According to almost any magazine you pick up these days, London is the coolest city on the planet and food is the new rock and roll. Chefs are sexy, and Londoners go out to eat for fun. It's a form of recreation, and they don't mind paying for the experience. As visiting Americans can attest, a meal that would cost you $50 in New York will cost you £50 in London today.
Gone are the days when lunch was served at one o'clock sharp, tea at 4:30, and dinner not a moment before eight. You can now eat and drink all day in London, even in pubs, and you can dine out every day of the year. And the range of restaurants is enormous. Whether they are going to the theater, or shopping, or eating out with their parents or children, savvy Londoners know the places that are suited to each occasion.
The following 11 restaurants—some new, some established—are not only native favorites but wonderful spots for the traveler as well. Together they provide a sampling of what's available in London today and prove that when you're dining in this city, variety really is the spice of life.
Before or After the Theater Marco Pierre White's food and Damien Hirst's art collection turn out to be a potent pair at the revamped Quo Vadis in Soho. Who'd have believed that the artist who specializes in pickling cows in formaldehyde could decorate a restaurant so tastefully?As for White, he is the food world's answer to Elvis, with restaurants that include the Criterion (see below) and the Michelin three-star Restaurant in the Hyde Park Hotel. Everything at Quo Vadis is clean, tidy, and elegant—even the collection of surgical instruments decorating the bar looks suave rather than menacing, and the food is White's usual clean, urbane fare. The menu features fish dishes like ray (skate), salt cod, tuna, haddock, and sole; and meats such as rib-eye steak, spit-roasted Gressingham duck, and roast rabbit.
Post-Theater/Post-Opera Located at the corner of Kingsway and the Aldwych, Bank is convenient to both opera and theater land. A newish venture, the restaurant really is a converted bank with an immense chandelier that covers the ceiling from the bar area to the dining room. Christian Delteil and Tim Hughes cook some of the greatest fish-and-chips in town, plus many other treats (including oysters and red curried guinea fowl) that are "modern British"—the lighter style of cooking, with occasional exotic influences, made popular in the eighties.
At the Barbican If you're here to take in a concert, stage performance, film, or exhibition, you can now eat well in the monster arts complex itself. The handsome Searcy's has a white honeycomb ceiling, polished cherrywood tables, and a colorful patchwork carpet. There is a prix fixe pre-theater menu, as well as hearty à la carte dishes, such as pork fillet, pig's trotters, and veal sweetbreads with kidney.
Kids' Stuff Surprise yourself—and treat them—with a Sunday lunch at L'Odéon, the chic mega-restaurant with amazing views of Regent Street. During the week, sophisticated grown-ups dine on scallops and black pudding with mashed potatoes, or breast of Hereford duck. On Sundays the youngsters troop in for burgers and fries and other perennial kid-pleasers.
The Mature Set Londoners know that the ideal place to take a mother or favorite aunt is Marco Pierre White's Criterion. Smack in the middle of Piccadilly Circus, the Criterion has a neo-Byzantine interior with a glittering gold-mosaic ceiling, soft lighting, and comfortable chairs—not to mention precision-made dishes, such as smoked haddock and poached egg with beurre blanc, honey-roasted pork oriental with braised bok choy, and comforting saffron risotto.
Shopping Breaks In the Bond Street basement of designer Nicole Farhi's shop, the restaurant Nicole's serves gentle and simple food—char-grilled vegetable salad, skewered scallops with serrano ham, braised chicken breast with merguez sausage—that allows you to fit into the dress you just bought. There are also robust dishes for bigger appetites, such as duck rillettes with beet and celeriac salad, and great desserts. Fashionable surroundings, natch: white walls and sepia-toned photographs are the principal decorative touch.
The clientele at the Collection in Brompton Cross (as the neighborhood around the Michelin House, the Conran Shop, and Joseph is now called) is at least as decorative as the restaurant's mezzanine room, which used to be the site of the Katharine Hamnett studio. The lunch crowd consists mostly of pairs of stunningly dressed women eating two appetizers, but the entrées are nothing short of marvelous—crab salad served with the leaves of the week, seared beef with shiitake mushrooms, griddled calf's liver with fava beans and chorizo.
Gallery and Auction Goers A café at Sotheby's on New Bond Street serves morning coffee, light lunches, and afternoon tea. But the Christie's crowd heads to Avenue for its upscale fast food—a modern British mix of salads, grills, smoked fish, and, oddly, risotto Bolognese—and a good choice of wines by the glass.
On the Antiques Trail Chutney Mary is so far out on King's Road that it's a handy pit stop for antiquers shopping on Fulham Road. It has uncommon and authentic regional dishes, such as Goan green and Hyderabad white chicken curry. There's a good wine list that encourages experimentation, as well as interesting desserts.
Best Dim Sum Off the beaten path, though not far from Hyde Park, the Royal China offers dim sum that's up to Hong Kong standards, which explains why its entrance is clogged with lines every weekend. Served daily from noon (11 on Sunday) until 5 p.m. by exceptionally helpful waitresses (a rarity in London's Chinese restaurants), the dim sum is ordered from a menu instead of from steaming carts. All the prawn dishes are plump and fresh-tasting, and the turnip paste is the best I've ever had. Go early to avoid the crowds.
London for Two For romance, you can't beat a table on the terrace of Terence Conran's Pont de la Tour—a rare restaurant with a river view. The food can be quite good, especially the poached egg with asparagus and black truffle, and the roasted wild salmon. But the main point of the experience is to sit with someone you fancy and drink champagne in balmy weather as you take in the Thames. While you can't arrange the weather or even book an outside table, you can, after all, choose your dinner mate—and your dinner.