Food Guides

London Institutions

London’s an ever-evolving hub of restaurants and bars battling it out to be the newest and coolest kid on the block – and we love it. That’s one of the things that makes this city such an exciting place to live. That being said, you can’t beat an institution. Whether it’s one of those restaurants that have been here since the dawn of time, a cafe that’s remained unchanged since the first half of the 20th century or a relatively new spot which is already a part of London’s fabric, these are the places where you’ll be in truly safe hands.

London is an old city – nearly 2000 years old, to be (almost) exact – so it makes sense that there are a lot of historic places in town. Covent Garden’s grande dame Rules currently lays claim to the title of the ‘oldest restaurant in London’ and, since it was established all the way back in 1798, no one’s really arguing with her. Stepping inside is like stepping into a bygone era (the interior features in countless period dramas) and they’ve got a menu to match. Half the age of Rules but with just as much character, E Pellicci in Bethnal Green is the epitome of an old school caff that’s worth the trip for the art deco wood panelling alone.

But back at our end of the millennium, you’ll find undeniable institutions younger than your family dog. Roti King, for example, opened in 2014, but has since become such an intrinsic part of London’s restaurant scene that we refer to the time pre-2014 as BRK (before Roti King). Whatever age you prefer your institution to be, you’ll find an excellent one here.

E PELLICCI

332 Bethnal Green Rd, London E2 0AG

E Pellicci has been serving the good people of East London for over a 100 years, so you can bet they know what they’re doing when it comes to feeding the hungry and the hungover. It’s classic caff grub, the portions are big, they serve breakfasts all day long and the fry up will cost you less than a tenner. It’s closed on Sundays though, so don’t caught out.

THE RIVER CAFE

Thames Wharf, Rainville Rd, Hammersmith, London W6 9HA

Opened in 1987, The River Cafe is one of London’s most influential restaurants, launching the careers of Jamie Oliver and Theo Randall to name a few. Still as relevant as ever, The River Cafe is the model that a lot of the other restaurants on this map are based on: fresh, seasonal Italian ingredients, treated with the lightest of touches. The River Cafe changes its menu twice a day (yes TWICE) depending on what’s available and in season, but you can always be sure that it will deliver the goods. There’s anitpasti such as Roman artichokes with Amalfi lemon, and sea bass carpaccio; pasta dishes like ravioli stuffed with buffalo ricotta, garden herbs & lemon zest with marjoram butter; and secondi of whole wood-roasted pigeon, and chargrilled Scottish scallops with zucchini fritti, chilli and mint. For dessert there is one thing that is always on the menu – the classic, unbelievably gooey and rich chocolate nemesis cake. A meal at The River Cafe doesn’t come cheap, but it’s well worth a splurge at least once to experience one of London’s most iconic restaurants.

QUALITY CHOP HOUSE

88-94 Farringdon Rd, Farringdon, London EC1R 3EA

Clerkenwell’s Quality Chop House turned 150 in 2019. Despite some brief closures, there’s been a restaurant on the same site since 1869; back then it was a ‘progressive working-class caterer’ and now it’s one of the most beloved restaurants in town. Will Lander and Daniel Morgenthau have been running it since 2012 (they’re also behind Portland, Clipstone and Emilia), with Shaun Searley heading up the kitchen. Aside from the amazing interiors, complete with rickety old church pews, the food here always hits the mark. It’s classic British cooking with dishes like duck liver parfait with truffle and beef fat brioche; peas and jellied eel with a herb salad; Highland beef with ramson sauce; those famous confit potatoes; and broccoli with dripping breadcrumbs. And for dessert, don’t forget THAT treacle tart. A true London classic.

WILTONS

Wiltons Restaurant, Jermyn Street, London

“Since 1742” Wiltons proudly displays under its name, a fact that gives it fair claim at London’s oldest restaurant. It’s a bit of a fudge however – it’s only been in its current location since 1984, first beginning as an oyster cart before setting up in several locations not too far from where it is now on Jermyn Street. Impressive history aside, the food at Wiltons is still top notch. It’s a classic menu so the only way to start is with a plate of fresh oysters and a glass of champagne. From there, we can highly recommend the salmon from Londons’ Secret Smokehouse, as well as the smoked eel. Dover Sole with garlic and parsely sauce is an excellent pick from the fish mains. There are perhaps few surpises on the menu, and it’s not cheap, but if you’re looking for the finest seafood (and beef wellington!) in London, look no further.

SWEETINGS

Sweetings is a City institution and has been for well over one hundred years, and it is old school to the max. You’ll find it in a Grade II-listed building on Queen Victoria Street standing alongside modern skyscrapers and slightly trendier eateries, but there’s something special about Sweetings. Open just for lunch from Monday to Friday, the seafood restaurant has dishes like smoked haddock & poached egg, bubble & squeak, fish pie, crab bisque, smoked eel, and steamed syrup pudding with custard on the menu. Eating here really is like stepping back in time.

BEIGEL BAKE

159 Brick Ln, London E1 6SB

Beigel Bake is an East London institution and their beigels aren’t all about the tourist hype. Salt beef, mustard and gherkins, what’s not to like? And being open 24hrs it’s the perfect place for those late night munchies.

ST. JOHN

Founded by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver in 1994, St. JOHN is a London restaurant institution. Pioneers of the nose-to-tail eating movement and simple but gutsy British food, the restaurant has influenced countless chefs and restaurants for over two decades and itself has expanded into a mini empire with a second restaurant, bakery and winery. The Smithfield restaurant, housed in a former smokehouse, has held a Michelin star since 2009, serves up a daily changing menu of dishes like roast bone marrow & parsley salad, devilled kidneys on toast, brill with sea purslane & capers, Eccles cake & Lancashire cheese, and fresh madeleines hot from the oven and a French wine list, including bottles from their own winery.

QUO VADIS

Since it was founded in 1926 Quo Vadis has been home to a brothel, Karl Marx and, most recently, to one of the Hart brothers’ restaurants with chef Jeremy Lee at the helm – it’s a Soho institution for sure. The menu changes by the day and by the season but is always filled with Lee’s favourite things, in sizeable portions and made with high-quality ingredients. One menu staple is their renowned smoked eel sandwich – be sure to get one to share. The height of romance.

THE FRENCH HOUSE

49 Dean St, London W1D 5BG

The French House is our favourite place in Soho, if not London, for meeting new, random, weird and wonderful people. It’s a Soho institution with an incredible history, having opened in 1891. Inside the interiors are typical of an old school pub with lots of wood and dark brown – it doesn’t look like the interiors have been touched since the 70s and don’t even think about asking for a cocktail. This place serves draft in half pints, classic spirits and mixers and some dodgy wine. If the weather allows, grab a drink at the bar, stand outside and be entertained by the Soho crowds.

BAR ITALIA

22 Frith St, Soho, London W1D 4RF

Bar Italia is a Soho institution and not much has changed since it opened in 1949. Serving up a damn fine cuppa joe, this Italian cafe is an old favourite and open until 4am every day it will keep you going all night long.

CHEZ BRUCE

Situated in Wandsworth, the Michelin-starred Chez Bruce takes pride in its old fashioned approach to French cooking – homemade charcuterie, classic puddings and an epic cheeseboard are just some of the things the restaurant takes the time and effort to do well. You can also expect to find dishes like duck liver parfait with toasted brioche, lobster & scallop ravioli with shellfish bisque, and pig’s cheek blanquette with stuffed potato skin, roast fillet & fennel choucroute on the menu. Directors Bruce Poole and Nigel Platts-Martin are just as serious about their wine as they are food and they’ve built up quite the cellar, so make sure to dive into the wine list.

THE RITZ

The Ritz London, Piccadilly, London

London has its fair share of iconic, world-famous hotels but The Ritz arguably trumps them all. The grand Grade-II listed building on the edge of Green Park has been around since 1906 and as you step inside, it feels as though not much has changed since then, with its decadent furnishings modelled on the grand old hotels of Paris. Nowhere does this feel more true than the dining room with its chandeliers, thick curtains, painted ceiling and classical sculptures – there aren’t many dining rooms in London like it and although it’s not exactly the design-style of today, it’s an amazing place to spend an evening; a pure piece of dining escapism.

Despite its reputation for all things grand and luxurious, The Ritz never held a Michelin star until it was awarded one in 2016 under the stewardship of Executive Chef John Williams, who joined the hotel in 2004. John’s refined menus are befitting of the space, beautifully presented classic French dishes that still feel fresh and modern enough to hold their own in London’s innovation-hungry dining scene. We went by for dinner and selected the Menu Surprise, consisting of six seasonal courses selected by John Williams, which at £105 is by no means bad value by Michelin London standards.

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ROTI KING

40 Doric Way, Kings Cross, London NW1 1LH

Tucked away in a basement near Euston, Roti King serves up authentic Malaysian grub that’s cheaper than chips. You can get two pieces of roti with dhal for a very wallet friendly price and still have cash to the roti filled with caramelised banana. Or if roti ain’t your thing they do noodle and rice dishes like beef rendang, nasi lemak and kari laksa – one to remember next time you’re catching a train!

M. MANZE

87 Tower Bridge Rd, London SE1 4TW

The oldest pie shop in town, M.Manze has been serving traditional pie, mash and eels since 1902 and they still use the same recipes too. Impressive. Whether you dine in or take-away you can find a true cockney experience right here.

TAYYABS

A heaving Whitechapel classic, Tayyabs has been a fave since its inception in 1972 – ask any restaurant-loving Londoner if they’ve been and their answer will be, “of course!” Among its many claims to fame are the lamb chops – they’re a contender for the capital’s best – and its BYOB policy (all week, with no corkage fee). The food menu is decently wallet-friendly too, making it great for massive group dinner.

THE CONNAUGHT BAR

The Connaught, Carlos Place, London W1K 2AL

If you wanna splash the cash (like serious big bucks), you can’t beat The Connaught Bar. It’s all about the glitz and glamour, and the place is dripping in money – they even have a martini trolley! But if you’re feeling a bit less 007 there are plenty of reimagined classics on the menu too. It’s swish and you’ll probably only be able to afford one drink, but it’s so worth it.

CIAO BELLA

Ciao Bella, Lamb's Conduit Street, London

Ciao Bella is a traditional Italian restaurant in the heart of Bloomsbury, the kind of place where the walls are covered with photos of Sophia Loren, there’s someone playing the piano, the portions are big, and everyone there seems to be celebrating something. The menu of eternal classics is a safe bet – pizza, pasta, gelato; what’s not to like? And so you have the best possible experience, you’ve gotta sit on the terrace for some of the finest people-watching in London.

AMERICAN BAR AT THE SAVOY

The Savoy’s American Bar is the longest surviving cocktail bar in London and one of the most iconic bars on the planet, regularly winning World’s Best Bar awards. For more than 130 years the American Bar’s bartenders have been translating important moments into cocktails, recording them in liquid form and and this process is at the heart of The Savoy: American Bar Journal menu, created by Head Bartender Chelsie Bailey and her team. There are modern versions of classic serves alongside cocktails created to mark historical moments, including the likes of The New York Cherub, based on the classic ‘Angel Wings’ cocktail, made with Rabbit Hole Rye Whiskey, Bowmore 15-Year-Old Whisky, Raspberry, Discarded Vermouth, Maraschino Liqueur & Spiced Violette Bitters; The Coffee Black Velvet made with Guinness Coffee Whey, Crème De Cassis & Roasted Barley; and Homecoming, created to honour the Lionesses’ Euro 2022 win, made with Lion’s Botanical, Dry Vermouth, St. Germain Elderflower & Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Rosé.

WONG KEI

Another of Chinatown’s enduring establishments, Wong Kei has been around for decades and was long-renowned as being one of the city’s rudest restaurants. Before 2014, you’d go to Wong Kei to be shouted at and line your stomach for a night out in Soho. Since then, new management has taken over and apparently purged Wong Kei of its rude creds, but you can still drop by for quick, cheap and reliable Chinese food.

ANDREW EDMUNDS

Andrew Edmunds, set in an 18th century Soho town house, has been labelled the ultimate date night spot. The old London gem is adored for its authenticity and atmosphere – candlelit tables and handwritten menus guide the way – as well as its reasonable price tag. Expect close quarters, modern European dishes and a fantastic selection of wines at prices you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the city.

PAUL ROTHE & SON

Paul Rothe & Son is a rare beast in that it’s a family-run business in central London and it’s been going since 1900. Classics are very much the name of the game here – you don’t last for over 120 years by being a hypebeast now do you? Sandwiches come on white, granary or wholemeal bread (you can upgrade to rye or ciabatta if you’re feeling fancy) and fillings range from smoked salmon to coronation chicken to mature cheddar. As the sarnies are made in front of you to order, you can also ask for whatever combo you fancy from the ingredients at the counter – if they’ve got it, they’ll put it between bread for you, no matter how weird or wonderful – and they get cut into quarters here so they’re easier to wrap and easier to eat. The deli also serves up homemade soups and salads, and has a very impressive range of preserves lining the windows and shelves.

RULES

Rules is officially London’s oldest surviving restaurant, with an impressive 225 years under its belt, and it certainly looks the part. The historic spot started off as an oyster bar that served classic British dishes at the end of the 18th century and it still serves up a similar menu today. Expect a very traditional menu that includes the likes of chicken, black pudding & jersey royal terrine; potted shrimps; steak & kidney pudding; a shared roast rib of beef with all the trimmings; Rules sticky toffee pudding; and golden syrup sponge. Aside from food, don’t skip on cocktails (they don’t come cheap, but they’re certainly worth it) and be sure to soak up the vintage interiors that have appeared in Downtown Abbey and James Bond – among others.

OSLO COURT

A trip to Oslo Court feels like a trip to a bygone decade, or to the front cover of a cookbook that’ll recommend you serve something jellified at your dinner party. This is a very, very good thing. Oslo Court, which shares its name from the block of flats that it lives in, has been around since the early 1980s and has hardly changed since. Each table is still clad in pink table cloths with matching napkins, you’re still given melba toast and crudites for your appetisers, and desserts are still served off of a trolley. Oslo Court’s charm works hard to compensate for the food which is nothing to write home about, but this legendary restaurant is definitely worth a visit regardless.

VEERASWAMY

The oldest Indian restaurant in the capital, Veeraswamy was opened in 1926 by Edward Palmer, who was the grandson of an English general and an Indian princess – Veeraswamy was Palmer’s grandmother’s family name. While it wasn’t the first or only Indian restaurant in London at the time, it’s generally said to be the first that was considered high-end and it became a real hotspot for decades, attracting the city’s rich and famous. Almost a century later, the restaurant has changed hands a few times but Veeraswamy is as extravagant and eccentric as ever, and its menu is still one of the best in town – it’s earned a Michelin star after all.

BRILLIANT RESTAURANT

Brilliant is Southall’s longest-standing Indian restaurant, having first opened back in 1975. Its roots are in Nairobi, where the family business’ patriarch Bishen Dass Anand launched Brilliant in the fifties. It was two of Anand’s sons who opened the London edition of Brilliant, which started out as a small 30-cover restaurant and has since grown to a huge 220-cover institution. Anand’s granddaughter, Dipna, is now at the helm, serving up an award-winning Punjabi menu of exceptionally executed classics. Don’t miss the ‘Brilliant’ signatures: butter, jeera or chilli chicken.

J SHEEKEY

A seafood stalwart that has been feeding the hungry people of Covent Garden since 1896, J. Sheekey is a real West End institution. You can see the history of the red-fronted restaurant on the walls with the photographs of all the stars that have passed through and you can feel it in the old-fashioned service, all suited waiters, silver dishes and white tablecloths. The menu is full of classics, from fish pie to lobster thermidor to king prawn & avocado cocktail, alongside a number of Asian-inspired dishes. If you want to push the boat out, you can’t beat one of their impressive shellfish platters stacked with oysters, clams, dressed crab, langoustine, and prawns.

THE FRYER'S DELIGHT

19 Theobalds Rd, London WC1X 8SL

Like stepping into a very bygone era, The Fryer’s Delight is a true London gem. It’s an entirely classic chippie – founded in 1958 by two Italian brothers, Giovanni and Giuseppe Ferdenzi – and everything about it is perfect, from the original fixtures (the checkerboard floor and wood panelling is *chefs’ kiss*) to the pouting, top hat-wearing fish on the sign. The food here is reliably cheap and, crucially, very good. The fish and chips are fried the old-school way, using beef drippings, and, after all these years, still rated among the best in the city.

NOBLE ROT

51 Lamb’s Conduit St, London, WC1N 3NB

Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling are the boys behind Noble Rot magazine (think Lucky Peach but all about the wonderful world of wine) and a wine bar and restaurant of the same name, with Stephen Harris of Michelin-starred The Sportsman in Kent in charge of the food. The site on Lamb’s Conduit Street was actually already a wine bar and the building itself dates back to 1700, so there is plenty of cosy charm to the place and it feels as if they’ve been doing their thing here for years already. In the front are tables for drinking and snacks and at the back there is a slightly more formal sit down restaurant. Wine is of course as big a focus as the food and these guys know their stuff so you’re in safe hands. The food menu is the perfect match; big flavoursome dishes but nothing overly complicated or fussy, like pork & walnut terrine, smoked eel with rhubarb & soda bread, braised monkfish with crab bisque, and chocolate mousse cake.

OTTO'S

Despite opening in 2011, Otto’s looks as though it has been on the Gray’s Inn Road for many more years than that. If traditional French dining in a smart setting is your thing, then you’re in the right place. Suited waiters serve familiar French classics like Burgundian ‘Petit Gris’ snails, foie gras, lobster souffle, Dover sole meunière, and tarte tatin, or for particularly hungry diners, the piece de resistance, the canard a la presse, involving a whole duck pressed tableside and served in three courses. This is the kind of place where a meal turns into a multi-hour affair, and Otto makes sure to show his guests a good time, so you’ll want to linger to soak up the experience.

L'ESCARGOT

A self-described Soho institution, L’Escargot has been serving up French brasserie style dishes since 1927, making it the oldest French restaurant in the capital, and has welcomed everyone from Princess Di to Coco Chanel to the Kray twins through the doors. Given they’ve had nearly a century of practice, it’s no surprise that they’ve got the food down to a fine art here, with generous servings of the namesake escargots in garlic butter, lobster bisque, coq au vin, tournedos rossini, and creme brulee. With three private dining rooms and a bar spread across the upper floors plus a very impressive art collection, it’s a place worth taking your time to admire.

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