Sometimes you want to look like you’re trying hard. Like when you’re at work. Or when you’re consoling your friend over someone you hate, and you need to try and hide that fact. Other times you want to act a little cooler though. Like if you’re meeting someone and it may or may not be a date. Or if you’re meeting a friend, old or new, and need to maintain your fake-cool persona. These are the 20 best places for all of that. They’re casual, comfortable, and have the kind of food and atmosphere that pretty much anyone would find impressive.
Peg is a tiny counter restaurant which feels like the living embodiment of a copy of Cereal magazine that’s had a glass of orange wine spilled over it. This little Japanese-influenced wine bar in Hackney Central is from the same folks as P. Franco and Bright: two spots that we’ve used exhaustive amounts to impress anyone and everyone. The food here is split between grilled things on a stick, like a tear-inducingly good meatball, and other things not on a stick, like a silence-inducingly good salad. Needless to say, the wine selection is also excellent.
The things that make Llerena such a great little tapas spot sort of sneak up on you. One minute you’re on Upper Street crying out for something that will see you through your Overground journey, the next you’re eating some damn good ewe’s cheese and debating how many oxtail croquetas you can stuff in your face and still have room for churros. From the white exposed bricks to the fact that the family running this place have been raising pigs in Extremadura in Spain for over half a century make it pretty much impossible not to like this place. Heads up, finishing your meal here with some hazelnut liqueur is never not a good idea.
On the face of it, Pophams is a stylish bakery in Hackney serving freelance people who are all chasing invoices whilst eating a £4 pastry. But what you need to know is that, at night, this warehouse space transforms into a candlelit Noah Baumbach film set, full of couples and friends eating very good handmade pasta, all of which hover around the £9 - £11 mark. The cappellacci is particularly excellent. All in, it’s casual, confident, and discreetly impressive. Heads up, you’ll need to book.
When you were eighteen, impressing a new friend was easy. You just had to casually let them know that you had a fake ID and take a puff of a cigarette without keeling over. You might think that impressing your grown-up friends is harder, but it’s easy at Lady Of The Grapes. Between the rustic tables, stacked jars of fermented beetroot, and lined up bottles of red, this little wine bar in Covent Garden manages to feel very south of France without giving the impression of being owned by the world’s biggest wine snob. On the food side they serve everything from chargrilled octopus to classic charcuterie platters, but our favourite thing here is the polenta and comté fries.
Zeret Kitchen is an unassuming Ethiopian restaurant in Camberwell. This place is constantly buzzing with families and friends sharing giant vegetarian platters generous with misir wot (spicy lentils) and shuro wot (roasted spicy chickpeas) all to be piled onto injera, onto your hand, and into your mouth. There are some excellent meat dishes too, as well as some fine Ethiopian beers.
The best way to really impress someone over a meal is to cook them something equal parts excellent and delicious in the comfort of your own home. Sadly, as we and several birds learnt from ‘Turducken Gate’, that isn’t always possible. The Drunken Butler is your next best, or even better, bet. It’s a French and Persian inspired restaurant in Clerkenwell that feels like the open plan kitchen and living room of someone you wish you were. Even better is that the food, particularly on Sundays is superb.
“There’s absolutely nothing impressive about a pub”, says an absolute fool immediately before eating one of the best risottos of their life at The Camberwell Arms. This traditional south London pub might look slightly average, but the food here is anything but. Not only does this place serve some seriously tasty British food - including a roast that would make Aunt Bessie weep - but, come nighttime, their dining room goes from boozer to what we like to call ‘peak candlelight’. If you’re looking to impress someone who you’re not quite on a sit-down dinner level with, it’s worth knowing that the bar snacks here are just as good.
As a sane person living in the 21st century you obviously have a cool, but you know, not too cool playlist ready and waiting in case someone casually asks you to ‘pop some music on’. Officina 00 is basically the restaurant equivalent of this. It’s The XX of places to eat excellent, affordable handmade pasta if you like. Just up from Old Street station, Officina 00 has a laid back, slightly industrial look that keeps things feeling casual whilst their fried raviolo and top squid ink tagliolini will keep your mouths happy.
When you first met you were inseparable, but things have moved on since then. They’re vegan. You’re not. They don’t drink. You still do. Don’t worry you can still impress them with your understated interest in all things vegetable by going to Persepolis. This Persian café in Peckham is at the back of a corner shop and serves delicious mezze amongst other things, all at great prices. It’s BYOB and the £20 tasting menu is a lot of great food for not that much cost.
If you’re going out with someone who’s impressed with ‘authentic experiences’, whatever they are, then you want to take them to La Mia Mamma. This Italian in Chelsea is a big old family affair, where a group of female Italian chefs cook a rotating menu of dishes specific to their individual regions. As well as the cacio e pepe - so good you’ll forget to breathe - it’s the atmosphere that really makes La Mia Mamma. It’s happy and vibrant, and, sometimes, they’ll even just get you to try something as if you’re at home in the kitchen.
Pizza has the ability to be perfect in so many situations. Sodo Pizza in Clapton is an extremely cute (and candlelit) sourdough pizza restaurant that’s as tasty as it is useful. We’ve come here on our own, with parents, and with dates, because it’s so reliably pleasing with its crispy pies and relaxed atmosphere. It’s virtually impossible to leave here without saying - ‘yeah that was really nice, that’.
Rubedo is one of those neighbourhood restaurants that hides in plain sight. Almost everyone in Stoke Newington has probably walked past this restaurant multiple times without noticing it. Ideally you want someone who knows the area, because they’ll not only be impressed when you show them to the door of this place, but also with the rustic Italian food they eat inside - think chicory salads and handmade pasta. It suits night better than day, especially if you’re looking for a bit of a romantic atmosphere.
Peckham is filled with lowkey restaurants making extremely tasty food, and Mr. Bao is another of them. This Taiwanese spot is almost impossible not to like, and not be a little enamoured with by the time you leave. Their shiitake mushroom bao is the stuff of legend, whether you eat meat or not. The atmosphere is very simple and casual: there’s a bit of a buzz in the evening and it’s pretty relaxed in the day. But it’s the food that will make an impression.
Quality Wines is a multi-use wine bar and restaurant that has multiple ways of impressing people. Say you know a bit about wine and want to show off, or the person with you does and you want to choose somewhere cool with a great selection: it’s ideal. Say you just want a classy light bite, like lardo on toast, with a glass of something delicious: it’s ideal. Say you and a colleague need a quick lunch, but you want to make a bit of an impression: it’s ideal.
A brunch date is ideal if you’re organising to meet your other half’s parents for the first time. Why? Because brunch is neither the morning nor the evening, meaning you’ll still have a large portion of your day to enjoy after taking them to Esters. This Stoke Newington brunch spot is the very definition of ‘oh this, we just threw it together’, which usually refers to something like confit pork belly with apricot ketchup, fried egg and sourdough, or french toast with lemon ricotta and beetroot purée. Oh this little place? You come here all the time.
If you suggest a cultural day out at the ICA and grabbing some food there afterwards, the odds are whoever you’re with will think you’re talking about a canteen sandwich. No, no, no. There will not be a limp bit of lettuce in sight. Rochelle at the ICA is one of London’s best kind of secret, but kind of not secret, restaurants. The food here is the same as at Rochelle Canteen: simple British and European dishes that are simply delicious. Pies, salads, potatoes, and ice cream. The sort of things that impress anyone and everyone when done perfectly.
Dotori is a little cash-only Korean and Japanese spot that can blend into the surrounding mayhem of Finsbury Park if you’re not looking out for it. Once you do though, you’ll find that a number of other people have the same thing in mind: going here. This place almost always has a queue out the door. It’s one of those restaurants that you’ll take someone to once and then they’ll come back again, probably without you. We tend to stick to the Korean menu, the seafood pancake and also the yukgejang are favourites - though the Japanese stuff is fine too.
If we had a go-to restaurant for slyly impressing someone by making virtually no effort whatsoever, it would be Xi’an Impression. It’s a tiny restaurant opposite Arsenal’s stadium serving up some of the best Xi’anese cuisine we’ve had in the city. The liangpi cold noodles in chilli oil will impress anyone. And that’s before we even mention their biang biang noodles as well.
The area around Angel is packed full of restaurants. Some of them are good. Many of them are not. Oldroyd is. This is a restaurant that’s all about the food and the company, so make sure you’re taking someone you really like, and who really likes food. The menu changes daily, but it’s drawn from all over France, Italy, and Spain. Expect cured fish, handmade pasta, and a restaurant that will ensure you have an extremely nice time.
Taking someone to a handmade pasta spot is a pretty much surefire way of impressing them. But if you’re around London Bridge, then one of them will require a lot of queueing and patience. Flour & Grape will not. This Bermondsey pasta restaurant is incredibly straightforward: it makes a range of handmade pastas - like tortelloni, bucatini, or pappardelle - in a variety of classic sauces. If you’re looking for a good value and tasty meal out, then this will suit.