Touristy regions of capital cities get a hard time. Reductive narratives warn of over-crowding, streets lined with over-priced, poor quality “traps”, chains, souvenir shops, and slow-moving visitors. But that’s only part of the story. The geography of London’s West End, “theatreland” as it is also known, includes not just Soho, but Chinatown, too. Shorthand for an oversupply of fantastic places to eat and drink. More, in St James’s Market, visitors — like Londoners before them — will find one of the city’s most exciting and innovative fine-dining restaurants. Here’s a completely fabulous and totally unrealistic 24-hour guide to this vital part of the capital.
Begin the day with one of the best available cups of coffee in the city. Speciality coffee — quality drinks presented, explained, and served in a way that befits those drinks representing something culturally distinct — remains genuinely rare. Omotesando, a comparatively new arrival from Japan, eschews the airspace aesthetic, offers a service model designed for engagement over efficiency, and marries exacting preparation with the resonances of Italian and Japanese espresso cultures. —James Hansen
Opens 7.30 a.m. weekdays; 9 a.m. at the weekend.
One of London’s great (Japanese) restaurants serves one of the city’s greatest breakfasts. There are two ways to go here: 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 — and presents a magical preparation that refracts an English breakfast and spaghetti carbonara through the prism of Japanese noodle dish.
50 Frith St, Soho, London W1D 4SQ Opens 8.30 a.m. weekdays; 9.30 a.m. at the weekend.
Mid-morning snack at Rose Bakery, Dover Street Market
Take in some mid-morning shopping at what is one of London’s coolest and most prestigious high-fashion retail outlets. On the top floor, the venue’s only food and drink concession, Rose Bakery (a brand first founded in Paris by baker and author Rose Carrarini), offers an excellent range of cakes, pastries, and savoury snacks, in beautiful, if minimalist, surroundings. An actual hidden gem.
— Opens 11 a.m. weekdays; (midday Sundays)
Lunch at Kiln
Chef-restaurateur, Ben Chapman seldom does things by half. He’s one of the city’s most fastidious operators. Before cooking — specifically, Thai drinking food — piqued his interest, he’d occupied himself variously as an art gallerist, dj, and interior designer. Following the success of debut smash-hit, Smoking Goat, he travelled to northern Thailand on a research trip — in 2016. Since 2017, the findings have been on display at Kiln, a tiny, incongruous restaurant on Soho’s Brewer Street. In-house butchery of rare-breed British meat means prices are unusually fair; day boat fish means seafood jungle curries are extra fresh. Many of the Thai vegetables and herbs are grown for him in Cornwall and all of the cooking is done not with electricity or gas, but over charcoal, whether directly or mediated by woks. Curries here are often sour and nearly always hot. Larbs, salads, and grilled meats are seasoned exquisitely. On a number of levels, one of the city’s most remarkable restaurants.
58 Brewer St, Soho, London W1F 9TL — Lunch 12 p.m. — 3 p.m.
Mid-afternoon snack 1 at Jen Cafe
Beijing-style jiaozi, chubby and crimped, stuffed with pork mince and chives. Boiled they are slippery and glistening, a spartan dumpling showing off that pork. Fried as guo tie, they have crisp and caramelised skins and an irresistible hit from the oil. —Jonathan Nunn
Mid-afternoon snack 2 at Good Friend
Inimitable Taiwanese fried chicken: breast, popcorn, just the skin, and double-figures number of seasonings, like cumin, plum, chilli, seaweed, curry, or cheese powders. The perfect mid-afternoon central London pit stop.
Aperitif at Terroirs
London’s original natural wine bar celebrates its tenth birthday this year. For an industry and movement that has become synonymous with London’s trendy east end, there’s something particularly bizarre about this subterranean French institution having taken a foothold — and survived — on the edge of Trafalgar Square, for some the definition of the centre of London and an area not associated with the avant-garde.
5 William IV St, Charing Cross, London WC2N 4DN
Dinner at Ikoyi
St. James’s has had a hard time reinventing itself as a restaurant destination since opening in 2017. But Ikoyi, a fine-dining restaurant is a destination of genuine interest and quality in its own right. Head chef Jeremy Chan — together with business partner Iré Hassan-Odukale — looks to West Africa for inspiration but uses cooking sensibilities and techniques acquired at Noma, Hibiscus, and Dinner by Heston. Dishes such as wild Nigerian tiger prawn, with banga bisque; Jollof rice with smoked crab; and chicken efo with iru — a sauce of fermented locust beans, cassava, kale salt and preserved lemon, are unlike anything London has experienced before. At dinner time, there are two blind tasting menus: seven courses for £75 or 10 courses for £100.
1 St James’s Market, St. James’s, London SW1Y 4AH — Dinner from 5.30 p.m. (closed Sundays.)
Cocktails at Bar Américain
It’s only been open a few years, but the Bar Américain has the feel of a cocktail institution, such is the gift of the operators behind this group. Located in a basement, off Piccadilly Circus (and attached to the cult, oddly inexpensive Brasserie Zedel), it’s one of those fast-moving, high-volume places that runs like clockwork. The classics are correct, the service is brisk and courteous, and there’s usually live jazz wafting around. —Richard Godwin
Gelato from Gelupo
Grab a cup or cone of one of the city’s best ice creams: Seasonal creations might feature fig leaf, white truffle (!), or blood orange, alongside staples like vanilla, chocolate, or fresh mint stracciatella. Perfect for the five minute walk to...
...Quo Vadis for pudding
Chef Jeremy Lee is a man for all seasons; a chef with high status in the Modern British school of cooking; able and accomplished in all areas of the discipline: fine breads, pastries, and savouries. But, perhaps, his greatest gift is in the art of pudding. Not dessert; pudding. One of Lee’s most gifted alumni, Anna Tobias, has spoken of his capabilities in this field, especially at a time when minimalist desserts — as inspired by the New Nordic movement — have tended to resemble a healthy breakfast, more than they have maximalist combinations of dairy, fruit, sugar, and pastry. So find room for the likes of walnut meringue with caramelised pears, a pistachio cake with figs and mascarpone, or just a pile of profiteroles.
26-29 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 3LL — Closes at 11 p.m. so be on time.
Refreshments at the New Evaristo Club
If you know, you know. (Have a Peroni.)
Blur the parameters of the “day” at Old Town 97
Still awake? Chinatown used to be a village of nighthawks, but now only a smattering of Cantonese cafes still cater towards the late-night revellers and the post-shift chefs. Old Town ‘97 is one of them, still open until 4a.m., where the food is a compilation of the best midnight snacks. Ho fun in slippery egg sauce, charred and gloopy, sweet salted egg yolk chicken wings, better than average roast meats, and of course LSE rice. This original London off-menu option is eggs, cubed: pork belly in honey and pepper egg sauce, egg fried rice and a fried egg on top. —Jonathan Nunn
19 Wardour St, London W1D 6PL — Closes 4 a.m.
Ignore your instincts at Bar Italia
It’s probably time to order an espresso. At this point, it’s not about the taste.
22 Frith St, Soho, London W1D 4RF — Closes 5 a.m.
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.