Consider this a London dining bucket list; a collection of outstanding dishes; a very ambitious London restaurant crawl indeed. These are the 19 plates of food that, for various reasons, stand as representatives of how London’s dining scene has changed in the last 20 years.Read More
London’s Iconic Dishes
River Café ribollita, St John’s bone marrow and parsley salad, Quo Vadis’s smoked eel sandwich — and more
Biang Biang Noodles at Xi'an Impression
Xi’an Impression is London’s outstanding Xi’an Chinese restaurant and chef-owner Wei Guirong’s small, unassuming restaurant is a specialist in hand-pulled noodles. The most famous are “biang biang” (so called for the noise they make when being stretched and hit against a work surface): Long ribbons of dough noodles arrive coated in a deep, earthy seasoning, with blanched Shanghai bok choy; garnished with hot oil, chopped garlic, spring onions, and ground chilli.
Squid ink flatbread at Black Axe Mangal
Lee Tiernan’s lamb offal flatbread occupied a place on this list, but it’s testament to both diners’ voracious adoption of Instagram and a growing awareness of the folds and interstices of “British” food that this dish now feels like the bigger statement. The flatbread resonates with the particular brilliance of London’s mangal culture; the cod’s roe on glitter is Tiernan’s time at St. John reincarnated in heavy metal; the egg yolk just makes sense.
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Buttermilk Chicken and Pine Salt at The Clove Club
It is unwise to visit The Clove Club without ordering this smashing invention; one serving between two is acceptable, one each even more so. Pieces of light and dark meat are marinated in buttermilk, fried, then lightly dusted with pine salt. Now the only snack on the bar menu, making it even more singular.
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Confit Potatoes at Quality Chop House
First opened in 1869, The Quality Chop House had a welcome new lease of life in 2012 with new owners — it now sits comfortably in the top echelon of London restaurants. Whatever else is ordered, do not leave out the confit potatoes, thinly sliced and layered into wedges, fried in beef dripping: they are one of the most memorable morsels in town. One portion may not be enough.
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Chilli fish sauce wings at Smoking Goat Shoreditch
These were honed at Smoking Goat’s Soho restaurant, and the dish’s fine-tuned messiness is a fitting expression of how Ben Chapman’s meticulous Thai-inspired barbecue intersected with Soho’s gestalt. Piled up on a light blue or pink plate, coriander and chilli like confetti and a slick, sweet-hot-savoury caramel in perfect balance running over eager hands, they’re still an essential order.
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Whole Turbot at Brat
Brat is Tomos Parry’s homage to the grills of the Basque Coast. And this dish is, truly, an homage; Parry and team visit the region regularly to hone their flattering imitation. Cod’s roe and tomatoes have earned plaudits, but it’s the eponymous turbot that is an instant icon: grilled ever-so-slowly and spritzed with a pil pil dressing, whipped into emulsion with the turbot’s gelatinous, oozing juices.
Canard à la Presse at Otto's French Restaurant
To step into Otto’s as a neophyte is to be mechanically ravished in broad daylight, just off Gray’s Inn Road. Otto Tepasse has won fame and admiration for reviving the 19th-century art of duck pressing, on which he was schooled at Paris’ Coq D’Argent. Otto’s is called Otto’s because this restaurant exists entirely in the brilliant, anachronistic image of the man — and his art.
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Bone Marrow and Parsley Salad at St. John
After more than 20 years on the menu at St John, the dish that inspired a generation of young British chefs to saw up bones remains a classic. Earthy, honest and strangely exciting, this arrangement is also, to borrow Fergus Henderson’s favourite adjective, profoundly “steadying.”
Beef wellington at Holborn Dining Room
Sorry Gordon. Holborn Dining Room’s beef wellington, made with attention to detail that would see lapidaries weep, is the crowning glory of his singular devotion to the art and science of pastry. Served in a luxurious dining room connected to a luxury hotel, it looks back on the hotel rooms that made Wareing and Ramsay’s generation famous and dispenses with the pomp and circumstance, putting all its focus on pleasure, presentation, and a sense of fun.
Smoked Eel Sandwich at Quo Vadis
The Brits created the sandwich and there are many iterations of varying imagination and quality available all over London. Few, however, are as complete and delicious as Jeremy Lee's trademark eel number: To eat this one is to understand the sandwich. There is enough kick from creamed horseradish and acidity from pickled red onions to offset the oily, umami-rich fish; lightly toasted sourdough adds requisite texture. As the emblem of Lee’s bright and imaginative ingredient-led cooking, it's well worth the £9.50.
English breakfast udon at Koya Soho
In years to come London might look back on Shuko Oda’s serene Soho noodle bar and ask whether its specials — and specials board — were always doing for London what the likes of Esu Lee at CAM and Jessica Yang and Robert Compagnon at Le Rigmarole are recognised for in Paris: making city food that pulls at the stitches of international lines. Koya’s udon is peerless; add fried egg, bacon, and a mushroom, and it winks at one of Britain’s most venerated traditions without a jot of deference.
Classic bao at BAO Soho
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, and doing so with such aplomb and wit that it’s now one of the city’s most sought-after restaurant groups. The dish that started it all, therefore, is necessarily iconic.
Fish Pie at 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.
Dover Sole at Scott's
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. Their 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.
Muntjac Biryani at Gymkhana
So, an adventurous Anglo-Indian interloper where they match spicy prawns with Greek viognier has pinched the mantle of W1 celeb magnet Chiltern Firehouse? Cool! With honourable mention going to the kid goat methi, Gymkhana’s muntjac biryani is an obvious classic: a golden flaky pastry dome dotted with nigella seeds, concealing a tremendous offering of spiced rice and venison with pomegranate and mint raita.
Omelette Arnold Bennett at The Wolseley
A visit to the Wolseley throws up a plethora of options with their tempting all-day menu, but if you have a proper hunger on, order the omelette Arnold Bennett, an open omelette topped with parmesan and resting on a bed of smoked haddock and rich, creamy hollandaise, before being popped under the grill until browned and bubbling. The Savoy Grill is credited with creating the dish for the British novelist, playwright, critic and essayist Arnold Bennett, and The Wolseley pays a diligent homage with this version.
Pici Cacio e Pepe at Padella
Not many practitioners can make something phenomenal out of a seemingly simple idea. Here at this Trullo sibling by Borough Market, pici, butter, pecorino and freshly ground pepper are alchemised into an absolute legend. They’re now also in residence in Shoreditch, but this is one of the cases where the atmosphere of the original is key.
Meat Fruit at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
No one pulls off history and wizardry like the chefs at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. Their update on ye olde meat fruit deploys smooth chicken liver parfait as the core, a mandarin jelly “peel,” and a stalk of ruscus as the stem, presented on a slice of grilled sourdough brushed with herb oil.
Ribollita at The River Café
Seasonality nominally takes precedent in spring, summer, and autumn: a riot of light and bright colours, followed by brooding browns and oranges. This coldly ignores winter, which is a mistake, for one of the city’s seasonal pioneers delivers the goods as frost gathers on the ground. The ribollita at River Café, made with bread, cavolo nero, chard, dried borlotti beans, and, most crucially, a generous, hefty glug of the season’s freshest olive oil, is winter seasonality in a bowl. Versions for every season are encouraged.