Today we announce the winners of the fifth annual Eater London Awards, celebrating the restaurants, people, and dishes that made the biggest mark during what has been an unprecedented period of uncertainty and change. In 2020, there were no awards, so this year the gongs have been distributed with that in mind — honouring those who may not have opened in 2021 but whose impact on London and its dining scene has been extraordinary in this and last year.
And here they are: From a British-Nigerian debut in Brixton, to a decades-old neighbourhood Thai restaurant which pivoted to takeaway (and so far hasn’t pivoted back), to a business which repeatedly adapted through lockdowns and changing government advice during the pandemic, and a brand new street food stall which shot to cult status through bike deliveries and Insta hype during the course of eight long months; from the hottest restaurant, best dish, and the best thing that no longer exists, these are those things that have taken the London food scene by storm in the last 18 months.
Thank you for reading and congratulations to all of this year’s winners. Here’s a little more about this year’s best of the best.
Adejoké – Joké – Bakare opened her debut restaurant in Brixton a mere six weeks before lockdown forced her to close. That was in September 2020 at a time when restrictions had eased and Londoners had spent their summer “eating out to help out”. It would prove to be a short-lived reprieve and with hindsight an inopportune moment to open a restaurant. And yet, Bakare carried on as best as she and her team could: Moving into the meal kit business to sustain an income, before she as finally able to reopen the dining room in May of this year. Dishes like pork belly asun with charcoal-grilled peppers and onions, jollof rice, kale salad; cassava fritters; and degue with pear exhibit Bakare’s talent for executing dishes which are rooted in the flavour profiles and ingredients of West African culinary traditions, but which belong to London in 2021.
Most Adaptable Restaurant Through the Pandemic
London’s “pandemic restaurant” adapted numerous times through the course of 2020 and into 2021: First going from a sit-down trattoria to a fresh pastificio, a grocer, wine shop, picnic delivery service, meal kit purveyor, takeaway sandwich shop, and bakery. Its success through the pandemic is part of the reason chef-patron Mitshel Ibrahim and his team will open a second restaurant in 2022. In December 2020, Ibrahim told Eater London, “the best thing that could have happened to Ombra was this virus.”
Fried potato and smoked eel at Sessions Arts Club
Chef Florence Knight’s Sessions Arts Club could have won the award for best dining room, but that wasn’t an award given out in 2021. Instead, Knight’s mastery in the kitchen is honoured. It is perhaps fair to say that Sessions’s brilliance caught some unawares — a restaurant predicted to be good, though not as exceptional as it is. It is also clever and there is no dish on the menu that better demonstrates Knight’s skill and ingenuity than the fried potato, smoked eel, and cod’s roe, which sees the eel embedded inside the carbohydrate like some sort of perfect smoky fish-and-chip millefeuille.
If Sessions was the most glamorous restaurant opening of 2021, then Cafe Cecilia was the hottest. And the trendiest. Preview dinners saw the attendance of fashion’s cognoscenti, alongside those from the art and food worlds. Since it opened proper, it has maintained a steady flow of plaudits from all the coolest places — in part because of chef-owner Max Rocha’s connection to the world of fashion (he is the son of designer John and sister Simone Rocha.) However, there’s a surfeit of substance as well as style, here. M. Rocha and his staff belong to a new-school which is a direct descendent of the ingredients-obsessed old-school: those like the River Cafe, Rochelle Canteen, and Quo Vadis. And like peer Anna Tobias’s cooking at Cafe Deco, it is can be a bit beige, but is so often bright, clever, and deserving of the attention it has received this year.
Best Restaurant Takeaway
In the spring of 2020, after briefly considering shutting the restaurant and waiting it out, chef and owner Sirichai Kularbwong decided he and his family would pivot to takeaway. Takeaway on their own terms: No delivery and certainly no meddling from third-parties like Deliveroo. Cut to December 2021 and the restaurant has never reopened its dining room. From Wednesday through to Sunday, Thelma Kularbwong answers the phone, takes orders, and holds the fort — handing out bags containing boxes of moo krob, sour curries, fried ribs, mangosteen and pomelo salads, steamed fish, and whole crabs in white carrier bags for collection. Singburi is a perfect neighbourhood restaurant even before a dish has been tasted. After, just as its many many regulars have realised, it is one of the best all-round restaurants in the city, which in pandemic-times is indisputably the city’s finest takeaway.
Most Justifiably Hype Foodstuff
Sonora’s tortillas de harina
Peerless. It’s as simple as that. Michelle Salazar de Rocha and Sam Napier’s flour tortillas entered the east London homes of many bereft food lovers shortly after lockdown was announced in March 2020. Somehow both extraordinarily rich and light, the tortillas are akin to fine roti, a magisterial bread, which is just as good a vehicle for a salt fish choka as it is scrambled eggs and refried beans. At one point demand massively outstripped supply, with the owners later telling Eater that they had produced and sold 32,000 in eight months. It was a case of believing the hype.
The Best Thing That No Longer Exists
So long ASAP Pizza, and farewell chef Pam Yung. The team behind Lyle’s and Flor introduced London to a unique style of pizza — neither wholly New York, nor Neapolitan, the ASAP was a London pizza. Silly names could not detract from first-class bases made with heritage wheats, breads which could have been enjoyed on their own, and the same ingredients used in the kitchens of its world-class sister restaurant in Shoreditch. While Yung has left the group and ASAP has said goodbye, its reception throughout 2020-21 in a city which is dominated by traditional Neapolitan pizza, is proof that it ought never say never again.