Eating in such a massive city like London comes with a few specific problems. But one comparatively new problem in a city whose modern restaurant scene has exploded — especially with limited time — is less where and how to eat well, but exactly what to eat and when.
This just-about-feasible itinerary offers a glimpse into how the city has evolved and how visitors, although they may wish to stay for the full bells-and-whistles lunch or dinner, can pop into many of London’s best restaurants for just a snack or a takeaway treat. It’s a guide that can be taken with a pinch of salt or one that can be followed to a T. Ultimately, it’s a guide that will ensure its users will eat extremely well — all of these restaurants have the invention and skill to flex in accordance with individual needs, dietary concerns, and everything in between.
So here it is: From a restorative Japanese breakfast through to a late-night Turkish grill, via a modern Chinese restaurant, a bakery, a pub, and thoroughly modern wine bar. Get ready.
Begin the day with a coffee at one of the essential London coffee shops — Kaffeine on Great Titchfield Street in Fitzrovia. It’s one of the original third-wave cafes, it now has a second branch on nearby Eastcastle Street, and David Beckham is a fan of its punchy espressos, silky flat whites, and enviable range of brioches, cakes, and salads. But you’re not here for the food. That’s what’s next, after a short walk into the heart of Soho.
One of London’s great (Japanese) restaurants serves one of the city’s greatest breakfasts. There are two ways to go: Order either the traditional Japanese breakfast (grilled fish, rice, miso soup, and pickles), or a breakfast udon noodle dish of fried bacon chunks, and egg yolk, with chopped spring onions. The advice on the latter is to stir in soy sauce, which delivers extra umami.
For those who opt to take a light breakfast at Koya, and still have room for something for something more substantial, and rich, there are few things as iconic as The Wolseley’s omelette Arnold Bennett — a rich, buttery hollandaise base, with smoked haddock, chives, and parmesan — and few more salubrious dining rooms in which to kick off a day (even for the second or third time.)
Since it’s going to be one of those days, why not separate lunch? A good idea is to head to one of only a few very good restaurants in Victoria and have a few baskets of dim sum at Michelin-starred A. Wong. As well as serving first class modern Chinese food, chef/owner Andrew Wong’s dim sum — including immaculate xiaolongbao soup dumplings with vinegar and tapioca pearls — are available by the individual piece. If it’s a Friday or Saturday, then 40 Maltby Street — which some say is French in disguise — offers a real insight into what contemporary British cooking looks like. The blackboard menu changes every day, but there’s always a pie, often a terrine, and always something that will remind you why it’s one of London’s best restaurants. Props to anyone who manages both.
Yes, 24 hours in London must include a visit to the vaunted home of mince on toast. But, given all else to eat in such a limited time, the trick here is to stop into the shop next door for meat encased in pastry: a pork pie, or sausage roll — fresh out of the oven. (Even if there are none fresh, pick one up from the deli refrigerator and save it for breakfast the next day.)
A visit to London for someone interested in food must not exclude a brush with the St. John brand, no matter how fleeting. Depending on how one feels, there might be room for a slice of Welsh rarebit or a plate of roasted bone marrow with parsley salad, but it’s more likely that a sugar hit is more in order by now. For that, there are doughnuts filled with vanilla or chocolate creme patissiere, or jam. But the real sweet hack is half a dozen still-warm madeleines to take away which should be eaten while regrouping on a walk through Shoreditch, in preparation for further eating.
The tasting menu at this Michelin-starred, Shoreditch institution — London’s highest placed restaurant in the dubious, but powerful, World’s 50 Best list — is up there with only a few essential fine dining experiences in London. But that would mean missing out on some less time-consuming eating elsewhere. So, get a seat in the bar, order from the clever cocktail list and get a plate of the inimitable pine salt buttermilk fried chicken. It’s now the only dish available to eat in the bar. (Open from 6 p.m.)
There are many reasons to visit the Lower Clapton (natural) wine bar and shop that Eater awarded London restaurant of the year in 2017. The operators have changed the template of a wine bar in 2018, with the head chef role rotated every six months consistently making it one of the most dynamic and exciting places to eat in the city. The current chef, Seb Myers, is taking the space back to its roots in European winemaking and drinking traditions, with food that feels like it belongs in the most urbane French countryside auberge that any diner could imagine. (Food is served only in the evening, Thursday — Sunday)
Head back into Shoreditch for dinner at Brat, one of the hottest London restaurant openings of 2018. The restaurant here is named after turbot (Brat is an old English name for the large flat fish) and the restaurant grills that gelatinous sea creature with great care and attention. However, given the circumstances, something a little more modest might work better: Perhaps a plate of roast duck, served with radicchio, and cherry; or a few bites of whipped cod’s roe on toast, a plate of perfect tomatoes with olive oil and salt, grilled flat bread with Cantabrian anchovies, langoustine, velvet crab, or Moorland beef tartare. A massive, excellent wine list put together by the owners of Noble Rot plumps for traditional styles, mainly eschewing the more trendy natural style of winemaking.
It’s London, so it’s important to go to the pub. For a straight-up boozer, there’s the Wenlock Arms just off City Road, that’s worth a look. A spit n sawdust venue, whose existence was only recently ensured by an enthusiastic local residents group who protested its planned demolition. But, if there’s still some room to eat, then the Marksman on Hackney Road represents probably the best example of a gastropub 2.0 and hasn’t completely lost its old-school east end drinking den identity.
Still awake? There’s a strong case for staying on Hackney Road and heading over to one of the city’s most accomplished late-night restaurant wine bars, The Laughing Heart — which is open 2pm — 2am Monday to Saturday — but it’s as good an idea to head north, and up Kingsland Road to Dalston, where the air is filled with the aroma of grill smoke from the many Turkish ocakbaşi. Mangal 2 is the pick here, and not just because of the very competent cooking (go for a çöp şiş — tender chunks of grilled lamb), but because its something of a family-run institution which counts Turner Prize-winning artists Gibert and George among its most trusted patrons, too.
For further recommendations, check out London’s best coffee shops, bakeries, lunch deals, sandwiches, ice cream, tea spots, wine bars, pubs, essential restaurants, and the hottest restaurants in town, right now.