For an island nation, Britain’s seafood culture is underdeveloped. Its rich waters do not give its coastal towns the kind of restaurants that are commonplace in the likes of Spain or Japan. Of course, the most common preparation for fish on this island is to batter it, fry it, and serve it with a mound of chipped potatoes. And yet, thanks to a new generation of London restaurants working with day boat suppliers, a few classics doing things the way they always have, and London’s immigrant communities ignoring Britain’s immaturity altogether, good seafood can be found in the capital. Here they are.Read More
Where to Find London’s Freshest Seafood
Slow-grilled dayboat turbot, briny oysters from Whitstable, sweet, tender shellfish, and more
1. The Sea, The Sea
The brilliantly creative Portuguese chef Leandro Carreira’s partnership with seafood specialist Bonnie Gull’s co-founder Alex Hunter has spawned two innovative seafood restaurants, this one also boasting a champagne bar in Chelsea. Here, a number of dishes take inspiration from Japanese cuisine — like clams chawanmushi with broad beans and squid with pine nuts and sake — as well as platters like crab with waffles and lettuce, and poached lobster with olive oil and pepper.
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Scott’s started out as an oyster bar in 1851, but it has since evolved into one of Mayfair’s iconic restaurants, and a reliable ‘banker’ for date nights, meetings, or even solo visits at the bar for oysters and champagne. Dover sole rightly remains a Scott’s classic, served either simply grilled or with a silky meunière sauce, expertly filleted at the table by one of the slick front of house. It ain’t cheap, but a fine fish such as this deserves the royal treatment it gets here.
3. Wiltons Restaurant
Said to be one of the two oldest restaurants in London (the other is Rules), Wiltons began life as an oyster cart. It has evolved into a restaurant that services the most formal of Britain’s political class, a sort of hostelry on Jermyn Street. Notable for a range of quality smoked fish, a Royal Warrant for supplying oysters, and one of London’s only iterations of the 1970s slice of nostalgia, lobster thermidor, it’s a place to go all in.
4. Bentley's Oyster Bar & Grill
Another seafaring centurion in the heart of Mayfair, Richard Corrigan’s temple to oysters is one of London’s most luxurious and luxuriant restaurant experiences. Start with one of six — or six of six — oysters, dip spoons into a coralled bisque of crab, and then, it’s decision time. Native shellfish — whether briny, chewy mussels or pinprick whelks — will always do well, but then so too will impeccable fish and chips or, to push out the proverbial boat, a whole lobster. It’s that kind of place.
5. Randall & Aubin Soho
Randall and Aubin’s resplendent window display on Brewer Street in Soho fixates onlookers in the way that the neighbourhood’s sex shops once did. The restaurant remains one of central London’s most reliable restaurants to eat fresh shellfish — a full platter costs £44.50 per person and can be upgraded with a half lobster for an additional £22.50. Its white tiling and chess board floor recalls a seafood bar of yesteryear, which, in a changing and increasingly homogenised Soho, is something that should be cherished.
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6. J Sheekey
J Sheekey, aka “Sheekey’s,” has been a major player on the West End fish and shellfish scene since the 1890s. It is as dependable as it is theatrical, and the exemplary fish pie’s velvety cream sauce over cod, salmon and haddock makes it a comfort-food superstar.
Covent Garden — London’s tightly packed, brightly hit hub of pubs, cobbles, and theatres — is about as far from coastal tranquility as it’s possible to get. That’s before stepping into Parsons, accurately self-described as unassuming — the kind of unassuming that betrays quiet, rigid confidence in the seafood offer. Squid with inky rice, honking potted shrimp croquettes, and a whispering sea trout tartare with brisk Bloody Mary jelly: start here, and continue.
8. Westerns Laundry
A relatively recent emphasis — in no small part because of a growing relationship between London restaurants and Cornish suppliers — is being placed on English waters. Westerns Laundry, by the same operators, Jeremie Cometto-Lingenheim and David Gingell, of Primeur and Jolene, is one of London’s best seafood restaurants. The cuttlefish and ham croquette remains a standout dish; langoustine with bloody marie rose is as good as minimal shellfish service gets; the rum baba has nothing to do with seafood but is an essential order nonetheless.
9. Little Ochi
London SE24 0NG, UK
There’s no menu on walking in to this Jamaican seafood restaurant in Herne Hill, except the one stuck up on the far wall near a fridge. Actually, there’s no real indication of what to do. So here it is: walk directly to that fridge, and pick a fish — red snapper, bream, and sea bass among others. Tell the chef how to cook it: steamed in a sauce made of tomato, thyme and okra, fried with a side of bammy, or in brown stew with rice and peas. The price will depend on the size of the fish; there are sides: prawns and lobster. Take a seat, and wait.
10. Prawn on the Lawn
London N1 2LH, UK
Functioning fishmonger as well as a restaurant, this Highbury nook largely does very little to the quality seafood shipped up from its base in Padstow. Small dishes might include a tataki-style searing of tuna, cut with hot chilli and croaky spring onion, while a rotating cast of whole fish for the table best represents the considerable pedigree on show.
11. El Costeñito
London SE1 6SP, UK
El Consteñito tends towards costeña food, the cooking of Ecuador’s Pacific coast. On weekends it’s possible to find acidic bowls of encebollado, a tuna and onion soup often eaten for breakfast, creamy sopa marinera with mixed seafood and peanut sauce, or tsunami — a whole fisherman’s catch of squid, mussels, prawns and fish in thick broth. The more adventurous can try bandita — a hot and cold, surf and turf mix of guatita — honeycomb tripe in peanut cream — served with a ceviche of prawns and swordfish.
12. Costa Azul
London SE1 6PG, UK
Costa Azul is one of the few Latin American restaurants in Elephant and Castle to specialise in Ecuadorian food, very much with a coastal bias. It’s the seafood that brings groups of people here every Thursday — Sunday evening: in soup, in stews, in rice, grilled, boiled, fried, in ceviche. Specifics: encocado mixto is a coconut rich stew of prawns, squids and mussels on rice; a super arroz marinero is essentially the same again, but mixed in with wet rice to a slightly-drier-than-risotto consistency with a side of sea bass fillet, breaded prawns and crab claws.
13. Wright Brothers Borough Market
At its best, seafood relies on unpredictability, freshness trumping all, so calling this shoal of restaurants across London “dependable” might come across the wrong way. That said, a reliable supplier is a good one, and Wright Brothers — which gets much of its catch from its own wholesale operation — offers up daily specials alongside dishes served everyday. Whether fish soup and rouille, a pint of Atlantic prawns, or Cornish sardines on toast, it’s quality fish treated well.
London E1 6JL, UK
Freshly Michelin-starred Brat, which lives above Smoking Goat in Shoreditch, is named after the old English colloquialism for turbot. Seafood sourced from Cornwall is the focus, particularly a slow-grilled turbot in the style of a Basque grill, coaxed into the perfect combination of sweet flesh and melting collagen. A spritzy pil pil emulsion rounds things out.
Sweetings, open only at lunchtime in the heart of the City of London, is one of the capital’s oldest restaurants. It is a restaurant which in 2020 feels novel: it is really a bar that serves seafood — its wood panelling, suited clientele, and terse, ultra-efficient service recalls a very different era of hospitality. It also counts St. John co-founder Ferguson Henderson among its most famous regulars. It is wise to follow Henderson’s standard order here — scampi (half fried, half grilled) and bacon, eaten with a black velvet from a silver tankard, and followed up by a slice of Welsh rarebit.