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Top London Restaurants

by Anne Semmes

London’s transformation in the last decade into one of the best restaurant towns in the world has been much heralded. The land of fish ‘n’ chips now boasts several world-class restaurants and hundreds of very good ethnic eateries, some of them offering better fare than the locals get back home.

Current trends include a rash of new places offering tapas-style small plates. Popularized by Club Gascon, the French restaurant near the City business district, this is now big in the West End. Indian Amaya and Chinese Yauatcha are the latest. A laudable trend is the new pride in traditional British dishes and in locally sourced food.

The bad news is the price diners have to pay. At several high-end restaurants, it’s not unusual to pay £100 (about $180) per person, including a couple of glasses of mid-price wine and the VAT. But there are ways to limit damage to the wallet. Your best bet is to go for lunch at top restaurants. The set menus are often half the price of dinner, and the atmosphere and food are pretty much the same. Avoid the tyranny of over priced bottled water – tap water will do nicely. Tipping here is less than in the States. Check the bill to see if service is already included and, if not, 12.5% or, tops, 15% is the norm. And reservations are essential at almost all of these restaurants.

This roundup of the Capital’s best, some veterans, some new, is the first of two parts. These are restaurants for special occasions, the ones I recommend to food-loving visitors with fairly deep pockets. They generally showcase talented chefs who have the backing, staff and freedom to strut their stuff. Part II will cover neighborhood restaurants like gastropubs, ethnic eateries and bistros.

U: is nearest Underground station.

Amaya (U: Knightsbridge)
Halkin Arcade
19 Motcomb Street SW1
Tel: 020 7823 1166
Cuisine: Modern Indian Grill
This popular spot from the Chutney Mary group may be hidden in a Belgravia mini-mall, but it offers authentic yet light Indian food in a sky-lit, contemporary space. The show kitchen has a charcoal grill, tandoor clay ovens and a tawa, or iron griddle. Spicing is up to you but is generally more subtly zingy than incendiary. Stylish staff can recommend dishes or you can opt for the tasting menu.
Price: Moderate to Expensive Hours: Lunch and Dinner daily

Clarke’s (U: Notting Hill Gate)
124 Kensington Church Street W8
Tel: 020 7221 9225
Cuisine: Modern British
Sally Clarke’s long-running dining room in a Kensington storefront offers tempting, uncomplicated dishes with a California accent – chargrills and lovely salads. In the bi-level restaurant, with an open kitchen downstairs, lunch is à la carte, but the pricier evening meal is a no-choice set menu (viewable on the website). The wine list is strong in California vintages. Clarke’s deli next door stocks home-baked treats and fine cheeses.
Price: Expensive Hours: Lunch Mon-Sat, Dinner Tues-Sat

Club Gascon (U: Farringdon)
57 West Smithfield EC1
Tel: 020 7796 0600
Cuisine: Southwest French
Intimate City/Clerkenwell fixture famed for excellent foie gras (up to10 different preparations) coupled with less-known wines from France. Order several of the small tasting plates of Gascon specialties or, for a better value, leave it to the kitchen and order the tasting menu. N.B., service can crawl. It is next to London’s oldest church and near historic Smithfield Market. Cellar Gascon next door offers more casual fare for less outlay.
Price: Moderate to Expensive Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri, Dinner Mon-Sat

Galvin at Windows
London Hilton
22 Park Lane W1
Tel: 44-207-208-4021
Cuisine: Modern French
At last the top of the London Hilton, on Park Lane, has a restaurant worth the journey up 28 floors. Galvin at Windows has an airy, contemporary décor that doesn’t detract from the wraparound views of Hyde Park and the Queen’s back yard. The modern French fare from chefs Chris Galvin and Andre Garrett (ex-Orrery) stars expertly handled fish, seared foie gras; and spiced duck, with lots of bells and whistles. The best tables face west over Hyde Park to catch the occasional sunset. If a dinner table is hard to come by, opt for breakfast, lunch or teatime. Prices on the menu and the well-chosen wine list are right up there with the view.

Gordon Ramsay (U: Sloane Square)
68 Royal Hospital Road SW3
Tel: 020 7352 4441
Cuisine: Contemporary French
Master Chef Ramsay’s suave Chelsea flagship offers fine French fare, three Michelin stars and a hot reservations book. You’ll find creative yet not far-out preparations of foie gras, impeccable fish and sublime desserts, complemented by an extensive, pricey wine list. Insider’s tip: set lunch is about half the dinner price and easier to book.
Price: Expensive Hours: Lunch & Dinner, Mon-Fri. Closed Sat-Sun

The Greenhouse (U: Green Park)
27A Hays Mews W1
Tel: 020 7499 3331
Cuisine: French
Tucked in a mews near Berkeley Square, this has long been a reliable and attractive dining haven. But a major re-do in 2004 with a sophisticated décor and a talented new chef mean The Greenhouse is now a quite grown-up destination restaurant. Greenhouse offers inventive and assured French dishes – roast wild halibut with mashed ratte potatoes and morels – with an occasional Asian accent. The welcoming staff keeps the ambience from being stiffly formal.
Price: Expensive Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri, Dinner Mon-Sat

Hakkasan (U: Tottenham Court Rd.)
8 Hanway Place W1
Tel: 020 7907 1888
Cuisine: Chinese
It may be hard to find, down an alley off the far end of Oxford Street, but Alan Yau’s striking basement restaurant constantly packs in a fashionable crowd. They come for the scene and for first-rate Oriental fare. Deftly done, delicious dim sum (rock shrimp shumai) at lunchtime; at dinner specialties include crispy duck and stir fries presented with panache. Trendy cocktails, hip wait-staff and lively music.
Prices: Expensive Hours: Lunch and Dinner daily

The Ivy (U: Leicester Sq.)
1 West Street WC2
Tel: 020 7836 4751
Cuisine: British/European Comfort
Theatreland institution is still the buzzy, see-&-be-seen place for celebrities and wannabes, it is booked weeks ahead. Simple yet sophisticated dishes may be familiar (shepherd’s pie, salmon fishcakes, puddings) but they are served nicely and at your desired pace. The pleasantly old-fashioned, panelled space with stained-glass accents has been ‘in’ since Noel Coward’s day, but despite new owners, the beat goes on. Best before or after the theatre.
Price: Moderate to Expensive Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri & Sun; Dinner daily till late

J. Sheekey (U: Leicester Square)
28-32 St. Martin’s Lane WC2
Tel: 020 7240 2565
Cuisine: Seafood
Down a Theatreland alley, this veteran fish house, under the same ownership as The Ivy, comprises a series of snug, intimate rooms and a bar. The cordial welcome to celebs and civilians alike, and the attention to your curtain time if you have theatre tickets, coupled with deftly cooked seafood (skate wing with capers and brown butter and that British favorite, fish pie) all make for a felicitous experience. For a bargain, try the weekend lunch set menu, and look for low-lying fruit on the wine list.
Price: Moderate to Expensive Hours: Lunch & Dinner daily

The Ledbury (U: Notting Hill Gate)
127 Ledbury Road W11
Tel: 020 7792 9090
Cuisine: Modern French
Notting Hill has no shortage of casual eating places, but now, finally, the trendy neighborhood has a destination restaurant. This casually elegant French place, opened in spring 2005, is from the same owners as The Square and Chez Bruce. With charming and professional front of house staff and a chef with experience at The Square, a meal here is refined (if occasionally bland) and accompanied by all the bells and whistles. Ask for an outdoor table in balmy weather.
Price: Expensive Hours: Lunch & Dinner daily

Locanda Locatelli (U: Marble Arch)
Churchill Intercontinental Hotel
8 Seymour Street W1
Tel: 020 7935 9088
Cuisine: Italian
Giorgio Locatelli made his name at Zafferano (and on his TV cooking show). Now on his own in this polished, contemporary hotel dining room, his fresh and deceptively simple northern Italian food can shine. Homemade tagliatelle with kid goat ragu and wild sea bass with artichoke puree and wine sauce are typical. Both the wines from an all-Italian list and the desserts should not be missed.
Price: Moderate to Expensive Hours: Lunch & Dinner daily

85 Duke of York Square SW3 (U: Sloane Square)
Tel: 020 7730 3366
Cuisine: Contemporary Italian
Cool Italian restaurant & deli in a new open-air shopping arcade, a popular Chelsea rendezvous. Smart/casual, indoor & outdoor tables away from King’s Road traffic. On offer are first-rate ingredients, simply prepared, and noteworthy wines by the glass. The service is pleasant but the kitchen can be slow.
Price: Moderate Hours: Lunch daily, Dinner daily

34-36 Exmouth Market EC1 (U: Angel/Farringdon)
Tel: 020 7833 8336
Cuisine: Mediterranean/North African
Stark industrial setting for delectable Spanish & Moorish fare at this Clerkenwell winner near the City business district. Young, casual crowd goes for creative yet earthy dishes professionally served, or for post-work nibbles at the tapas bar.
Price: Moderate Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri, Dinner Mon-Sat

Nobu (U: Hyde Park Corner)
Metropolitan Hotel
19 Old Park Lane W1
Tel: 020 7447 4747
Cuisine: Japanese Fusion
Mayfair outpost of the NY & LA hot spots has a long, celebrity-packed dining room and sushi bar with a minimalist décor. Well-informed wait staff serve the equally trendy diners, who nibble on inventive, often awesome, Japanese & Latino fusion dishes. Good bets: chef’s-choice set menu, chocolate box dessert and wide range of sakes and wines.
Price: Expensive Hours: Lunch Mon-Sat, Dinner daily

Nobu Berkeley (U: Green Park)
15 Berkeley Street W1
Tel: 020 7290 9222
Cuisine: Japanese Fusion
Opened summer 2005, this Mayfair offshoot has the addition of a robata grill and wood burning oven, but has yet to prove itself.

River Café (U: Hammersmith)
Thames Wharf
Rainville Road W6
Tel: 020 7381 8824
Cuisine: Italian
This industrial-chic, upscale café may be in a Hammersmith backwater, but it is a buzzy destination for foodies world-wide for posh versions of Tuscan peasant fare using top-notch ingredients (and for discovering Jamie Oliver). Closely spaced tables have a view of the Thames; outdoor dining in season. Note: neighbourhood-enforced curfew at 11pm
Price: Expensive Hours: Lunch daily; Dinner Mon-Sat 7-9:30pm

Roka (U: Goodge Street)
37 Charlotte Street W1
Tel: 020 7580 6464
Cuisine: Japanese
This offshoot of Knightsbridge’s fashionable Japanese, Zuma, opened in 2004. Although the corner site resembles an auto showroom with its wraparound glass walls and slick, minimalist interior, it is worth a visit for its excellent Japanese fare and trendy, if often noisy, scene. A central robata charcoal grill has a counter with seating for singletons and those who like to watch the cooks. Precise, urban Japanese cooking is the specialty here, including everything from crisply fried tempura (especially the rock shrimp) to sushi, sashimi and grilled dishes. Check out the atmospheric Shochu bar downstairs, lined with antique barrels and preserving jars.
Price: Moderate to Expensive Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri, Dinner Mon-Sat

St. John (U: Faringdon)
26 St. John Street EC1
Tel: 020 7251 0848
Cuisine: British
Set in an old Clerkenwell smokehouse near the City with a white, rather clinical interior, St. John gets back to British basics serving a selection of meats from a bygone age. It’s not for everyone. Forget rabbits, think squirrels, for they are skillfully prepared as part of Fergus Henderson’s simple yet cutting-edge menu, which offers bone marrow and parsley salad or pig’s ears for starters.
Price: Moderate to Expensive Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri, Dinner Mon-Sat

The Square (U: Green Park)
9-10 Bruton Street W1
Tel: 020 7495 7100
Cuisine: French
In polished, glass-fronted premises off Berkeley Square, this sophisticated Mayfair dining room offers a gastronomic experience worthy of its two Michelin stars. British chef Philip Howard’s inventive, modern Euro food – langoustines with cannelloni, roast squab – is attractively presented and professionally served to a high profile crowd. Knowledgeable sommeliers tout the comprehensive wine list, though with prices that can test the bravest wallet. Large, bold paintings suit the setting in art gallery land near Bond Street.
Prices: Expensive Hours: Lunch Mon-Fri, Dinner Mon-Sun

Tom Aikens (U: South Kensington)
43 Elystan Street SW3
Tel: 020 7584 2003
Cuisine: Modern French
For a superb meal in a stylish setting, this intimate Chelsea restaurant is drawing raves. Chef Aikens, who made his name at Pied à Terre, offers sophisticated dishes such as pan-fried turbot with asparagus mousse and langoustine emulsion. All of the Michelin-style extras (pre-appetizers and sweet nibbles) are part of the experience. The sommelier is helpful guiding you through the extensive (and pricey) wine list. The set lunch is the best value.
Price: Expensive Hours: Lunch & Dinner Mon-Fri

The Wolseley (U: Green Park)
160 Piccadilly W1
Tel: 020 7499 6996
Cuisine: European
Grand cafe next to the Ritz serves food all day in an elegant, marbled space. Familiar faces from stage and catwalk air kiss in the central celebrity ‘corral’. Unstructured, all-day dining from eggs to Wiener schnitzel. Lunch and dinner are tough to book, instead why not go for breakfast – bacon rolls, crab hash – afternoon tea or post-theatre supper? Small, closely spaced tables and strict time limits enforced. Euro-centric wine list offers many by the glass.
Price: Inexpensive to Moderate Hours: Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner daily

Yauatcha (U: Piccadilly Circus)
15 Broadwick Street W1
Tel: 020 7494 8888
Cuisine: Chinese
A few blocks from Chinatown but miles away in style is Alan Yau’s gorgeous new dim sum restaurant and tearoom in Soho. This is a goodie to keep in mind for before or after the theatre. Look for beautifully constructed and flavorful little bites such as Chinese chive dumplings, venison puffs and five spice sausage rolls. A long, colorful fish tank divides the bar from the dining room. Upstairs is where you can drop in all day to sample some of the 150 varieties of tea along with pastries.
Price: Moderate Hours: Lunch & Dinner daily

Zafferano (U: Knightsbridge)
15 Lowndes Street SW1
Tel: 020 7235 5800
Cuisine: Italian
This small, casually stylish Italian near Harvey Nichols is loved by a cosmopolitan crowd for its flavourful, rustic regional Italian food – chargrilled stuffed squid, uncommonly good pasta and a delizioso lemon tart. Despite the departure of celeb chef Giorgio Locatelli, this upscale trattoria carries on with confidence. With an appealing Italian wine list and non-larcenous menu prices for its posh neighborhood, tables are booked ahead.
Price: Moderate to Expensive Hours: Lunch & Dinner daily

Zuma (U: Knightsbridge)
5 Raphael Street SW7
Tel: 020 7584 1010
Cuisine: Japanese
This sprawling, ultra-cool Knightsbridge Oriental retains its buzz even though it is no longer new. The décor features rough-hewn granite and wood. There’s both a sushi and a sake bar, plus large tables often filled with chattering fashionistas nibbling on salads. But the sushi and sashimi are seriously good here as are fried and grilled dishes. Zuma gives Nobu a run for its money.
Price: Expensive Hours: Lunch daily, Dinner Mon-Sat

Anne Semmes (anne@annesemmes.com) is a freelance food and travel writer based in London.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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