English food has always suffered a bad rep as being insipid and uninspired. Now, while that may well have been the case before, in recent years, the food scene here in London has seen a major transformation. It's not just thriving, but booming, a change that is very much welcome, particularly for those of us who have grown up in a generation where food is something which you can actually be 'into'.
While the British Empire is no more, London is definitely Europe's ethnic melting pot. You really can find all sorts of cuisine here. Now, this is not to say that multiculturalism is a new phenomenon, as it isn't so much that the demographic of the place has changed overnight. What has changed is the attitudeof the people towards food. People want to try new things, and that is evidenced by the huge upsurge in restaurants specialising in all sorts of cuisines. Below, 20 cuisines you can find in London, as well as where to try them.
The French are notoriously proud of their cuisine, and rightfully so. La Petite Maison serves up some of the best this side of the Channel. Must-orders include the grilled lamb cutlets with smoked aubergine, roast baby chicken marinated in lemon, as well as the baked potato gratin. Whatever you do, save room for dessert. The pain perdu (French toast with spice ice cream) is unmissable, and the cheesecake here might just be the best you'll ever have.
Whereas La Petite Maison is a polished, more grandiose affair, if you're after a more intimate experience, cosy bistro La Poule au Pot is just that. Start with the pan-fried foie gras, served with a sweet, chilled glass of Monbazillac wine. Follow that with le suprême de poulet, which at first blush might seem like an ordinary chicken breast dish, but is really anything but.
If you're in the mood for pasta, one of the best places to check out is pasta bar Padella. Conveniently located right by Borough Market, this place often has people queuing long before they open their doors. It's that good. Don't miss the pici cacio e pepe, a Roman pasta dish made with short strips of pasta called 'pici', coated with a simple sauce of pecorino romano cheese and black pepper.
Staying with the Mediterranean theme, if you're after great tapas, you'll want to check out Bravas Tapas. Unlike other tapas restaurants, which often have an intimidatingly large menu, this place in St Katharine's Docks has a much more compact offering. This is always a good sign — it means they've figured out what works best for them, as well as what their customers enjoy the most, and they're sticking to it. Try the salmon rulada, a unique dish consisting of smoked salmon wrapped around crispy wisps of fried shoestring sweet potato. Other must-orders include the Moorish lamb chops, grilled octopus and a foie gras crème catalana, topped with dried cherries and almonds, and served with house-baked brioche. Save room for dessert though — you really don't want to miss their torrijas (Spanish French toast) with passionfruit sorbet.
Bravas Tapas. Saint Katherine Docks, E Smithfield, St Katharine's & Wapping, London E1W 1AT
From Spain we hop on to neighbouring Portugal, by paying a visit to Taberna do Mercado. This laidback Portuguese tapas house is the place to try Portuguese wines, along with cheeses, cured meats and house tinned fish, as well as traditional sandwiches like beef prego and pork bifana. The small plates menu changes daily, so it's a great idea if you're feeling adventurous. And it goes without saying that they do some of the best pastel de nata (Portuguese egg tart) in town. Unlike regular versions, theirs is soft-set and gooey. They only make a limited amount of these everyday so be sure to ask your server to save you a slice.
The Swiss are known for quite a lot of things, but the one that tops any foodie's list is fondue. Try it all and more at St. Moritz, the oldest Swiss restaurant in London. Located in the heart of buzzing Soho, this cosy space is decked out like an alpine ski lodge. Get the Fondue Moitie-Moitie, a fondue of melted gruyere and vacherin cheese, served with new potatoes and bread. Now, we're under no illusions here — it is a very heavy meal, but perfect for the cold weather.
For another dose of après-ski culture, head on over to Austrian restaurant Kipferl. Their wiener schnitzel (veal schnitzel), served with parsley potatoes and cranberry sauce, is one of the best renditions you'll find in London. Be sure to save room for a slice (or several) of their cakes, especially if you see the esterhazy (a Hungarian layer cake with meringue and hazelnut cream) on display.
If you find yourself peckish after a dose of culture at the musuems around the South Kensington area, pay a visit to Daquise. Established in 1947, this Polish restaurant retains much of its old world charm without being at all stuffy. The food is plated and finished right in front of you. It's one of the best places to try traditional Polish dishes, like pierogi z mięsem (dumplings with veal).
Daquise. 20 Thurloe St, Kensington, London SW7 2LT
Ever wanted to try Russian food but didn't know where to start? We'll tell you where — ZIMA. They've gone for an updated, accessible take on Russian cuisine with a modern street food concept, which means you can order all sorts of small plates to share. Don't miss out on the short rib stroganoff, the Russian Olivier salad, the potato pancakes and the beef & venison dumplings. If you have the stomach for it, do also try the house-infused vodkas, which feature traditional flavours like horseradish, cranberry, as well as fennel & tarragon.
While ZIMA does have a Russian honey cake on the menu, there is a place that does it much better. L'Eto Caffe is a chain of modern cafés dotted around London, but their original branch is in Soho, a short walk away from ZIMA.
If you haven't had much experience with Swedish food — IKEA doesn't count —then you may not be aware that they are just as well-known for their baked goods as they are for their meatballs. Swedish bakery Fabrique can be said to have single-handedly popularised Scandinavian bakes in London. A hot favourite is the cinnamon bun, but do try the cardamom bun as well, the less popular but equally classic baked good. If you visit around St. Lucia Day (Dec 13), you'll find seasonal saffron-infused specials, like saffron croissants and saffron buns, each one tinted a bright yellow hue.
While the streets of London are dotted with branches of Mexican chain Wahaca, for a far more memorable experience, hit up Breddos Tacos. They make their tortillas fresh daily, using corn ground in-house with a stone ground mill, as well as a tortilla press imported from Mexico. They do all the classics, like pork carnitas and fried fish tacos, as well as more adventurous options like octopus and sea urchin tacos. If you can't take the heat, cool off with a bottle of their bespoke Mexican cola, made with natural cane sugar.
One of the hottest food trends to hit London in recent years is the Peruvian craze. If Michelin-starred dining at Lima is not your thing, why not try laidback Peruvian-inspired bar and restaurant Pachamama? Besides ceviche, you can also try some of their more inventive dishes like brown crab and yuca churros, as well as Peruvian fried chicken with Atacama hot sauce.
Another great place to eat the Peruvian food trend is Señor Ceviche. This place is located in hip Kingly Court, along Carnaby Street. Not to be missed are their Peruvian barbecue items, such as 'Anticucho de Res' (grilled beef heart skewers with sweet potato mayonnaise), 'Super Pollo' (marinated & grilled half baby chicken), and 'Pachamanca Pork Ribs' (slow cooked baby back ribs with sticky sauce and roasted peanuts).
Another hot food trend that took London by storm last year was the poké trend. There are a few places which do it in London, but the best by far is Ahi Poké, conveniently located right in Fitzrovia. They have a strict sourcing policy, using only sustainably caught seafood and the freshest ingredients possible. You can opt for one of the signature bowls from the menu, or build your own. Choose your base, your seafood, your toppings, and finally, your sauce, which includes options like spicy mayo and sesame shoyu. Healthy-eaters can rejoice, as here you can opt for quinoa or kale as a base instead of rice. This is a minimalist, no-frills spot, more a place to drop in for a quick bite than for a long, leisurely lunch.
There is an abundance of all sorts of Middle-Eastern cuisine in London. For some of the most authentic Afghan food, visit Ariana II. Located in Kilburn, North-West London, this place is admittedly a little out of the way, but well worth the trip. Start with the Bolanee Kadoo (fried pumpkin turnovers) and Aushak (boiled leek and mince dumplings), and follow that with the Kabuli Palow (lamb shank with basmati rice, topped with carrots, raisins, almonds and pistachio), or the Kabuli Palow with Kofta Kebab. It's inexpensive food served in no-frills surroundings, but incredibly good.
If you don't want to go all the way North-West but still want an authentic taste of the Middle East, make a trip to Yalla Yalla. This chic Lebanese restaurant has two branches in Central London, one nearby Oxford Circus and one in the middle of Soho. Must-orders include the Batata Harra (spicy sautéed potato), Makale Samak (mixed fried seafood), and Lokoz Meshoue (charcoal-grilled sea bass fillet).
The UK is often said to have some of the best Indo-Pakistani food. If you don't fancy queuing up for trendy Dishoom, you may want to pay a visit to one of the following curry houses, widely acknowledged by Londoners to be a couple of the best.
While you can find sushi — and increasingly, ramen — in virtually any city, it's not everyday you find a shop specialising in handmade udon. Besides their handmade udon, Koya, a tiny Japanese restaurant in Soho, also serves up all manner of delicious small plates. Don't miss out on the kakuni (braised pork belly).
Londoners love their Vietnamese food, and one of the best places to get it at is Cay Tre. While they do have an entire menu dedicated to pho, the must-order here is the Bun Cha Hanoi (vermicelli salad with grilled pork, meatballs and fried spring rolls), which is one of the most authentic renditions of this dish outside of Hanoi.
For the best roast duck in London, look no further than Gold Mine in Queensway. As with any other Chinese restaurant, the service is brusque, but also incredibly efficient. Besides the Cantonese roast duck, other must-orders include the Stir-fried French Beans with Minced Pork and the Braised Japanese Bean Curd with Minced Pork.
Gold Mine. 102 Queensway, London W2 3RR
For an authentic taste of Ethiopia, make your way down to family-run restaurant Zeret Kitchen. Don't be put off by the large selection of unfamiliar-sounding dishes. Try the House Special, the 'Zeret Surprise', which is a little bit of everything, from kitfo (finely chopped lean beef) and lega tibs (sautéed lamb), to ye-beg fitfit (lamb stew) and shuro (chickpea stew).
Zeret Kitchen. 216-218 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, London SE5 0ED
Of course, if you don't want to trek all the way Southeast, you can also get your fix at Ethiopian Flavours in Borough Market. As they are a market stall, the selection is much smaller, and you'll have to eat standing up, but it's still a good way to experience some classic Ethiopian dishes. Follow your nose to the stall responsible for the heady aroma in the air, and you'll find a lady stirring up a few large vats of what looks like stewed meats. They do a great combo set meal here. Opt for the chicken or steak tibs and round out your order with side-dishes like gomen wat (Ethiopian greens) and misr wat (an Ethiopian lentil Dahl of sorts), and your choice of rice or injera flatbread.
Ethiopian Flavours in Borough Market. 8 Southwark St, London SE1 1TL
Finally, the London food scene has also seen a huge influx of Antipodean influence. Above all else, the Aussies and Kiwis have brought with them their love of brunch and flat whites. Get a taste of Down Under with Bill Granger's signature ricotta hotcakes with honeycomb butter, or the toasted banana bread at Aussie-inspired café, Lantana.
Now, with everything mentioned in the list so far, we might have given you the impression that the London food scene has been cobbled together by bits and pieces from other parts of the world. While that might very well be true in part, it just wouldn't feel right to end this list without talking about British food.
One of the biggest culinary trends in recent years is the emphasis on nose to tail cooking here in London, spearheaded by the St. John's group of restaurants. At the same time, there has been an upsurge in British restaurants specialising in 'proper English food', using seasonal, locally sourced British ingredients. It isn't uncommon to see the provenance of ingredients listed on the menu of British restaurants like Rivington Grill and The Pig & Butcher, like 'Isle of Wight scallops', 'Dorset cheese' and 'Aspall vinegar'. This attention to sourcing and traceability has utterly transformed the typical Sunday roast experience
If this list of 20 cuisines is anything to go by — not that this is exhaustive in any way — there clearly is no longer any need to take such a dire view of English food. If anything, the modern food scene here is a colorful and vibrant one, throbbing with excitement and brimming with promise. One thing's for sure: on your next visit to London, you'll be eating a whole lot more than fish and chips.
About Stephanie Ang
Raised in Singapore, Stephanie is a PR girl who's more than a little obsessed with food and drink, as well as the culture surrounding it. When she's not working for an artisanal food company, she's writing about the latest restaurants and bars in London. Her current project sees her eating her way across Italy.