or two) in one of London’s best cocktail bars.

Best London restaurants | A selection of the unique bao available at Bao Borough, from classic options like pork to tiny fried chicken burgers
A range of dishes from Bao Borough

BAO Borough

Best for: Informal dinners with mates (and impromptu karaoke nights)
Location: 13 Stoney Street, London, SE1 9AD
Price: Bao from 5.50 GBP/7 USD

BAO, run by Erchen Chang, Wai Ting and Shing Tat Chung, went from Netil Market stand in East London to one of the most well-known restaurant groups in London. This is in part due to banging baos, naturally – the Taiwanese founders led the charge in turning the pillowy buns into a household name here – but also because of their impeccable sense of style. Each location, whether the Soho original, the new BAO Noodle Shop in Shoreditch, or the Borough Market outpost with its downstairs karaoke room, is beautiful and just plain cool. The vibe is casual and the food is outrageously delicious, and each site has its own different bao fillings, so you’ll just have to go to them all. That being said, to make an evening of it, head to Borough, where you can peruse the market stalls and bask in the buzzing market vibe.
baolondon.com

Best London restaurants | wooden stools with brown leather cushioning around the bar at The Barbary
The intimate counter dining at The Barbary. Photo by Carol Sachs

The Barbary

Best for: Special dates
Location: 16 Neal’s Yard, London, WC2H 9DP
Price: Small plates from 4.50 GBP/6 USD

The Barbary is the kind of restaurant that you want to keep going back to – but the rest of London feels the same way, which means there’s one hell of a waiting list. It’s certainly worth it though: The Barbary is one of the most sought-after bookings for its fire-cooked Moorish, moreish cuisine and buzzy vibe. Most of the dining takes place at the counter; the lighting is low, and the music is pumping – perhaps not one for parents, but great for a one-on-one dinner (brownie points if you swing it for a date, and even more brownie points if you pair it with a night at the Henrietta Hotel, one of London’s most beautiful places to stay). The food is outrageously delicious, especially the plates of black salmon with dukkah and harissa lamb chops. Nip into the new little sibling The Barbary Next Door – yes, it’s next door – for a similarly inspired yet more bijou space.
thebarbary.co.uk

St. John Smithfield

Best for: Proper British cooking
Location: 26 St John Street, Barbican, London, EC1M 4AY
Price: Starters from 10.50 GBP/14 USD

The cooking of St. John’s chef-patron Fergus Henderson changed the way we eat in London and beyond – St. John was even planning to open an outpost in LA, currently on hold because of the pandemic. These are big words, but they aren’t without substance: Henderson brought our attention to nose-to-tail cooking when we were all blithely, boringly looking the other way, and in doing so, he created a London food legacy that’s still in full flow. His alumni – Lee Tiernan of heavy metal mangal Black Axe Mangal, and Doug McMaster of pioneering zero-waste restaurant Silo among them – have gone on to spawn a new wave of restaurants in this city. But back to St. John: there are a number of sites around London, but the Smithfield original is the best example, with an old-school dining room – white tablecloths, informal but informed white-jacketed staff – that compliments equally old-school British cooking. The essential dishes? Bone marrow salad, where you spread the marrow over a hunk of sourdough toast; flavour-packed ox liver; and half a dozen of the infamous madeleines.
stjohnrestaurant.com

Darjeeling Express

Best for: Elevated Indian with a dash of social justice
Location: 2a Garrick Street, London WC2E 9BH
Price: From 55 GBP / 72 USD for the tasting menu

Asma Khan remains the only London chef to ever feature on Netflix’s series Chef’s Table, which puts her restaurant top of the menu for food-o-philes visiting the city (you’ll also find it has a waiting list, so make sure you book in advance). The outspoken chef is known for being an advocate for gender equality, running a kitchen of just female chefs – but her cooking, too, lives up to the promise. It only recently relocated to Covent Garden, but rumour has it Khan is on the move again, so watch this space. Book in for a casual lunch of masala toasties, or for a slightly more elevated occasion, get the Royal Thali menu, which at 55 GBP per person will fill you up with a feast featuring mutton samosas and prawn malaikari, based on the Bengali-style coconut curry.
darjeeling-express.com

Best London restaurants | A selection of dishes at Manteca, like a wood-fired fish, the pork head croquette and the pig's ear ragu
A selection of dishes at Manteca

Manteca

Best for: Large appetites and carnivores
Location: 49-51 Curtain Road, London, EC2A 3PT
Price: Starters from 6.50 GBP / 8.50 USD

Pasta has been having a moment in London for a while now (and you can’t mention cacio e pepe without talking about Padella), but to swerve the queues and to get something just as good (in our humble opinion), go for dinner at Manteca. It’s a collaboration between David Carter (of iconic London barbecue restaurant Smokestak – also worth a visit) and Chris Leach, formerly of the Michelin-starred Petersham Nurseries Café down in Richmond. This manifests in an Italian-inspired menu with nose-to-tail dishes like pig’s ear ragout and crispy pig skin; crab cacio e pepe, and a seriously impressive wine list. There’s a clutch of great bars nearby, but if you want to start with a palate-opening amaro and stick with the Italian theme, head to Bar Swift for a quick sharpener.
mantecarestaurant.co.uk

Best restaurants in London | Tables lie in wait with cutlery and pristine white tablecloths in the dining room at Sessions Arts Club, in front of bare stripped walls and twin fireplaces

Sessions Arts Club

Best for: Those who want a table at the hottest ticket in town
Location: Old Sessions House, 24 Clerkenwell Grn, London, EC1R 0NA
Price: Starters from 9 GBP / 12 USD

Probably one of London’s most talked-about restaurants right now, Sessions Arts Club is a space that offers both style and substance. Taking over a former courtroom, it sits tucked away up a side street, behind a red door, in a cavernous space that’s been beautifully restored, with purposely untouched sections of unplastered walls, a sweeping staircase, and hulking old service lifts. The space doubles up as an art gallery, and the food comes from Florence Knight, whose talents truly shine in this endeavour. Plum bellinis, clams steamed in riesling, and crab croquettes are just some of the dainty delicacies to expect here (as are fairly steep prices). The restaurant has also just unveiled a new rooftop restaurant, with views over the London skyline.
sessionsartsclub.com

Best London restaurants | The dining room at Da Terra, with a round table laid out with glassware and napkins, midcentury modern wooden chairs and parquet flooring
The dining room at Da Terra

Da Terra

Best for: A seriously special evening
Location: 8 Patriot Square, London, E2 9NF
Price: Short menu from 150 GBP / 197 USD

London is home to a slew of Michelin stars, so if that’s your bag, you’re in good company. Even within that category, Da Terra, a gorgeous space in the equally gorgeous Town Hall Hotel (another one of London’s loveliest places to stay), seems to sit a bit under the radar – and here’s exactly why it shouldn’t: Brazilian-Italian cuisine that’s been recognised with two stars, served with a warm yet elegant approach. You can choose between the short (seven courses) or long (ten courses) tasting menus, but beyond that your meal will be a mystery until you sit down. The only thing you need to know is that you’re in safe hands with chef Rafael Cagali, who uses British ingredients to create dishes like a show-stopping delicate ravioli, plump with duck, served in a whey sauce, and topped by a tiny but lip-smackingly gorgeous sliver of duck bacon. Before or after, head for a drink at Coupette (on the World’s 50 Best Bar List) and you’ll be in for a stellar evening.
daterra.co.uk

The Camberwell Arms

Best for: Refined pub grub
Location: 65 Camberwell Church Street, London, SE5 8TR
Price: Starters from 8 GBP / 11 USD

Pubs aren’t just places for a pint: London is home to a slew of brilliant boozers that put just as much thought into their cooking as their selection of beers. There are heaps to choose from – but we’ve included The Camberwell Arms in, er, Camberwell, because it requires an adventure to the depths of leafy South London, and because it serves dishes like scotch bonnet pork fat on toast, and lemon sole with puntarelle and anchovy butter. And before you start to worry about what else to do in the area, it even has a bar upstairs for cocktails, wine and snacks that stays open till late – making this a one-stop eating and drinking shop.
thecamberwellarms.co.uk

Best London restaurants | The wood-panelled bar area at Top Cuvée's Highbury restaurant
The wood-panelled bar area at Top Cuvée's Highbury restaurant

Top Cuvée

Best for: Catch up dinner and natural wines with your best friend 
Location: 177B Blackstock Road, London, N5 2LL
Price: Tasting menu around 50 GBP / 65 USD

A visit to Top Cuvée will take you out of the main haunts of Shoreditch and Soho, and into one of London’s lesser-known neighbourhoods: Highbury, just north of Angel. The main thoroughfare, Highbury Park (which transitions into Blackstock Road as it heads north) can, at points, feel a bit shabby, but it’s undergoing a restaurant renaissance. Top Cuvée, a natural wine bar and seasonal small plates restaurant, is as cool as they come, and became a known name during the Covid-19 lockdowns thanks to some guerilla-style social media marketing and their wine delivery service. Head to the restaurant now, and you’ll be treated to an evening (or lunch) of seasonal small plates (including a terrific terrine), and ‘natty’ wines (natural, organic and biodynamic). If you want to take some home with you, pop to their bottle shop Shop Cuvée around the corner. If you’ve come for lunch, Clissold Park is one of the loveliest spaces in London for a stroll, and the coffee shops and boutiques of bougie neighbourhood Stoke Newington lie just on the other side.
topcuvee.com

London's best restaurants | a bowl on a wooden table containing James Cochran's signature buttermilk fried chicken dish, with his famous scotch bonnet jam
1251's signature buttermilk fried chicken is so good customers often order a second portion instead of dessert. Photo by Jessica Jill Photography

1251

Best for: Affordability and utterly delicious food
Location: 107 Upper Street, London, N1 1QN
Price: Five-course tasting menu from 40 GBP / 52 USD

Tasting menu, shmasting menu: long considered the peak dining experience, they can sometimes leave you a bit cold with their pomp and circumstance. Not so at Islington’s 1251, where chef James Cochran leverages his Haitian and Scottish heritage to create an affordable, delicious and accessible menu. Dishes switch up regularly, but the fried chicken with scotch bonnet jam is one that put Cochran on the map – so much so that people regularly order it a second time instead of having dessert (although you absolutely should eat the chocolate tart too). For atmosphere, flavour and price, a meal at 1251 can’t be beaten, and you’re not far from Angel’s excellent clutch of pubs, either (Earl of Essex, we’re looking at you).
1251.co.uk

If that’s left you craving more of our insider insights into the best of London, you can find out more about the capital’s best museums and galleries, or the local artists beating the drum for London’s music scene.