A Taste of London
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
So many options, so little time - a common refrain from weekend visitors to London. It can be a bit overwhelming trying to figure out where to eat when you only have a few days to explore and don't want to ruin a precious evening by making the wrong choice. My advice - focus on a neighbourhood or two and make that your base for your stay. Avoiding long and unnecessary Tube trips across the city will make for a much more relaxing and enjoyable experience. Trust me - I've learned the hard way. Staying local is the way to go.
Areas like Shoreditch / Hoxton and Spitalfields to the north-east of the city and Southwark / Borough Market on the south bank of the Thames are always a good choice. Heaving with vibey bars and restaurants, you'll be spoiled for choice. Here are some of the places that have really stood out for me over the past few visits.
GOOD FOR BRUNCH
Friends of Ours, 61 Pitfield Street, Hoxton
A groovy little neighbourhood café in Shoreditch which offers seasonal menus and serves a damn fine speciality coffee. Super-friendly staff too. I opted for the Mushrooms on Toast. Don't let the name fool you. This is far from standard fare with roasted wild mushrooms served with pea hummus, cashew ricotta, dukkah and peas in a pod, all served on organic sourdough toast topped off with a poached egg (optional). Oh my! A veritable medley of complementary flavours exploding in your mouth. This is what I want to be served when I go out for brunch - a little bit of invention goes a long way. The French Toast sounds utterly splendid too - almond crumbed organic brioche, roasted nectarine, blood peach and orange mascarpone, coconut sorbet with strawberries and pistachio. Next time for sure.
They don't take reservations but you can leave your name and return at an allocated time. The turnaround seemed to be quite reasonable and we only had to wait for twenty minutes. I promise you - it's worth it.
Anchor and Hope, 36 The Cut, Lambeth
The BEST pub grub I've had in years, all thanks to a recommendation by London-based friends. Anchor and Hope is a local institution, close to Southwark and Waterloo stations, and was heaving with people when we arrived at 9pm one Friday evening. On one side is a cosy bar; on the other side, behind a curtain is a bustling dining room. As is pretty much standard in London, they don't take reservations but you can put your name on a list and wait in the bar until your table is ready.
They serve up traditional British fare but with a modern twist. It makes me drool to think about it. I had skate and chips, an unusual take on the traditional dish but it worked really well. Served with a homemade tartare sauce, it was perfectly cooked and flaked away on my fork. I've eaten a lot of fish and chips in my time but this was one of the best. Our party also ordered one of their signature three-person dishes: a slow-cooked lamb shoulder which comes with roots and gratin dauphinois. Let's just say that we almost came to blows over those potatoes, elbowing each other out of the way to scrape the last bit off the plate. They were absolutely perfect. Controversial to say but they were as good if not better than any I've had in France.
I'm an absolute sucker for clotted cream so was very excited to see it appear on the menu. The pear and almond tart was calling my name and served with a huge blob of aforementioned cream, I just about managed to squeeze it in. It was pretty much perfect - really moist and flavoursome with flaked toasted almonds on top. You're licking the screen right now aren't you?
They also have a huge wine list with bottles starting from £19.50 (Nero d'Avola) and five available by the glass.
AN INDIAN FEAST
Dishoom - multiple locations
I'm going to preface this by saying - I don't do queues. If there's a queue of more than, say, five people, I'm out the door. Patience is not one of my virtues and I have no time for restaurants that don't take reservations. However... I make the exception for Dishoom. On my first visit with my husband, we lucked out and managed to get a table at the Shoreditch branch straight away. Bear in mind that it was quite early in the evening as we were going to a gig so this is far from usual. We thought it was absolutely outstanding and have been raving about it to anyone who'll listen ever since. Clearly it was top of my list when I returned with two friends in tow one very cold evening last October. We arrived early - around 6:30 - and the queue was already halfway down the street. Greeted by a girl with an iPad we were told that there was a forty minute queue - for the BAR!!! And maybe another forty minutes after that for a table. I can honestly say that this is the only restaurant that I would meekly say 'yes please put us down for a table', instead of responding with a snarky comeback. And so we queued. And queued. And queued. Everyone was in good spirits though, especially when the waiters brought out glasses of hot chai tea (so good) and sherry to everyone in the queue. A nice touch.
And then we were in. Happy faces all round - let the feasting begin. Dishoom is inspired by the old Irani cafés of Bombay and its decor is replicated here with its dark interiors, black and white floor tiles, overhanging foliage and quirky objets d'arts. We got comfy in one of the cosy corners, complete with sofas and armchairs, and ordered up a storm. A few recommendations: the House Black Daal is an absolute must. It's one of Dishoom's signature dishes with black lentils slow-cooked for over twenty four hours in a richly flavoured dark sauce. It's a stunner and will involve a level of restraint in not drinking it straight from the bowl. The Chicken Ruby and the Mattar Paneer are super-tasty as a main course and there should always be a bowl of smokey Gunpowder Potatoes on the table for sharing. The chargrilled paneer and buttered sweetcorn dishes are always a good side option too, with maybe a bowl of chili and lime greens as a concession to healthy eating - if you must. You may as well go the whole hog and order a roti and a naan bread as well - when in Bombay and all that- and you'll need them for dunking in the Daal. Let's just say the comfy sofas came in very handy for the post-food coma.
They have a nicely chosen wine list with all offered by the glass, carafe or bottle. I opted for the full-bodied, almost spicy Primitivo which was a perfect accompaniment to Indian food. They also have an unusual selection of craft beers, including their own Dishoom IPA, as well as an interesting cocktail menu. Loved the sound of the Viceroy's Old Fashioned. Next time for sure.
Dishoom is really good value for money, as you can see from their menu here - not a phrase you would often associate with London restaurants but it's true. If you can reconcile yourself with the inevitable queue, I promise you that the pay-off is worth it.
Laxeiro, 93 Columbia Rd
We may have gotten a little carried away here and ordered almost everything on the menu... But that's the joy of tapas, right? Laxeiro was a fantastic find on the last day of our most recent trip. Though you wouldn't know it from the image above, this was just lunch. For three people. In our defense, we’d been walking all morning and were starving. Don’t judge us.
No weekend in London is complete without a ramble down Columbia Road (more on that below *) and this groovy little tapas bar is located right down the end - a perfect stop-off point for lunch. It's a vibey and busy little spot but we lucked out and managed to get a table. It's a friendly, family-run restaurant that's been around for thirty seven years, serving simple and unpretentious Galician dishes using the finest ingredients. They also offer a small but well-chosen selection of wines. I can highly recommend the Ribera del Duero which was excellent. I savoured my glass but look forward to lingering over a bottle (to share obvs...) over dinner on my next visit.
We ordered an absolute feast including Gambas al Ajillo, Pisto Manchego, Patatas Bravas, Tortilla and a wonderful barbecued courgette dish with rosemary manchego & honey - every bit as good as it sounds. Everything was delicious so it's hard to choose stand-out dishes but if I had to, I'd opt for the prawns and the Pisto Manchego. Great bread too. I'm extremely fussy about tapas - after multiple trips to Spain, it's hard to find comparable experiences anywhere else but the dishes in this restaurant were pretty exceptional. The family at the helm have brought their rich Galician heritage to London's East-End and that authenticity shines through. By London standards, it's very good value too.
*Columbia Road and the Flower Market: E2 7RG
Sunday is the day to hit Columbia Road, when the street is transformed into one long flower market. It's quite an experience - there are people walking around with giant trees under their arms and elaborate bouquets of flowers to decorate their homes as they browse stalls selling everything from bedding plants to house plants to potted herbs. The distinctive calls of the street traders ring out as they sell their wares, and the evocative scents of rosemary, thyme and lavender fill the air. Expect lots of musical entertainment on the way too.
The street itself is wonderful, comprised of sixty independent shops. You'll find vintage clothes shops alongside art galleries, cake shops (see adorable vintage Cake Hole above), cafés, delis and antique shops. You'll be spoiled for choice with some great pubs and restaurants too.
Nightjar, 129 City Rd, Old Street, London
Nightjar is a speakeasy-style underground bar in Shoreditch, famous for its legendary cocktails and live jazz. They operate a no-standing policy so it's table-service only. It's unlikely you'll get a table if you just walk in off the street so reservations are recommended. Also, you're not likely to even realise it's a bar from street-level. After walking up and down the street a few times I spotted their signature nightjar bird on a tiny logo on the wall - and we were in.
Edible sand anyone? We experimented with a few different cocktail concoctions that night, one of which featured the aforementioned ingredient. Check out their full menu here. As you might have guessed, these are not your standard cocktails by any means - they're visual works of art but happily it's not all about the presentation. They taste bloody good too with high-quality ingredients and serious attention to detail. I don't like sweet drinks and tend to favour the classic prohibition-era cocktails like an Old Fashioned. They have a full menu of these on offer here, described as 'short, strong and aromatic'. I can concur. A groovy place to spend an evening.
Homeslice, Multiple locations. Our choice - Neal's Yard
If 20' pizzas are your thing, then Homeslice is the place for you. Obviously not for one person. That would be ridiculous right? It was a pretty challenging feat to finish even for two people but we managed it. You can split the pizza options 50/50 so one half can enjoy a meaty feast while the other goes full-veggie. Toppings are seasonal with some classic combos, as well as more exciting and innovative variations. They're seriously tasty.
There is an option to make a reservation at the Fitzrovia, Shoreditch, City, White City & Marylebone branches but tables at Neal's Yard are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. However, they're not mean and don't make you stand in a queue while you're waiting. They'll take your number and will call you when a table becomes available. It's quite casual with some seating at long communal tables so turnaround tends to be quite quick.
SEASONAL TASTING PLATES
Lupin's, 66 Union St
I'm quite annoyed as this was one of my best-ever London meals but I had a camera malfunction that evening and alas, I have no photos. But fear not - you can check out their Instagram page here for some visual inspo.
Described on their website as 'seasonal British produce with a splash of sunshine', the menu offers snacks, small plates, and large plates that technically are made for sharing but that plan may go out the window after one bite. Expect inventive dishes such as Cornish Crab Thermidor, Salmon massaman curry with blue radish salsa or Roast hake with creamy nduja risotto. And desserts like their 'Dark chocolate ganache with salt caramel and sesame brittle' are definitely not made for sharing. Every dish was bursting with flavour and it's easy to tell that only the best quality ingredients are used.
The restaurant itself is located in the trendy up-and-coming area of Flat Iron Square with any number of groovy bars to pop into for an aperitif or a nightcap. There is a casual seating area downstairs and a slightly fancier restaurant experience upstairs. Staff were very friendly and it was one of our most enjoyable dining experiences in the capital. We will definitely be back (with a camera) next time.
Penny Café Bar, Old Vic Theatre, The Cut, Lambeth
This is us being super-excited at the fact we were still in a bar in London at 1:15am on a Saturday - not an easy feat my friends. Such a great little find - it helps to get recommendations from those in the know. The Café Bar is tucked away in the basement of the Old Vic theatre, a London institution, and happily is not just for theatre-goers - it's open to the public though that's maybe not that obvious from outside. It's almost like a neighbourhood secret. They have a good selection of reasonably priced wines, some tasty craft beers (the Camden Town option is really refreshing) and the cocktails sound pretty great.
You can take a look at their drinks menu here. The bar opens until 2am at weekends. Hooray!!
There are some other tips and recommendations in my earlier London guide here...