If nothing else, this will be a useful list for me to have if I ever get amnesia. These are our favourite places to go, the ones that are reliably good and always special, no matter how many times we have been before. It’s not exhaustive, but it is selective – there are lots of good places that I would happily go to again, but these are the ones that we visit most often for cracking eats and excellent value. There’s a strong but unapologetic bias towards Asian food and towards where we live (Islington), but I’d argue that it’s because it’s the best food and the best part of London…
But for once-in-a-lifetime, super special only in London meals, see the end of this list. At the very end is my top restaurant pick of all, the restaurant my very discerning cousins identified as the best, and the one which I and two of my closest friends had our (separate) 30th birthday dinners.
SOUTH EAST ASIAN
My number one pick has got to be Goldmine in Bayswater – the duck is both crispy and juicy, comforting and special (it can be ordered boneless). We also always get the steamed egg three ways and claypot aubergine, but the king prawns and egg tofu hotplate is also stunning. My cousin Ryan introduced us to this restaurant and delivers a lyrical tribute to it on his lovely blog. About £60 for four people
Also very good for duck is Four Seasons, which is slightly more conveniently located in Chinatown as well as Bayswater. The king prawns with salted egg yolk is magnificent here – indulgent, yes, but so worth it. About £45 for three people
For everyday dim sum, Chinatown can be very hit-and-miss, but reliably good and excellent value dumplings (and beef brisket noodles) is available at Joy King Lau, just off Leicester Square. It gets very busy at weekends so do book. And in terms of reliability – my parents had their wedding dinner there over thirty years ago! About £25 for two people
And for special occasion dim sum, Hutong at the Shard is a terrific experience and their dim sum deal makes it much better value (about £100 for three people, I think) For an extra-special occasion Yauatcha (just off Regent Street or at Broadgate Circle) serves luxury versions of classic dumplings as well as fabulous patisserie and exotically flavoured chocolates (about £100 for three people)
In between these two extremes in terms of budget and quality, Royal China is the happy medium. It’s not possible to book so come just before they open or be prepared to queue. Warning: there are two Royal Chinas near Baker Street, located close together, but Royal China Club is the more expensive one – aim for the flagship Royal China with the white exterior.
Bit of a wildcard, but for Xi’an food, which is pretty spicy, Xi’an Impression near the Arsenal stadium is not your normal Chinese food, but does a terrific spicy beef with handmade biang biang noodles. The water dumplings with chili oil, salt and pepper squid and (I know, I know) sweet and sour are also lovely, but some of the weirder things (gluten nuggets) are a bit too weird for me.
Like life drawing classes, sushi shouldn’t be cheap. But the following places are both good quality and good value:
Dotori by Finsbury Park Station, also does lovely Korean food and has a good value set menu for two people, about £22. Booking essential. (update 2017 – they closed suddenly in 2016 due to fatigue, victims of their own success apparently – but we’ve heard unconfirmed rumours that they’ve reopened.)
Atari-ya in Finchley is a bit of a trek but amazing value and quality. We bought a vast amount of tuna, salmon and little bits of sea bass, mackerel etc. as well as crispy squid tentacles and feasted on it in a nearby park – because it’s not a restaurant, more of a little supermarket specialising in sushi-grade fish. £30 for slightly more sashimi than two hungry people could eat.
Mai Sushi in between King’s Cross and Euston stations – don’t let the “acceptable” health rating on the door put you off. Other people don’t – it’s always packed! The sushi here is innovative (Chef’s roll and Rainbow roll are particularly special), the sashimi salad is outstandingly good value and the boats of sushi are things of majesty. Excellent selection of fish, put together with wit and flair. The grilled hamachi cheek (not too much salt, please) is a must-order. £40 or so for two.
In the three years since I first wrote this post, the ramen scene in London has exploded – in a good way. Shoryu (traditional, multiple locations) and Bone Daddies (bit more wacky, Old Street/Soho) will both give you a decent – excellent, even – bowl of the good stuff. But the best and most authentic is definitely Kanada-Ya (Tottenham Court Road/Piccadilly). Because of this, it’s not possible to book and you have to queue outside (they literally lock you out). But so worth it, or in a worst-case scenario, Ippudo is just opposite. I’ve never been to the UK branch, but we’ve been to a few branches of the franchise in Japan and they were reliably excellent. (or make it at home!) All £10 or so excluding service.
Really good value, especially in the rarefied atmosphere of pricey N1, Viet Garden does terrific pho as well as well-executed soft-shelled crab and summer rolls. Pho is about £10.
And in Dalston, it’s not so much of a hidden gem as a really, really well known gem, but Song Que is terrific for pho and bun and all manner of nice things. Pho is also about £10.
Dishoom (several locations) is reliably good – the King’s Cross location has a special of brains which is actually gorgeous, and they do fun cocktails as well. I’m told that the bacon and egg naan is an outstanding brunch option.
Bengal Spices on the Holloway Road is our local. The proprietors will take you through a verbal algorithm to determine exactly what dish would be right for you. They are always right.
Pitt Cue in the heart of the city – the smoked short ribs here were so good that they literally moved my brother to tears. £25-£35 per person without wine is our normal spend, although you could easily spend more.
Temper, just off Piccadilly where barbecue master Neil Rankin delivers meat + smoke = the goods. We came here when it opened on the night of the 2016 US Election and drank a lot of wine. The next time my brother and his girlfriend went back, she stepped inside and thought “why do I suddenly feel so overwhelmingly sad”?
Hawksmoor, several locations. Again, super well known, but it’s worth highlighting the early evening/lunchtime menu as being strangely good value for 2/3 courses, including the (widely acknowledged) best steak in London.
Trullo on Highbury Corner has been a particular favourite since the day it opened. The menu changes daily, but always includes some gorgeous meat/fish options as well as handmade egg pasta and also house-made ice cream.
Let Mercury on Upper Street is incredible value and has a lovely atmosphere. All starters are £5, mains £10 and desserts £4. We booked out the top floor for our wedding rehearsal dinner – good times!
Padella isn’t exactly a hidden gem as much as a really really popular gem. And it doesn’t take reservations, so be prepared to queue. Another handmade pasta spot – excellent value, even though the portions are smallish and I’ve been known to order dessert pasta.
Duck and Waffle – a 24h restaurant at the top of a city skyscraper, the eponymous meal is slightly cheaper at breakfast rather than brunch. Good to bring visitors to London and for children as well.
And finally, at the super high end, we’ve had some exceptional meals at some Michelin starred restaurants. Mostly they have set lunch menus around the £30-40 mark during the week. All the food is of outstanding quality, but I’ve starred particular favourites.
*Dinner by Heston Blumenthal – the meat fruit (chicken liver parfait disguised as a clementine) and roasted pineapple tipsy cake are the famous items here, and as such aren’t on the set menu. I wish I could say they weren’t worth it, but they really were. My Heston-at-home take on meat fruit (basically making it in a loaf tin rather than shaping them into individual fruit shapes – like that’s a thing) recipe is here.
L’Atelier Joel Robuchon – the nice thing here is to eat at the counter top and watch the chefs prepare the exotic, high end ingredients in the open kitchen.
Pollen Street Social – Jason Atherton’s restaurant just off Oxford Street. We were given a meal here as a wonderful present by friends who had stayed with us. Beautiful, seasonal English food.
*The Ledbury, West London. We had one of the best restaurant experiences of my life here. Five hours and eleven courses (plus a few bonus courses) and yet it didn’t feel like too much, because the stunning ingredients (foraged/caught that day from Scotland) were treated so sensitively and delicately that there was a sense of lightness despite the richness of the ingredients.
Chef Brett Graham is classically trained in the French tradition, but developed his own philosophy for cooking (no wheat, no dairy) and restauranting (service prioritises warmth over formality) and the result is food that makes you feel amazing, and an experience that makes you feel both like royalty and like the best friend of everyone there.
Our main waiter, Jack, was a real sweetheart and took the time to get to know us, providing extra courses and treats based on what we had enjoyed. And at the end of the meal, he brought us into the kitchen to meet the chefs (who were so friendly and enthusiastic, even though it was MIDNIGHT – everyone was saying “I cooked the fish! what did you think?” “here, try this ice cream – it’s a new type of caramel I’ve developed” and Brett Graham himself. An unbelievably friendly Australian, Brett Graham doesn’t do TV or books, although he did make the headlines during the 2012 riots when he protected his diners from some would-be robbers restaurant with a large knife. He gave me a Ledbury apron “because Jack says you like cooking – look, it’s just like mine!) and a pot of exquisite honey from a Richmond hive that supplies them, since we’d enjoyed the remarkable flavour in one of the (extra) desserts.
At the table next to ours was a man who was on his 98th visit to the Ledbury. The menu changes daily, and Jack said that they were thinking up something special to celebrate his 100th visit. And the most remarkable thing? He wasn’t even fat.
Our local on the Holloway Road is called Com Tam, and everything we’ve tried there has been great. Pho is in line with the others – £10ish.
Some people would say that I have no business writing about Thai food, because I always order Pad Thai (the spaghetti bolognese of Thai food, sighs the Husband) but out of all the little shops and big chains in London, my favourite is actually the Tollington Arms opposite our old house in Holloway. The kitchen is leased to a Thai family who actually take your order down in Thai. The prawns in the Pad Thai are huge and mega fresh. It shouldn’t be amazing but it really is. Main courses about £8-10