The state of U.S. currency being what it is, London’s restaurants just keep getting more and more expensive; an average dinner for two at classics like Gordon Ramsay and the River Café now costs around $350 and $300, respectively. The city’s restaurant boom continues unabated, though, and a half-dozen recent A-list openings are worth the price of admission—even for people paying in American dollars. This crop provides something for everyone, from smart Chinese fast food for those on a budget to five-star hotel dining for those able to use their expense accounts for great wine.
Hix Oyster & Chop House
Last year chef and food writer Mark Hix left Caprice Holdings, owner of celebrity hot spot and comfort-food fave the Ivy, among others, to concentrate on modern updates of traditional and regional British dishes. (This is an on-the-rise trend in London, one started in the mid-nineties by St. John restaurant.) The chef’s long-standing interest is given full expression at this eponymous spot, a simply decorated, almost retro restaurant, with cream tile walls and bentwood chairs, in a former sausage factory close to Farringdon’s Smithfield Market. Getting a waiter’s attention can be a bit iffy, so make sure you sit near (or at) the oyster bar for the best service. Savor hearty dishes such as salted ox cheek and Bakewell pudding, a rich spring and summer dessert of dried fruit dating back to at the least the Victorian era. Dinner, $135–$155. At 36–37 Greenhill Rents, Cowcross St.; 44-20/7017-1930; restaurantsetcltd.co.uk.
The Lanesborough hotel, in Belgravia, is as British and posh as the Duke of Wellington, but its revamped restaurant specializes in simple Italian fare, which comes as a relief after one overwrought meal too many. The breads, the cured meats (such as culatello), and the pasta with a sauce made with sea-urchin paste are all as good as it gets. Cucina rustica though the food may be, every detail of hotel fine dining is here: a wine list with outstanding wines by the glass, service that’s attentive without being in your face, and a huge, impressive room (a glass ceiling, chandeliers the size of UFOs) by New York designer Adam Tihany. The space seems to declare “I take you very seriously to have brought you here,” and both food and wine fulfill that promise. Dinner, from $155. At Hyde Park Corner; 44-20/7333-7254; lanesborough.com.
Cha Cha Moon
Back in 1992 restaurateur Alan Yau created Wagamama, the pioneering minimalist noodle bar that has become a global phenomenon. More recently he’s moved on to richer things, including the top-end Cantonese spot Hakkasan, which opened in 2001, and the budget-busting Sake no hana, which debuted last winter to mixed reviews (the negative ones focused on the Japanese spot’s $200-plus-per-head prices). But with this new Soho Chinese noodle bar, Yau has gone back to his roots. The restaurant serves flavor-packed dishes—soup noodles with rich stocks and dry, fried dishes such as Singaporean char kway teow—that will set you back only around $15 a person. Cha Cha Moon doesn’t take reservations, however, and there’s usually a long line outside from 1 to 2 p.m. and then again from 7 to 9 p.m. Visit during off-peak hours to avoid the crowds. Dinner, from $30. At 15–21 Ganton St.; 44-20/7297-9800.
As a concept, this place seems as if it shouldn’t work—a vegan, raw-food restaurant that is also deeply cool, right in the heart of fashionably rough-edged Shoreditch. But it very much does. There’s nothing hair shirt about the (mostly organic) cocktails, and the dishes owe more to nouvelle cuisine than to lentil bakes. The more unlikely an item sounds, however, the better it is. For example, the “cheeses” made from crushed-nut milk shouldn’t be missed. Tip: Just don’t show up wearing your sharpest suit as you’ll be the only one. Crumpled and laid-back is the way to fit in at this spot popular with a young, slim, offbeat crowd. Dinner, $80–$120. At 152–154 Curtain Rd.; 44-20/7613-0007; safrestaurant.co.uk.
Karl Marx used to live in the garret of this Soho building, but these days its stained-glass-windowed ground floor is home to this traditionally styled British grill. Given a redo by brothers Sam and Eddie Hart, the restaurant offers fine food, especially its steaks and desserts, but the real point of this place is the people watching. The dining area can feel like a holding room for the private members-only Quo Vadis Club upstairs—that’s where the real action is. Get chummy with Sam or Eddie (they’ll be the two chaps working the room) and express an interest in Iberian cuisine; the brothers are also the boys behind two of London’s best Spanish restaurants, Fino and Barrafina. Dinner, from $135. At 26–29 Dean St.; 44-20/7437-9585; quovadissoho.co.uk.
Veteran shoppers know the key to a successful trip (and fewer rash decisions) is to rest and reassess regularly—and this Sloane Square spot is ideal for this. Situated between the King’s Road and Knightsbridge, it’s the neighborhood’s latest modern British restaurant. The break- fast (order the full English) here is a treat and the quietest time to visit. Lunch and dinner, though, provide the best opportunities to observe the idle rich at play. The dishes tend toward the classic and seasonal (panfried Icelandic cod, for example, or an excellent pork chop with black pudding and mash), and service is assured and swift. The chairs, meanwhile, are so comfortable, you may never want to leave—no matter how much more shopping you have to do. Dinner, from $110. At 7 Sloane Sq.; 44-20/7730-0077; thebotanistsloanesquare.com.
Guy Dimond is the food editor of Time Out London.