Looking over this list, one thing is clear: the years following the Great Recession were perhaps the most fertile period in London restaurant history. Places that are now buttoned-down, bolted-on classics made their bones in a time of unprecedented change; that many have survived this long is, in its own way, fairly extraordinary.
The other thing that stands out is how visually arresting so many of the entrants are — a testament to the growing power of Instagram to make the “greatness” of a dish a question of outward aesthetics as much as the old-fashioned boring stuff, like how it actually tastes. But not, it must be emphasised, the sole consideration.
So many of these restaurants have lasted not just because they have served dishes that have resonated out into the broader restaurant-going culture, but because when people have visited to check out *the* dish in question, they have found a reason to come back, again and again. That’s what makes these the dishes that defined the decade.
Meat Fruit | Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
One of the decade’s richest dishes is a suitably luxuriant signature statement from Heston Blumenthal’s gilded, two Michelin-starred Knightsbridge cage — undeniably beautiful, it’s also undeniably A Lot. It’s also a milestone for the last time a restaurant in this part of town felt properly relevant, now lost to the slow migration east, via Soho, that gathered steam and saw E1 replace SW1X as the dominant culinary postcode.
Truffle egg toast | Spuntino
“Russell Norman invented twenty-teens dining” would be an overstatement, but not by much. The merits of sharing plates have already been subject to a lengthy back-and-forth debate / culture flame war but their democratising force was one clear positive to emerge from the early 2010s — even if their reach is now so over-extended that the old starter-main-pudding triumvirate feels like a novelty again. For a while, though, it felt absolutely thrilling to be able to try so much delicious stuff, none more so than this classic from Norman’s much-mourned haute dive bar. Even if it did, perversely, make sharing highly undesirable.
Smoked eel sandwich | Quo Vadis
Quo Vadis itself has been in existence since 1926, but it was only in 2012 that it opened in its present incarnation, with Jeremy Lee — perhaps the most adored chef in London — at the helm. This three-bite delicacy pride of place on the always-gorgeous menu: the bread is French, the eels are Dutch, and the pickles and horseradish gesture towards Eastern Europe — a perfect summation of how the idea of “Modern British” would continue to evolve over the decade.
Coddled egg, smoked butter and mushrooms | Dabbous
People who weren’t there at the time won’t really get how big of a deal Dabbous was when it opened, but to put it in 2019 terms: Imagine Gloria, except if the food was great and the room was a David Fincher post-industrial nightmare. More fundamentally, it was also the last time a chef could get away with putting his name above the door in such bold style, as fine dining fell under the thrall of New Nordic, and its emphasis on time and place over individualistic brio. Probably the last time London’s hottest restaurant also had a Michelin star.
Confit potatoes | Quality Chop House
An all-time great potato dish, one with clear antecedents — most notably Thomas Keller and Fergus Henderson’s potato pavés – and, since 2017, a host of imitators. Credit for bringing the dish to London’s consciousness is silently and fiercely contested, but for some reason (hint: it’s Instagram and copyright) the dish has become synonymous with QCH. A bit like those baking pans that give extra edges to your brownies, the stroke of genius here is the extra surface area exposed during frying, ensuring a crunch that even one of Heston’s triple cooked chips would struggle to emulate.
Feta and honey cheesecake | Honey & Co
At a recent breakfast at Honey & Co, a member of staff was describing how customers would frequently come in, point to a photo on their phone, and say: “Bring me that.” That was the now-legendary feta and honey cheesecake, a triumphant fusion of salt, fat, acid and sweet that elevated Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich’s cosy Fitzrovia cafe up to the top table of London restaurant hype. All their other puddings and bakes are just as worthy of praise, but nothing lasts as long on the memory as this one.
Fried chicken with pine salt | The Clove Club
If Ollie Dabbous moved British fine dining one step away from its fusty, stifling origins, Isaac McHale took an even more decisive leap, relocating its London focal point to Shoreditch’s town hall and putting fried chicken and pakoras on an equal footing with scallops and black truffle. Michelin bafflingly continues to deny McHale more than his current single star, but in a sense that doesn’t matter: the first one, as with James Lowe’s a few minutes away at Lyle’s, was proof enough that the city’s culinary map had been entirely redrawn.
Muntjac biryani | Gymkhana
There had been statement Indian restaurants before this, of course: the original Chutney Mary, The Star of India, The Cinnamon Club. But nowhere captured the popular imagination quite like Gymkhana — a restaurant that turned British high street curry house clichés on their head and wrested ingredients like brains, guinea fowl and venison away from their haute cuisine oubliette. Celebrities would descend; ecstatic reviews would be forthcoming. And Mayfair would soon welcome many more high-end Indian openings — a sign of London’s hunger for cooking that excels on its own terms, rather than pandering to British expectations.
Chilli fish sauce wings | Smoking Goat Soho
‘Nu-Thai’ is an unfortunate label to describe a cuisine with an extraordinarily diverse and ancient heritage, but in fairness Central London had never seen anything like this — food that moved away from the creamy curries popularised by chains like Thai Square and towards something more in thrall to the punchier, more astringent flavours of Northern Thailand. Ben Chapman and co have since perfected their approach at Kiln and popularised it in Shoreditch, but this dish will forever remain the calling card of a very specific moment in the evolution of the capital’s tastes.
The classic bao | Bao
The moment when the line between street food and restaurant food blurred for good. The recession meant a lot of people who might otherwise have opened restaurants were forced to limit their cost base serving out of food trucks; this was one of the first examples of a street food outfit making the leap into bricks and mortar. By the end of the decade, private equity had seized opportunity so gleefully and pumped so much into funding breakneck expansions that a brand new hospitality industry crisis was born. But the classic endures, and still draws crowds to Soho, Fitzrovia, Borough, and Netil Market to this day.
Beef and barley bun | The Marksman
Not the best bun on the menu — that would be the curried lamb — but still an absolutely unimpeachable couple of bites, the Marksman’s most famous dish defined a decade of drink-adjacent eating. By the end of the decade, snacks would share menu real estate on a level footing with small and large plates, as eating became less about following a prescribed route through an evening and more a meandering social affair punctuated at different points by stuff coming out of the kitchen. Still: the route to true contentment at the Marksman remains the bun-pie-honey-tart triumvirate.
Dead Hippie | Meatliquor
If the burger of the 2000s is best represented by Daniel Boulud’s gourmet, almost architectural creation at Bar Boulud, there is no better icon of the 2010s’ boom than this self-consciously trashy / sloppy / dirty / filthy / obscene sandwich, a delirious mash-up of high street fast food staples and highly skilled street food nerdery. Tastes may have subsequently moved onto the more overtly plant-based and, ahem, flexitarian, but the once-booming burger category knows who to thank for breaking new ground in the first place.
Squid ink flatbread with egg yolk and cod’s roe | Black Axe Mangal
The lamb offal flatbread may be the one menu mainstay since Lee Tiernan opened this peripatetic mangal in 2015, but there’s no contesting which dish gets the most attention on Instagram. Its flamboyant glitter-strewn appearance conceals the fact it’s actually an inherently conservative combination — St John serves a similar set of flavours, subbing in potatoes as the carb — reflecting the innate culinary good sense at the heart of everything on this essential London restaurant’s menu.
Biang biang noodles | Xi’an Impression
The diversity and quality of London’s Chinese restaurants — in Chinatown and around the city — have only been given the attention they deserve in mainstream food circles in the last five years, with palates once sated by gloopy Anglo-Cantonese standards fully awake to the joys provided by a new wave of Uighur, Hunanese and Sichuan restaurants. Credit at least part of the resurgence to Wei Gurong’s no-frills Highbury treasure, which — along with its two award-winning sequels — brought Xi’an food to the attention of grateful Central Londoners. If it had opened a decade ago, it might have snuck into a list of the city’s best cheap eats – these days, its rightly heralded as not just one of London’s best-value restaurants, but one of its essential ones, too.
Mozzarella | P. Franco
Or any of the other beautiful, elegant dishes with which William Gleave quietly announced the opening of a major new force in London dining. The formula — half Parisian cave, half chef’s table, all low-intervention wine — is so commonplace now that it is easy to forget how revolutionary it felt to all but the most well-travelled of Londoners; if the cramped space and occasionally lean wines remain a deterrent to a certain kind of diner, it’s their loss. As significant for the second half of the 2010s as Polpo was for the first.
Pici cacio pepe | Padella Pasta
The pasta dish that launched a thousand imitators, nearly all of them inferior. Historians of the future, delving into The Great London Pasta Boom (2015-2030) may struggle to compute exactly why people were willing to queue for literal hours for hot dough in cheese sauce, but Padella’s self-perpetuating hype relied on precisely this sort of anti-logic: if people queued, it must be worth it. Borough Market neighbour El Pastor and Soho Sri Lankan Hoppers induced similarly bonkers wait times, at least at first, but nowhere else has been keeping punters waiting so long, for quite so long.
Whole turbot at Brat
The most recent restaurant dish on the list, and perhaps the single simplest one, too. This is not to understate the skill that goes into cooking one of these majestic beasts properly — merely to observe how far the pendulum can swing in a relatively short period of time. In 2010, the signature dish at the hottest restaurant in town was a laborious confection equal parts baroque theatricality and Willy Wonka inventiveness. Fewer than ten years later, it was a bit of fish cooked over live fire in the manner of a specific seafood restaurant in the Basque country. And if the whole protein! logs! smoke! men! thing seems to be burning with a little less heat than it used to, the instant classic Brat seems built on sturdier foundations.
Maple bacon croissant | Popham’s
It takes a special sort of pedant to observe that this is technically an escargot. And besides, that’s kind of beside the point: Pophams could have called it a Meat Danish and punters would likely still have Instagrammed it in their droves. It makes the list not (just) because of its virality, but because of what that virality suggests about where “iconic” dishes might be heading in the 2020s. The past 18 months have seen a dazzling proliferation of bakeries and hot item providers, many of them hanging all many ‘gram-worthy special editions off the most spurious of seasonal hooks. As fun as they are, they’re a pale substitute for the thought and care and effort that goes into building a concept that will last. Instagram’s rise — and the sort of places that it has brought along for the ride — might therefore be looked upon with more than a little alarm. After all, the London restaurant industry can’t survive without any actual restaurants.