Visiting London for the first time? We have some advice. Avoid Oxford Street completely. Do go on a pub crawl of some sort. Hit up some markets, because we have some brilliant ones. And definitely don’t tell anyone you’re coming, so you’ll have fewer distractions and more time to eat your way through the city.
This First Timer’s Guide isn’t meant to be a definitive list of the city’s best restaurants, coolest restaurants, or places where you might spot Harry Potter or Stephen Fry. It’s where we would go if we were in your shoes and had an entire city to eat our way through and about three days to do it. Let us lead you.
The First Timer’s Guide To Eating In London is presented by the American Express ® Gold Card. Click here to learn more about the benefits and rewards you can get from paying with the Amex Gold Card while dining out.
BREAKFAST, BRUNCH, LUNCH & AFTERNOON TEA
If you arrived in London expecting to feel like a Lord or Lady but your Airbnb isn’t quite cutting it, then drop your bags and head to The Wolseley instead. This is a historic and over the top grand café that’s housed in a former vintage car showroom. It’s a stunning place, and the food and service is well worth pulling on a proper shirt for. It’s popular at any time of day, so book ahead.
An old-school English greasy spoon is a beautiful thing, and it doesn’t get much more old-school than this East End classic. You’ll hear plenty of cockney accents, the vibe is incredibly warm and welcoming, and you’ll immediately be made to feel like part of the community. As for the food, the Full English breakfast is huge and the tea is strong - don’t order a latte unless you want everyone to know that you’re from out of town.
It is essential. Absolutely essential, that you say yes to mustard when you order a salt-beef bagel at Beigel Bake. Standing outside this white fronted, 24/7 East End bakery and biting into a bagel before hitting the inevitable (yet unexpected) dollop of eye-watering, nose-leaking mustard is a quintessential London experience. These are, without doubt, the best bagels in London.
Hitting the spots that locals go to is always the ambition but rarely the reality when you’re visiting somewhere for the first time. But Esters is a local spot worth making into a destination. This is one of London’s best neighbourhood cafes serving one of the best brunches around, as well as freshly baked cakes and cookies. Although you can’t book, you never seem to wait longer than ten minutes, and the (brilliant) staff will always make sure that everyone outside is offered (excellent) coffee.
Good Indian food is to Londoners what good Mexican food is to Texans. It’s a privilege but also a birthright. Within the last few years, Dishoom changed the game by creating an Indian restaurant that looks and feels modern, yet also serves food of the same quality that you might conceivably eat in Southern Asia. There are several Dishooms located around town, and there will always be a queue regardless of which one you visit, though the Soho and Shoreditch restaurants are the ones we’d hedge our bets on. Either way, make sure the chicken ruby curry and lamb chops are on your table.
You should go to Shoreditch to check out the neighbourhood’s restaurants, shops, and galleries. And you should absolutely book lunch at Rochelle Canteen. It’s hidden away behind a gate in a quiet square a few minutes away from the high street, and housed in an old refurbished school canteen. The process of finding Rochelle is part of the appeal, of course, but the British food and nicely curated wine list are impeccable as well. It’s lunch only most days, but the restaurant does open for dinner at the weekends during the summer.
The are plenty of options for you to experience the uniquely British custom of afternoon tea, but afternoon tea at The Savoy is the best place to feel like an old-fashioned aristocrat, which is probably at least a small part of why you’ve come to London. The Thames Foyer, where you’ll have your tea, is a beautiful space, and it’s easy to get carried away with the whole experience because they look after you so well. Make sure to book as soon as possible to get a spot.
If you did some advance research on the food scene in London, you probably heard that we have a lot of food markets around town. Borough Market is the most famous. It’s particularly known for fresh produce, but there are literally a hundred food stalls dotted around. The best thing to do is scope the vendors out first before making a decision, and definitely take a look at our guide. In short, the Kappacasein cheese toastie, Bread Ahead vanilla donut, and oysters from Richard Haward get our vote.
Maltby Street Market is sort of like Borough Market’s ‘alternative’ sibling. Kind of like COS to H&M. Meaning, basically, this single street market is still gonna be absolutely chocka but there are a few more high quality foodstuffs on offer. As well as a couple of wine bars. Things like steak and chips with chimmichurri, scotch eggs, and dumplings are a must here. Just be prepared to shuffle through the crowds for a bit.
Afternoon tea at Sketch is like having scones and clotted cream in an Alice In Wonderland themed spaceship. This massive space is made up of several rooms, each with somewhat different themes, and each slightly insane - in a good way. As for the eating and drinking, the cakes and finger sandwiches are nice, but you’re really here because there isn’t anywhere like it in the world. And make sure you go to the bathroom while you’re there. That’s the best room in the building.
We’re sending you to Duck and Waffle primarily so you can look out the windows. The view from the top of the Heron Tower is spectacular, but unlike most tall building restaurants, the food’s actually pretty good too. Think posh British cuisine with a twist, like Aberdeen Angus beef tartare or smoked eel with creme fraiche. Brunch here is a good decision (though book ahead), and it’s open 24 hours if you need something late night.
Londoners are pretty serious about football and if you happen to care a bit about this too, we have a two-for-one offer for you. Head up to Xi’an Impression where you’ll find some of the best Chinese food in London, conveniently located directly across the street from the Emirates Stadium where Arsenal, north London’s finest, play. Order the hand-pulled noodles, the cold noodles, the chicken in ginger sauce, and one of the beef buns. Then leave a lot happier then most fans do around here on match day.
This Taiwanese spot is famous for its long queues, and you may be wondering if it’s worth waiting to try the food here. Overall, we’d say it is, though the best way to go about it is to pop in for a snack around 4pm, when you should be able to get in quickly. It’s an in and out kind of place, so it works well for this. The bao buns are what a lot of people come for, but you definitely want to try some of the small plates like trotter nuggets or beef with aged soy as well.
If you’re looking to complete the holy British trinity of fry up, fish and chips, and enormous pie, then you should be heading to Holborn Dining Room. This grand all-day restaurant connected to the Rosewood Hotel is London’s undisputed pastry master. The pies - be it chicken and mushroom or potato, comté, and caramelised onion - are the finest around. The best thing, though, is that you can get them to go as well: check out their pie hatch if you haven’t got the time to sit down inside.
Sure, you probably have ‘Madame Tussauds’ written down on your travel itinerary. Pick up your pen, scribble a line through it, and write ‘get pissed at Noble Rot’ there instead. Whether you come for dinner and drinks, or just drinks and more drinks - we promise you that you’ll have a much better time at this Bloomsbury wine bar. According to some very smart people - yes, us - Noble Rot is not only the best wine bar to drink in, but it’s also the best restaurant in London. Come here for one glass that turns into three bottles, eat their dream-inducing bread, get in some proper people watching from the seats in the window, and regret absolutely nothing when you wake up hungover the next morning.
Indian spot Brigadiers in the City is quite possibly the most fun restaurant in all of London. If you don’t have a bloody good laugh here, then you’re doing it wrong. Game plan: reserve one of the tables in the bar area, get some drinks and butter chicken, head for the whisky vending machine and a game of pool, then pop back to the dining room to go toe-to-toe with their excellent beef shin and bone marrow biryani and London’s best lamb chops. Be warned, this level of restaurant-based hilarity is hard to say goodbye to.
If you’re coming to London to do some shopping, then you should know two things. The first is that Oxford Circus - the shopping hive of London - is a pretty stressful place. The second is that Rovi - one of our highest rated restaurants - is a ten minute walk away and definitely isn’t a stressful place to be. This all day spot in Fitzrovia manages to be modern, retro, lively, and laidback, all at the same time. And the menu is full of creative vegetable dishes and modern takes on Middle Eastern classics. Don’t miss the celeriac shawarma.
There’s only one thing Londoners love more than complaining about the weather, and that’s a Sunday roast. And there are few places in London better to have one than Maggie Jones’s in Kensington. This old school British restaurant serves an excellent roast dinner and fresh game throughout the week. Come here to be completely charmed by candlelight or go all in on the pork belly roast for Sunday lunch.
If you’re looking for a classic establishment in a classic part of London, then the French House should be top of your list. This legendary Soho pub is one of the city’s most famous spots for getting merry, before going upstairs for a meal. While the downstairs is very much alcohol-driven, upstairs is a classic wood-panelled dining room serving classics like pork rillettes, chops, and pastries like Paris-Brest.
Wherever you go in the world, you want a ‘unique’ experience. Lots of restaurants think that what makes a place ‘unique’ is the food. But watching someone pour liquid nitrogen on top of a snail while you sit in a beige room full of white tablecloths isn’t unique. It’s ten a penny. There’s more to uniqueness, and Black Axe Mangal gets that. It’s loud, smelly, a little bit mad, and at times you won’t know what you’re eating - either because it doesn’t look like anything recognisable, or because you can’t hear, or you weren’t paying attention because you’re having such a good time. This is what eating out in London is all about.
Hoppers combines the casual Soho experience (no bookings, anything-goes vibe) with some of the best curry you can eat in London. The cuisine focuses on the Sri Lankan ‘hopper’ (a flaky, crispy bowl-shaped pancake) that’s perfect for eating with an assortment of chutneys and spicy curries. The black pork curry is the one to get, and the devilled shrimp dish is incredibly good as well. The waits can be long, but they’re definitely worth it.
When people ask us about visiting a classic London restaurant, the first and only restaurant that we suggest is J Sheekey. It’s a classic place in the middle of the theatre district and an old-fashioned spot to enjoy a few glasses of wine and eat some high quality shellfish. For all its elegance, J Sheekey is also unpretentious and relaxed, especially at their bar or outdoor terrace. As for the crowd, it’s a late-night hangout for theatre and movie folk, which means, actually, tourists like you should probably come here.
It’s pretty much a given that if you’re coming to London you’re going to want to get involved with our national dish. But you should know that not all fish and chips are equal, and whilst you’re here, you deserve the best. The Golden Hind in Marylebone is one of London’s best known chippies and serves huge portions of cod or haddock with proper chips and mushy peas. Yes, you do need to try the mushy peas, no excuses. There’s also an outdoor terrace for days where the weather’s nice.
If it’s your first time in London, you’re probably going to end up at Borough Market at some point. And if you find yourself overwhelmed by the food stalls and organic soap stalls, head to Padella. You’ll sit at the bar and eat handmade pasta for £5-6 that’s as good as any in London these days. Get the pappardelle with slow-cooked meat, or the ravioli with herb butter and goat cheese. There’s a chance you’ll have to queue, but unlike half of the stuff at the market, the food here is actually worth it.
The experience of hitting the East End for a curry is an experience that’s as old as London itself, and as authentic as it gets. Tayyab’s, a Punjabi restaurant near Whitechapel, is the best place for that experience, and you can’t really say you’ve been to London before you’ve fought your way through the heaving scrum at the door and made it to a table. A meal at Tayyab’s is basically like rugby, except you get lamb chops at the end. It is important to note that you should go to the off-license (corner store) before you head inside as it’s BYOB. Grab a few Kingfisher beers and get ready to have an excellent night.
St John is one of the best restaurants in London, and famous for popularising the ‘nose-to-tail’ style of cooking. Beyond blood, guts, and offal though, St. John is just a really bloody good British restaurant that cooks meat, fish and game simply, and everything from a soup to a plate of freshly baked madeleines is superb. The roasted bone marrow with sourdough toast and parsley salad is a must-order, though if you don’t want a full dinner, the bar’s a brilliant place to grab some casual plates of food and a glass of their house wine.
Dining at the counter is a thing in London now, and nowhere is this done better than at The Palomar. An evening here might be the most fun you can have in a restaurant in London, mostly due to the nearly unexplainable energy that you’ll feel the second you walk in the door. The Israeli small plates are excellent, but you’ll really remember the banging tunes, the bartenders who’ll tell you what to eat and offer you shots, and stumbling out at midnight feeling like you own this town.
Gunpowder is a tiny Indian restaurant close to Brick Lane, but it’s different from anywhere else. Whereas Dishoom is a pretty by-the-book introduction to London Indian, Gunpowder puts spicy soup into shot glasses and stuffs meat into an alien-looking doughnut, and some of the best tandoori lamb chops in the whole of London. We’ll level with you - Gunpowder isn’t that well-kept a secret, but we almost guarantee that your ‘world travelling’ cousin didn’t eat here when they were last in London.
This Spanish tapas bar is an absolute must-visit for any first timer - you’ll walk out wondering exactly how a simple pan con tomate or prawn could be that good. There are three locations in the middle of town, and you’ll be great at any of them, though we’d send you to Covent Garden if we had to choose. This location is on a beautiful street, and there’s a cool curved bar that gives each diner not just a view of the kitchen, but also of each other. There’s always a wait, but there are definitely worse things in life than hanging out with a glass of cava and a plate of ham until a space opens up.
At some point you may to want to eat some fancy Italian food, and Bocca di Lupo is where to do it. This classic Italian restaurant in Soho hits all the right notes - amazing pastas, excellent grilled meat and seafood - and ups the ante with regional dishes from across Italy. There are tables, but the bar is where you want to be sitting to get a good view of all the action. Call ahead if you can, as it gets very popular in the evenings.
Within approximately eight minutes of being in London you’ll spot someone who’s tipsy and realise that us Londoners really, really love to drink. But not just at pubs. Oh no, we don’t discriminate, Londoners also love a wine bar. P Franco in Clapton is a wine shop, wine bar, and neighbourhood restaurant that just happens to be serving some of London’s best small plates. The menu changes regularly with rotating guest chefs, but you’re pretty much guaranteed a great night that feels like you’ve finally made it into that intimate dinner party you always wish you were invited to.
Odds are you’ll probably go for a wander along the South Bank at some point, realise you’re a bit parched and peckish, before realising you’re next to the Thames and surrounded by glass-box chains. Thankfully, the Anchor and Hope in Waterloo is a stroll away. This was one of London’s first excellent gastropubs and is still serving extremely tasty Mediterranean-inspired food. Alongside pints of course. It’s no booking so be prepared to wait, but that’s not a problem when you’ve got a drink in your hand.