London, Licked: What to Eat in the Capital of England

Ooh, come in, dearie – you don’t half look peckish. Luckily, we’ve just the thing: London’s tastiest offerings, assembled for you on a plate. Big Smoke; big flavors.

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Jake Eastham ©Jake Eastham

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Rachel Juarez-Carr ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Snacking in the Big Smoke

First things first: This London food guide is not obsessed with BEST. “Best” is overrated. By the time you’ve proclaimed something supreme, a younger, hotter contender has sprouted up. Why pick Gigi or Bella when both can coexist on the catwalk? This guide’s goal is to be your edible map of London (don’t bite your screen). It will take you east, south, north and west; it will take you to the heart of the city; it will take you off the tourist track. Wherever it leads, rest assured that there’ll be a good meal at the end of it. Pay attention, mind: Mandarin marbled eggs, buttermilk-chicken burgers, Sri Lankan pancakes, pierogi, creative cakes, juicy steak, tasty Thai — and the rest — await. Forget fashion; follow flavor.

Photos by Rachel Juarez-Carr

Pizza: Franco Manca, Brixton

Considering the U.K.’s relative proximity to Italy, you could be forgiven for assuming that Brits have been cavorting knee-deep in perfect pizza for decades. Not so. In the ’90s, London’s leading choices were chains. Thankfully, this changed in 2008, when Franco Manca opened its first humble outpost in South London’s Brixton Market. Charcoal-flecked, plate-thin sourdough pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven from Naples — featuring flour from the owner’s Italian hometown — prompted a mini Franco explosion across the capital. (It also propelled Brixton Market into the foodie lodestar we know and love today.) The menu hasn’t changed much. There are six simple pizzas — including a cheese-free tomato number and a tomato-free cheese number — because with ingredients this good, who needs subterfuge?

Cocktails: Zetter Townhouse Bar, Clerkenwell

If you’ve ever gotten tipsy with your great-aunt, you’ll dig the spirit of the Zetter Townhouse’s Clerkenwell bar, inspired as it is by a fictional Aunt Wilhelmina. Drinks are served in an English setting replete with ruby-red walls, plush armchairs and squashy sofas, plus patterned rugs and plenty of ye olde artful tat. There’s nothing shabby about Tony Conigliaro’s cocktail menu, which acknowledges the area’s raffish Victorian distillery days with libations that incorporate fin de siècle flourishes such as absinthe, Byrrh and nettle cordial (less stingy, more zingy). Tinctures and bitters are magicked up, Willy Wonka-style, in Conigliaro’s Islington laboratory. To get more British than the Sorrel Collins — sorrel-infused Beefeater gin, sorrel syrup, tarragon tincture, lemon juice and soda — you’d need to be dressed in cricket whites, nibbling cucumber sandwiches and quietly humming “God Save the Queen” while queueing. 

Cake: Maison Bertaux, Soho

For something unapologetically old-school — ancient till systems, rickety tables and equally rickety waiters — squeeze into tiny, two-story Maison Bertaux, London’s oldest French patisserie (established, as its summer-sky-blue sign proclaims, in 1871). It’s also the city’s barmiest, as befits its Soho setting on high-energy Dean Street, in a giddy patch populated mainly by tourist-stuffed restaurants and artist-stuffed haunts. There’s a little upstairs room for those who scale the neck-breakingly narrow staircase, but the main action is downstairs, closest to the cream cakes and piano. Don’t expect lightning-fast service, elbow room or fashionable confections: This is not a shrine to salted caramel. Do expect to be entertained — if only by the vintage magazines and the equally vintage chap behind the till.

Sri Lankan: Hoppers, Soho

London has been a bit slow on the uptake when it comes to Sri Lankan food — mainly because good options have meant traveling out of the city center. Hoppers opened in 2015, backed by Karam Sethi, the spice maestro behind London’s Michelin-starred duo, Trishna and Gymkhana. Much has been written previously about Hoppers’ queues, but when something’s this good, this fairly priced and this city-central, an absence of queues would be noteworthy. Hoppers’ menu is as compact as its pretty turmeric-yellow dining room: Try the eponymous hoppers — savory pancakes — served with fried egg, sweet and spicy sambals and chutney. Progress to punchy karis (including a black pork number) and mop up saucy bits with dosas made from fermented batter. There are no desserts, so grab a cocktail instead. The Burgher Sour — a luscious muddle of genever, jasmine, buttermilk, lemon and toasted marshmallow — should suffice.

Oysters: Bonnie Gull Seafood Shack, Fitzrovia

Bonnie Gull … the name alone transports us to a salt-sprayed shoreline with squawking seabirds, wavy waters and bearded pirates. This is sea and the city: For more claws and crustaceans in one sitting, you’d need to book a table at the London Aquarium (regrettably not possible). Bonnie Gull began as a modest market stall but has blossomed — like sand in an oyster — into a pearl of a place in swellegant Fitzrovia. Bonnie Gull follows the sea-chic rulebook: white and blue furnishings, bleached wood and a beachcomber’s bounty of rope and driftwood. Most importantly, the seafood, plucked daily from British waters by trusty day boats, is delicious. Kick off with oysters, which come in two raw varieties — Jersey rock and Porthilly rock — or battered, with aioli. Don’t stop there; tick off clams with sea aster, mirin and sesame, cockles with samphire, crab fritters with chutney, and bouillabaisse so good you could drink an ocean of it.

Date Night: Bob Bob Ricard, Soho

Two words: champagne buzzers. Two more words: pink waistcoats. One word: pierogi. (This game ends now.) Bob Bob Ricard, one of London’s sparkliest restaurants, never stints on fun or glamour. To do our beautiful Bob justice, book a table in the cavernous ink-blue dining room — likely London’s only dining room styled in imitation of the Orient Express. It’s also the proud possessor of immaculately attired waiters in candy-pink uniforms, plus finger-tempting buzzers that proclaim the best instruction ever: “PRESS FOR CHAMPAGNE.” Bob Bob’s menu riffs elegantly on Russia, but is equally good at fashionable comfort food: lobster mac and cheese, for example. Cocktails — in shimmering crystal glasses — are sublime, as is the gravity-defying strawberry souffle. We love everything about our Bob. It’s decadent, in the most lighthearted way.

Street Eats: Kerb, Camden

Apparently Londoners don’t like chairs and tables that much, ta – like Adele, they prefer chasing pavements.The city’s street-food scene has exploded in the last decade. To guarantee a cash-splurging crowd, all you need to do is find a disused public space — preferably a rooftop or a grotty carpark — and fill it with food stalls. Kerb is our favorite contender, sprawling over canalside Camden Market’s West Park. Open 365 days a year in all weather, the 35 stalls display the dizzying diversity that flavor-collecting Londoners have come to expect: Venezuelan arepas from Arepazo Bros, Mandarin marbled eggs from Bian Dang, Indonesian rendang from Makatcha, halloumi fries from Oli Baba’s, tonkatsu sandwiches from Yu Kyu and much more. You won’t go thirsty, thanks to Camden Town Brewery, which wets whistles Kerbside with lagers, ales and IPAs. If you needed proof of London’s enduring love affair with gin, pay a trip to Half Hitch, a local distillery that rustles up its gin onsite.

Trending: Som Saa, Shoreditch

New to London? A tip from us to you (on the house; don’t mention it): Pay attention to the city’s railway arches. Peckham Rye’s railway arches host some excellent cafes and bars (Fat Boy Peckham, Refreshment Rooms, Bar Story and Peckham Springs, to name a few), Borough’s yield an array of noteworthy restaurants, and Hackney’s have long nurtured excellent craft breweries — Five Points, for example. Similarly, Som Saa began life as a Thai pop-up in London Fields’ Climpson’s Arch. Thanks to its utter brilliance — plus a successful crowdfunding campaign — it upgraded to a sprawling space on gritty Commercial Street in 2016. Loyal fans have followed, meaning there are considerable wait times to try grilled chicken with tamarind sauce or jungle curry with fish and wild ginger. Luckily, this is food well worth dawdling for; Chef Andy Oliver counts David Thompson, the super chef behind Michelin-starred Nahm, as a mentor. It used to be surprisingly tricky to find excellent Thai food in London; Som Saa is set to change that.

Burger: Patty & Bun, Marylebone

Burgers are deeply divisive, and when it comes to London’s burgers, there will be those who champion Lucky Chip, those who live by Bleecker St., those who back Burger Bear, the poshos who sing from the rooftops about Hawksmoor’s mighty specimen, and those who fight for Five Guys. Basically, we can all agree that what we want from our burger is moist meat, tasty toppings and the end result: a full stomach, messy face, filthy fingers and sense of shame. Patty & Bun delivers on regret: You will regret dripping meat juice on your clothing and getting ketchup everywhere (consider your outfit carefully). The brioche bun is big and buttery, and the patty is too fat to fit comfortably in its embrace. There’s a pleasingly zingy onion relish, and melted cheese and crisp lettuce to keep things classic. Patty & Bun has tweaks to make before hitting perfection, but it delivers greasy thrills by the bucket load.

Splurge: The Ledbury, Notting Hill

Australians, we will never get down with calling flip-flops “thongs.” It’s uncivilized. What we can get on board with is your culinary — and caffeinated — prowess. Thank you for leading us toward excellent coffee with Flat White in Soho and Kaffeine in Fitzrovia. Chef Brett Graham is another export for which we’re grateful. The Antipodean behind West London’s most-esteemed fine-dining joint, The Ledbury, grew up in Newcastle, Australia, and earned his stripes at a simple seafood restaurant before heading to Sydney. Luckily for Brits, he favored the fog, opening The Ledbury in Notting Hill at age 25, and eventually earning two Michelin stars. Graham’s tasting menu is a love letter to British produce: Current crowd-pleasers include a starter of tomatoes, lobster oil and mustard sorbet, and clay-baked white beetroot served with caviar salt and cured mackerel. There’s a surprisingly reasonable lunch menu (50 pounds for four courses; 90 pounds with matched wines) that allows diners to taste Graham’s culinary fireworks without feeling a financial burn.

Barbecue: Smokey Tails, Shoreditch

For Brits, tackling a plate of barbecued, greasy goodness is as satisfying a dose of Americana as downloading Dolly Parton’s greatest hits: we welcome new barbecue joints with open arms (and open mouths). Smokey Tails is the latest grill-toting, tail-smoking newbie; like many of its compadres on this list, it flourished from the roots of a much-loved pop-up, Beats & Eats. Given that barbecue is still one of the city’s hippest munchies, it’s unsurprising that the trio behind Tails is as fashionable as brioche buns: Seth Troxler (international DJ), Jo Vidler (from Secret Productions, organizers of Secret Garden Party and co-founders of Wilderness) and Jona Ahearne (head chef and flavor wizard). Expect authentic flavors: Seth dug deep into his family’s three-generations-deep recipe book to deliver a taste of the Midwest. On the menu, this translates into calorific concoctions that will make your heart flip, like a Buffalo fried-chicken burger with blue-cheese dressing, lamb’s belly croquettes, pork belly mac ‘n’ cheese and a burnt-butter brownie.

Sharing: Ducksoup, Soho

Sharing really is caring, because if you can find someone you’re happy to divide Ducksoup’s delicious dishes with, you must either really like them or really be exemplary as a human being. Ducksoup cares chiefly about two things: food and wine. You can enjoy both, as long as you’re lucky enough to nab seats in the small space — there’s not enough room to swing a duck, let alone a cat  — on Soho’s Dean Street. Like its dining room, Ducksoup’s menu of European shared plates is small and unpretentious; it changes daily, in accordance with whatever the chef was crushing on at the market. (Tip: Don’t expect duck soup – there is none.) Previous belly-pleasers include charred octopus, pink fir potatoes, capers and chile; spiced carrots with goat’s milk yogurt and coriander; and lemon ricotta and blackcurrant tart. Enjoy wines that won’t result in headaches: The natural selection includes a sherbet-y orange from Austria, a sparkling Italian and some fruity whites and reds, all available democratically by glass, carafe or bottle.

Lobster: Burger & Lobster, Soho

What do you need for a fun-filled dining experience? Lobster hammers held triumphantly aloft, a garlic-butter-smeared face and a lobster-shell-scattered apron, that’s what. (Vegans, look away now.) There’s something gloriously thrilling about picking your chosen victim from a fish tank, safe in the knowledge that it was definitely fished sustainably (from Nova Scotia, by lobster don Alex, if you’re interested), was hopefully in possession of a happy life and will indubitably be cooked to perfection. Forget having fingers (or claws) in many (fish) pies — it’s fashionable for restaurants to zone in on one or two dishes and build an entire brand around them. Burger & Lobster nails this approach with aplomb, pairing two seemingly class-divided menu items in one joyful union. It makes perfect sense to offer diners the choice of a burger, a whole lobster or a lobster roll, fairly priced and served with a choice of sides. Londoners have responded to affordable lobster with abandon.

Meat: Hill & Szrok, Hackney

We couldn’t be prouder of Hill & Szrok’s porcine progression from artisan butcher to cozy cookshop to meat-championing boozer than if we were watching our firstborn bring home the bacon. Beginning amid the beards and bicycles on Broadway Market, Hill & Szrok earned a name as butchers busily rustling up organic house-cured bacon, sausages and a meaty array of ready-to-heat pies, herby marinades and garlicky charcuterie for Hackney hipsters. The cookshop let customers come in, choose a tasty chop, have a chat, sip wine and watch their meat being artfully cooked. Then came the pub on 8 East Road, in Old Street, which serves the kind of unashamedly carnivorous food a butcher would tearfully request for his last supper: excellent meat, toothsome fish and local craft beer. Start with asparagus, deep-fried egg and lardo, then move to a T-bone steak served with sprouting broccoli, anchovy and chile, plus some Jersey royals dripping in wild garlic butter.

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