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Once upon a time, making a visit to London would involve lots of restaurant reservations to make sure you ate well. But nowadays, some of the best food can be found in places where you can just walk right in.
You can date the start of the trend to 2007, when a tiny tapas bar opened on Frith Street in Soho called Barrafina. The only seating was at the bar, it didn’t take reservations and within days of opening there were queues round the block. People were chatting in the line, making friends, something unheard of in London. The next big landmark in the no-booking takeover of London was the opening of Polpo in nearby Beak Street in 2009. This was a bacaro—essentially a Venetian tapas bar offering dishes such as pizzete, arancini and fennel-flavoured meatballs. Polpo is now a small chain with restaurants around London and in Brighton, Exeter and Bristol.
Barrafina too has expanded from its original base. There are now three restaurants in London. The branch on Adelaide treet near Covent Garden, not far from Hotel Indigo London – 1 Leicester Square, offers classic tapas staples such as tortilla and pimentos de padron and also more restaurant-type dishes such as cuttlefish cooked in ink or paella. Best of all, they serve sherry in proper Spanish measures rather than the thimble quantities you get in some London tapas places.
Not far from Piccadilly Circus is Brasserie Zedel, in an underground room that feels like a 1920s ocean liner. Even the toilets are glamorous. The Prix Fixe of a carrot salad followed by steak hache—a hamburger but served very rare—with French fries is the thing to go for. If you fancy something quick then try Bao on nearby Lexington Street for Taiwanese steamed buns filled with slow cooked pork, or fried chicken and spicy pickles. It’s tiny, so best to get there the moment it opens.
Just over the river near Waterloo Station is Anchor & Hope, the place to take someone who is sceptical about traditional British food. The menu changes daily but if you’re lucky they’ll have potted shrimp (tiny prawns cooked in spiced butter) on toast and then a meat pie for main course. Nearby is a place that you cannot walk right into:
Padella in Borough Market opens at 12 noon and there’s always a queue for a taste of their famous Cacio e Pepe (cheese and pepper) pasta or gnocchi with sage & nutmeg butter.Now it’s time to head east. Just a short walk from Hotel Indigo London – Aldgate you’ll find a legend of London eating, Tayyabs on Fieldgate Street. Here you get Punjabi lamb chops, lamb kebabs, chicken tikka and heavenly vegetable curries made from okra or aubergine. It can get a bit hectic but it’s worth it just for the blackened edge of that highly-spiced lamb chop. The bill will be small and you will leave happy.
If you’re still craving meat then head to Dalston: This area has a large Turkish community and the road from Dalston north is lined with kebab shops selling charcoal-grilled meat. Taking these influences and mixing them up a bit is Berber and Q in Haggerston. The menu is mishmash of Turkish, Georgian and Lebanese influences. Try lamb shwarma or smoked pork neck, and don’t forget to sample the magnificent flatbreads.
At all these places you may have to queue unless you get there early or very late. But if there’s one thing the British are good at, it’s queuing.