Once upon a time, London was a place where under-the-radar eating experiences were pretty much the only kind worth having. Michelin-starred dining aside, the British capital was slow to produce a restaurant culture to match its world-class art, fashion, and music scenes. While savvy Londoners have always known where to find the most buttery mutton roti, or a plate of soul-soothing pie and mash, tourists were left ordering bland curries on Brick Lane (rookie error!) and probably wondering how we Brits hadn’t all perished from starvation (short answer: booze).
To say things have changed would be a typically British understatement. London now rivals New York in the dynamism and sheer diversity of its dining scene, with excellent restaurants to be found everywhere from Wapping to Hackney Wick. In a city that has gone from ‘Reservations; who needs them?!’ to a complex hierarchy of ‘no reservations,’ ‘reservations only,’ and ‘good luck getting a reservation if you’re not royalty or Kate Moss’ (essentially the same thing), where are London’s most discerning chefs escaping the crowds now? We asked 10 of them to fork over their secrets.
Head chef at Rita’s Bar and Dining
Favorite under-the-radar spots: Jen Cafe (4-8 Newport Pl, London WC2H 7JP); Lahore Kebab House (2-10 Umberston St, London, E1 1PY)
Pryce Says: “If I get into Central London, I usually head to Chinatown; a lot of chefs do. Dim sum with a friend is always the goal, but I’m just as likely to end up at Jen Cafe eating noodle soup. My favorite thing, though, is a big table at Lahore—in my opinion, the best Pakistani spot in London. Go with a nice gang so you can order everything.” (Photo: Yelp)
Executive chef and owner of Brunswick House
Favorite under-the-radar spot: Silk Road (49 Camberwell Church St, London SE5 8TR)
Boxer says: “I was 20 when I first discovered Silk Road, which had then only just opened. It was, and I think may still remain, London’s only Xin Jiang restaurant. I’m aware now that it’s not necessarily a full or authentic description of Xin Jiang cuisine, and that doesn’t bother me at all. What it is: A fine, honest establishment, built by a family putting their heart in every bowl of hand-pulled belt noodles and cleaved chicken. It’s packed every night, including once a week by my whole team, for whom no Sunday evening away from the stoves is complete without a few beers and place on one of Silk Road’s long benches, working up a happy sweat.” (Photo: Yelp)
Favorite under-the-radar spot: Apollo Banana Leaf (190 Tooting High St, London SW17 0SF)
Rankin says: “My favorite spot is Apollo Banana Leaf in Tooting. The mutton rolls are what I based my brisket rolls on in Smokehouse, but the whole menu is delicious. Look out for the deviled dishes and Chicken 65. Its BYOB and you can feed yourself like a king for less than £15 a head.” (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Head chef at Racine
Favorite under-the-radar spots: Santa Maria Pizzeria (15, Saint Mary’s Rd, Ealing, London, W5 5RA); Gifto’s Lahore Karahi (162-164 The Broadway, Southall UB1 1NN)
Harris says: “My pick is for Santa Maria in Ealing, where half the restaurant seems to be taken up by the pizza oven. It’s owned by my friend Pasquale and serves the best Neapolitan-style pizza in London. When you are hungry you go in, and within minutes you have a glass of red and a pizza to satisfy you. What more could you need? The white pizza, with smoked mozzarella, friarielli, and Tuscan sausage, is my favorite.
“If we’re going really off the map, then I’d say Gifto’s Lahore Karahi in Southall just outside of London. There’s a sprawling menu that has some real gems: brain masala, lamb’s trotters, halim (pureed lamb and lentils), chicken haandi, and some great naan bread. Bright and vibrant cooking—I love it.” (Photo: Yelp)
TBD at Koya
Favorite under-the-radar spot: Trangallan (61 Newington Green, London N16 9PX)
Clark says: “When I get sucked into a work vortex and a day off is really rare, I’ll usually be craving a long lunch at Trangallan. It’s quietly brilliant at what it does and also a whole heap of fun. The grub is gritty and generous. The plonk is proper funky. There’s something that I can’t pin down about it though. It seems to exist outside the world of slick London restaurants. Last time I was in, the chef was out of town so the sommelier was behind the stoves—and more than holding his own—with the aid of a bottle of Jura and some cigarettes he’d pinched off a customer. It’s eccentric, impractical, trusting, disorganized—but, above all, leaves something to the imagination.” (Photo: Trip Advisor)
Co-owner and head chef at Lyle’s
Favorite under-the-radar spots: 40 Maltby St (40 Maltby St, London SE1 3PA, UK); Koya (49 Frith Street, London W1D 4SG)
Lowe says: “My favourite places to be when I’m not working are 40 Maltby Street and Koya. Steve [Williams]’s food at Maltby is wonderfully untarnished by trends: thoughtful, interesting, and always super tasty. The menu changes every week and there are always a few new wines available by the glass, too. Get in early on a Saturday lunch to avoid a queue.
“Koya is certainly on the radar, but people seem to miss the specials board that changes daily. I generally just order everything from this list as well as my favorit,e the cold ‘zaru’ udon. They have also started doing omakase menus once a month called ‘The Backbench,’ which you have to be pretty quick to book up.” (Photo: Urbanspoon)
Head chef at 8 Hoxton Square
Favorite under-the-radar spot: Song Que (134 Kingsland Road, London E2 8DY)
Emirali says: “I go to Song Que, a no-frills Vietnamese restaurant on East London’s Kingsland Road. The food is fresh and cheap. I always go for dish 143—the rare sliced steak pho. Banging.” (Photo: Yelp)
TBD at Fleur De Lys
Favorite under-the-radar spot: Tava (17 Stoke Newington Rd, London N16 8BH)
Clarke says: “After much searching for the best Turkish food in London, I found myself settling on Tava on Stoke Newington Road. It is far superior to the overhyped competition, with friendly staff and consistently amazing grilled meats. But it’s also the small details in the food. The borek is so light and crispy, with the faintest hint of parsley through the cheese. The esme salad is my girlfriend Jemma’s favorite thing. She says it’s the best she’s ever tried, and she’s a tougher critic than me! I absolutely love the grilled onions in pomegranate molasses and turnip juice. It’s the best accompaniment to a plate of lamb chops and ribs—Tava happily makes an extra large plate of these for us.” (Photo: Zomato)
Head chef at The Manor
Favorite under-the-radar spots: Kanada-Ya (64 Saint Giles High Street, London WC2H 8LE); Bukowski (Unit 10, Market Row, London SW9 8JX); Spuntino (61 Rupert Street, London W1D 7PW); Smoking Goat (7 Denmark Street, London WC2H 8LZ)
Clarke says: “I love so many places: Kanada-Ya is a tonkotsu ramen place from Japan that just opened on Giles Street, and is great for those cold days. I like Bukowski in Brixton Market for their burger and fried-chicken livers. Spuntino is where I go for Monday afternoon cocktails and fried olives—things usually get a little bit blurry over there—and Smoking Goat is probably the best Thai I’ve had in London.” (Photo: Yelp)
Head chef at Fields and M1lk
Favorite under-the-radar spot: Honey & Co. (25a Warren St, London W1T 5LZ)
Ingham says: “In a sea of watered-down versions of recipes from Ottolenghi cookbooks, this local restaurant on Warren Street is the real deal. Honey & Co. serves the most beautiful modern takes on Middle Eastern classics in their own unique style—it’s small and cozy, but the place is buzzing. The staff all seem to have a proud look on their faces when they greet you, and serve the food as if they were the owners. I’m a particular fan of the pastry work going on in this place; the homemade pitas and apple pie I had last time were immense. They’re always busy, so best to book.” (Photo: Trip Advisor)