It’s witching hour at Old Street, a hot mess of kebabs and flabby pizza. Men wipe glistening hands on suit trousers, and red chilli sauce smears across painted lips, as Friday night lurches into Saturday morning. Dinner is still underway on the Continent but, in London, the scrabble for sustenance proves that the late-night dining scene still has a long way to go.
Change is afoot, though. New restaurants are staying open later. The Laughing Heart serves steamed buns until 2am, while nearby Red Rooster deep-fries Drunken Doughnuts (with lemon curd and bourbon salted-caramel ice cream) until the early hours. This autumn, Smoking Goat will open round the corner, too, promising a “late-night canteen-style atmosphere.”
This mini boom in late-night dining coincides with the launch of the 24-hour Tube, and the appointment of Amy Lamé as the city’s first Night Tsar. She has been tasked with making sure that “London thrives as a 24-hour city,” fuelling a night-time economy worth £26.3 billion. In a period of closing clubs, sky-high rents and strangulating licensing laws, many feel that change couldn’t come sooner.
“London has improved its food offering beyond comparison in the past ten years, but its late-night options are still some distance from world leaders, like New York,” says Alan D Miller, chairman of the Night Time Industries Association. “We need more flexible licensing, because we have some of the best chefs and entrepreneurs in the world,” he says, pointing out that in New York — the city that never sleeps — kitchens are often still open at 4am, whereas strict licensing simply forces London to go to bed.
It’s a problem that Charlie Mellor, owner of The Laughing Heart on Hackney Road, is familiar with. “Every borough has its own policy toward late licences — not just the sale of alcohol, but also late-night refreshment. In Hackney, it’s deemed a saturation zone, so it’s very difficult to be granted a new liquor licence, or even an extension of a licence.”
Mellor got round this by buying an historic site and inheriting its licences. “Some clever cookie managed to get a clean sweep by licensing everything before anyone started caring,” he says of the building, which has proven licensed activities dating back to the 19th century. “Really, it’s the only way. If there were a barber shop on Hackney Road that got converted into a bar, then I’d know that whoever was behind it was greasing the palms of some official.”
Though Mellor “paid through the nose” for the licences attached to his lease, he figured that the demand justified the expense. “Within my industry and circle of friends, everyone felt there was a deficiency of places that stay open late.” Now The Laughing Heart’s special fried rice is a favourite among local chefs finishing a long shift. “We get hospitality workers and hospital workers, and cabbies heading home to Essex, who stop in for some Szechuan chicken wings and half a pint.”
On Bishopsgate, 24 Hr Polo Bar also attracts shift workers — particularly those in the emergency services — though owner Philip Inzani says that the boom in late dining means that the demographic of night diners is broadening. “Londoners are becoming more discerning,” he says. “Just because someone is leaving a club, it doesn’t automatically mean they want a kebab. Our customers want access to good-quality food, day and night.”
And yet, drinking on an empty stomach is a British pastime. It’s Malbec for “main course” and Mojito for “pudding” — without so much as a slider or pintxo in sight. At least now, when the night disappears, there’s the possibility of a proper meal at the end of it. Here’s five great places in London where you now can drink and eat late into the night.
The Laughing Heart (and cave)
The menu at The Laughing Heart — and its new, subterranean ‘cave’ — is just as eclectic as you’d expect from a late-night wine bar, dining room and off-licence on the Hackney Road. Some dishes are rooted in European cuisine, such as handmade pasta and slow-cooked ragù, but Eastern influences start to creep in as the night spirals on, hence that special fried rice, and Szechuan crème brûlée. An immense and often esoteric wine list makes it a top spot for a nightcap. Licensing means you can take a bottle home, but best drink in — it’s where the party’s at. 277 Hackney Road, London E2 8NA thelaughingheartlondon.com
Duck & Waffle
Sure, Duck & Waffle is in the Heron Tower on the fringes of the City, but its businesslike address doesn’t dull its sense of humour. As well as its signature dish — crispy duck leg confit with a waffle and mustard maple syrup, you can expect other clever twists, like ox cheek grilled cheese or spicy lamb sloppy joe. The restaurant is open 24 hours a day, and floor to ceiling windows make it a great spot to see the sun rise or set, with either a glass of fizz or a strong, strong coffee. 110 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AY duckandwaffle.com
This Chelsea stalwart has been going 24/7 for decades, and has been tipped by Gordon Ramsay as the “best place for a fry-up” in London. A recent refurb of the original Fulham Road site has seen it smarten up its act, so it’s now more than a greasy spoon, and excellent for a stack of buttermilk pancakes or a club sandwich in the early hours. The renovation coincides with the news that the restaurant group plans to roll out ten new sites by the end of 2019 — in Islington, Camden and Aldgate, as well as nationally in Manchester, Birmingham and Brighton. 325 Fulham Road, London SW10 9QL vqrestaurants.com
This British cafe — now sandwiched between a KFC and an Eat opposite Liverpool Street Station — has been sustaining Londoners since 1953, though the menu has changed somewhat over 60 years. There’s still the traditional English breakfast, Welsh rarebit, and steak and ale pie on offer, as well as imports like the banoffee shake and nachos. It’s really all about The Polo Bar steak burger, though, made from 100% grassfed beef. Grab a spot in a metro-tiled booth upstairs and bed in; the 24-hour Central Line means you won’t miss the last train home. 176 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4NQ polo24hourbar.co.uk
Red Rooster at the Curtain hotel
This Harlem restaurant hit Shoreditch at the start of the summer — bringing some of Barack Obama’s favourite soul food to London. It’s not the place to wind-down an evening, but to ramp it up. Art covers the walls and live music adds to one of London’s most exciting and fun new dining rooms. There’s crispy bird sandwiches and Lindy Hop Sours, now available until 2am on Thursday, Friday and Saturday ... which gives you enough time to catch a bit of sleep before the legendary Sunday Gospel Brunch and the magic cure of Harlem-style fried chicken accompanied by the House Choir. 45 Curtain Rd, London EC2A 3PT thecurtain.com/red-rooster