Much like ‘essential’ and ‘hottest’, ‘classic’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘best.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean oldest, either: while some of these are ancient institutions and others have opened within the last decade, they share a certain permanence, whether that permanence is mostly keenly felt in the cuisine, the room, or the community that the restaurant serves. Classic restaurants endure London’s neophyte tendencies and many trends, just as much as they might define and guide them, but they offer something much more. The ‘best’ they represent is what makes London classic: the city in all its diverse, hospitable, eclectic glory.Read More
20 Classic London Restaurants
Restaurants that represent a diverse, eclectic, storied city
1. Rita's Chilli Chaat Corner
Southall UB1 1QF, UK
A community largely made up of British Asians identifying as Sikhs of Punjabi descent, new communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia have added to the vibrancy of Southall and its restaurants. One of the oldest is Rita’s, open since 1968: dahi puri, chole bhatura, saag and makki ki roti, and Amritsari kulcha unite diverse communities in their excellence.
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2. Jin Go Gae Restaurant
New Malden’s sleepy suburban high street is home to a huge Korean community, and it is the neighbourhood in the capital to enjoy the country’s cuisine. There are many excellent restaurants in the area, but Jin Go Gae is always packed, and with good reason. It’s rightly famed for its charcoal barbecue, but its or gejang — a dish of crab marinated in the Korean chilli sauce gochugang is almost supernaturally delicious, the raw crab itself redolent of sea urchin. Jin Go Gae also offers the biggest portions of banchan, which seems apt as the proverb on the blackboard outside the restaurant says “The belly rules the mind.” 11 years strong.
3. The River Café
St John writ Italiano. This riverside perch’s alumni roster reads like the Harlem Globetrotters of food: Jamie Oliver, Theo Randall, April Bloomfield, Sam Clark, and Anna Tobias all passed through a kitchen with an unshakable — at times, unsustainable — commitment to the best ingredients available at a given time. Not easy on the wallet, it’s a special occasion restaurant at most for many, but its consistent excellence deserves serious praise.
4. Chez Bruce
Bruce Poole and Nigel Platts-Martin’s restaurant on Wandsworth Common opened in 1995, and head chef Matt Christmas has been there from the beginning cooking elegant, unashamedly French-Mediterranean plates with little concession to modern techniques or gadgetry. A long à la carte menu promises sweetbreads and scallops, turbot and barbary duck, accessorised with all manner of pitch-perfect sauces and reductions without going overboard.
5. Spice Village Tooting
A huge place, beloved of locals (including London Mayor and former MP for Tooting Sadiq Khan), and popular with families, with a North Indian and Pakistani menu reflective of the Tooting community that it has served for over 10 years. No alcohol at all here.
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6. Royal China Club
London’s dim sum has gone through a few iterations: Chinatown stalwarts, A. Wong’s gentle shift, some goldfish largely forgotten. Royal China Club takes the best of all three and produces dim sum of impeccable quality in a place of generous sophistication. One of the most graceful lunches in the city.
7. The Ritz London
Executive chef John Williams has reinvigorated one of London’s most storied hotels in the past 15 years, culminating in a Michelin star in 2017. It’s splurgy and extravagant and always will be, but in a city with a great many fine dining let downs, this is a more reliable pice of luxury.
8. The Wolseley
In 2003, restaurateur royales Corbin and King were steering The Ivy, Le Caprice and J Sheekey when they opened this homage to Europe’s “grand cafés”. 15 years on, the former trio are in the care of Caring while The Wolseley stands steadfast. Its breakfast is its most formidable offering, with a peerless omelette Arnold Bennett. It feels like it’s been in London forever.
London W1B 4RS, UK
A couple of years over 90 and holding a Michelin star since 2016, Veeraswamy is steadfast against a the new vanguard of high-end Indian cooking. This is its third incarnation — only since the Panjabi sisters (Camellia and Namita) took over in 1997 has it focussed on India’s regional culinary diversity, as well as renewing the hallowed interiors.
10. Brasserie Zédel
Marbles and velvets and Covent Garden, a prix fixe menu at under a tenner and a truly cavernous dining room: an unlikely mix. What ties everything together are French classics, treated respectfully and executed to a tee: steak is three steps beyond reliable and the ile flottante could be buoyed by its reputation, nevermind an indecent, praline-flecked crème anglaise.
11. Roti King
Less a destination than a necessary quarterly, monthly or — for a Euston local — weekly check in, this unassuming restaurant on Doric Way offers two unsurpassable roti canai, best served with curry dahl, for under a fiver. Its citywide reputation has not dampened its community essentialism, serving residents and workers day-in, day-out.
12. Ciao Bella
Open since 1983, it was in 1999 that Felice Pollano took over this Bloomsbury doyenne, and nineteen intervening years have failed to dull the implacable buzz that takes over night after night. It might lack the studiousness of Brawn and the sexiness of Locatelli, but Ciao Bella is a real deal, gargantuan pepper mill of a restaurant. It’s worth noting that it is on both Fay Maschler and Marina O’Loughlin’s favourite 50 restaurant lists.
13. The Eagle
The gastropub that launched a thousand gastropubs. The Eagle has been open for 28 years, and its stewardship under Trish Hilferty — who later went on to establish fellow gastropubs par excellence the Anchor and Hope and Canton Arms — still comes through in fat sausages with lentils, an unimpeachable steak sandwich, and chalked up blackboard menus that speak to its history.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Moro on Exmouth market — the restaurant by River Cafe alumni Sam and Samantha Clark. Their focus has always been on ingredients, presented through menus that travel, not just through Italy, but more broadly across southern Europe, North Africa and often leaning toward the Middle East. The Malaga raisin ice cream with Pedro Ximenez is still one of the city’s best desserts.
15. St. John
London EC1M 4AY, UK
Much has been written about how Fergus Henderson and his protégés have transformed British food, with a sphere of influence that extends around the globe. Less explored, perhaps, is how diversely disciples of this white-walled church have taken its DNA and made their own modifications: Lyle’s’ deferent minimalism plays Black Axe Mangal’s swashbuckling maximalism. This is perhaps what makes St John truly classic: the pursuit of sheer pleasure allied with the humility of restraint like nowhere else in London, if not the world. Also: red wine, snails, trotters, bone marrow, and terrine. It’s pretty French.
16. Silk Road
London SE5 8TR, UK
Xinjiang cuisine is on offer in this Camberwell restaurant run by two Han Chinese. Not fully-fledged Uyghur cuisine but a reflection of the intersection of Han and Xinjiang traditions and the region’s sheer size: Xinjiang occupies about a sixth of China’s territory and borders eight countries (including Mongolia, Tajikistan, and India). Big or middle plate chicken and shish kebabs with Xinjiang inflections are fine orders.
17. 40 Maltby St
London SE1 3PA, UK
A treasure. Unmoved by the comings and goings of trends, Bermondsey’s 40 Maltby St is a 40-cover answer to the question, pejorative as it may often be: What is British food? Steve Williams is one of the city’s most underrated cooks — cited by chefs James Lowe, Brett Graham and Florence Knight in their top five in the city. Raef Hodgson, of Gergovie Wines — largely natural styles — runs what is essentially a wine bar without hubris.
18. Mangal 2 Restaurant
Mangal 2 is famous. For one, it prepares excellent, no-nonsense Turkish food from an historic ocakbaşı — grilled chicken, lamb, and quail kebabs, pickled chillies and a classic grilled onion, sumac and pomegranate molasses salad. Two — there’s the general manager and former author of London’s most unorthodox restaurant twitter handle. And three, Gilbert and George reportedly eat here every night. Perhaps because it’s classic, delicious, reliable, and fun.
A pillar of Punjabi cuisine and community in the city since 1972, Tayyabs is permanently heaving, permanently raucous, and permanently demanding of two essential orders: the charry, muscular lamb chops and what is possibly London’s best mango lassi.
20. E Pellicci
E Pellicci is an East End icon; established in 1900, it remains in the same family today, and feels largely unchanged, too. Now Grade-II listed, with ornate timber panelling and Art Deco features Pellicci’s is the caff resplendent. Maria Pellicci has been matriarch since 1966, and still runs the kitchen today, while her younger generations run the front of house. A full English is still £5.50 — quite a feat these days — and the more devoted can level up with classic additions like liver, black pudding, bubble ‘n’ squeak or hand cut chips. With a devoted regular clientele, Pellicci’s is a real community institution, and well worth a visit