Home East London Little wonders: six of London’s most delicious small restaurants

Little wonders: six of London’s most delicious small restaurants

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This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter

London is no stranger to glamour. For this, the restaurant scene plays a starring role. The city is adorned with lavish venues, where servers swan around well-heeled clientele with choreographed precision while a celebrity chef and their elite brigade — armed with squeeze bottles, tweezers and micro-herbs — execute elaborate menus under the twinkle of Michelin stars. These restaurants are what bucket lists are made of: high temples for big occasions and grand nights out.

But some of the best dining out in London happens elsewhere. This city is also all about the great little place: small and intimate restaurants where casual elegance reigns supreme. The service is more personal, the atmosphere more convivial and customers feel in the know. And where, after endless months of pandemic-era restrictions, rubbing elbows and chatting with neighbouring tables elicit even greater joy. These little restaurants, above all, pack a big culinary punch, and serve food that is simply wonderful.

Below I’ve highlighted some of my personal favourites — the restaurants I never tire of and often bring visitors to — that are some of the best examples of London’s lovely little places. Each serve unpretentious excellence with a side of something special. Critically, when it’s impossible to please everybody, I find these restaurants always do.

To help with the task of narrowing down this list, I’ve applied some criteria: these spots are literally relatively little, each serving around 30 covers or less (so book ahead), are independent or owned by small local restaurant groups, and I’ve focused on modern British/European cuisine. Some are more well known (a couple have been awarded stars); the others I hope are new discoveries for you.

Hill & Szrok (London Fields)

60 Broadway Market, London E8 4QJ

  • Good for: A trendy date night for meat eaters

  • Not so good for: The meat avoidant

  • FYI: After a pre-pandemic lifetime of not taking reservations, the 22-cover Hill & Szrok can now be booked ahead

  • Website; Directions

Hill & Szrok is a butcher shop by day; by night, a trendy restaurant . . . 

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. . . where the menu changes daily depending on what’s available

Many of east London’s most vibrant venues live double or triple lives. (An old favourite of mine was a café-cum-Korean restaurant — with an attached hair salon — tucked inside a railway arch in Bethnal Green.) Hill & Szrok, on buzzy Broadway Market, perhaps does it best. By day, it’s a butcher shop that specialises in meat from small, organic producers. Come evening, the large marble block in the centre of the shop is wiped clean, cutlery and candles are laid out and the space is transformed into a cosy setting for a carnivorial dinner date.

Hill & Szrok’s mantra is to cook what they sell (and sell what they cook). The chalkboard menu changes daily depending on availability, with a rotating cast of seasonal sides. Booze ticks the de rigueur boxes: it’s natural-wine, biodynamic and low-intervention forward (it is east London, after all). 

On a recent visit, my better half and I shared a gorgeous slab of sirloin with generous sides of charred onions in stock, confit potatoes and (for obligatory greens) a little gem salad. We washed it down with a bottle of low-intervention Beaujolais recommended by our server, which with a shared dessert and a couple of glasses of sweet wine brought the meal to just over £200. Yes, it is on the expensive side for what essentially are share plates, but we left with bellies full, and, when it comes to eating meat, we should choose purveyors whose genuine efforts supporting ethical and sustainable farming are clear. Hill & Szrok is a good place to start. Snacks and starters, £7-10; mains (various cuts by weight), £12-71

Portland (Fitzrovia)

113 Great Portland Street, London W1W 6QQ

  • Good for: Laidback, casual elegance and an incredible tasting menu

  • Not so good for: Flash

  • FYI: Ask for a table near the back to soak in the buzz (and admire the workings) of the open kitchen

  • Website; Directions

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Don’t let Portland’s minimalist setting fool you . . . 

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. . . the restaurant is known for serving elegant dishes, such as Cotswolds venison with Scottish juniper and hay-baked purple carrots

Portland is a prime example of the style of contemporary fine dining that has become so popular in London and elsewhere. It’s fancy without the fuss: where beautiful plates of award-winning food are enjoyed in a minimalist yet elegant setting that has the spirit of a neighbourhood wine bar.

Top-quality, seasonal British produce is the focus here, brought together with a European influence: Jerusalem artichoke gnocchi, celeriac and truffle ravioli, or fallow venison with pommels Anna. Some dishes showcase trendy ingredients, others offer refined versions of classic combinations — all show off chef Stuart Andrew and his team’s brilliance. The excellent wine list changes monthly and is offered alongside a selection of single bottles.

How to do Portland comes down to preference and occasion. There are no wrong answers: it’s definitely the place to get stuck into a six-course tasting menu with wine pairing, though it would also feel right to pop in to share a few dishes over a glass of something nice. (I’ve celebrated birthdays and an engagement here, and I’d happily go with work contacts too — plus most expenses teams wouldn’t squint too hard at £45 for a three-course lunch.)

Clipstone, Portland’s nearby sibling restaurant, is also worth a visit, especially for those who can’t resist the novelty of good wine on tap. (Full disclosure: both restaurants — and the excellent Quality Chop House in the City — are owned by Daniel Morgenthau and Will Lander, the son of the FT’s Jancis Robinson and Nicholas Lander.) Three-course lunch/dinner, £45-69; tasting menu, £85

Leroy (Shoreditch)

18 Phipp STREET, London EC2A 4NU

  • Good for: An excellent-value prix-fixe lunch (£24 for two courses, £27 for three)

  • Not so good for: A teetotal meal. With more than 350 bottles, the wine list is hard to ignore

  • FYI: Leroy is run by the same team behind the now-closed (and beloved) Hackney restaurant Ellory, and was awarded a Michelin star in 2019 within a few months of opening

  • Website; Directions

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Diners choose from an array of small or large plates (such as smoked eel and celeriac remoulade) at Leroy . . . 

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. . . a laid-back restaurant in Shoreditch

Leroy could be Portland’s bearded, denim-jacket-wearing cousin: similarly laid-back, unfussy and Michelin-starred, and tucked away on a quiet corner in Shoreditch where an eponymous neon sign gives it away. Hip simplicity continues inside: think wooden chairs and tables, panelled walls and a big vinyl collection on display. Stylish diners of all ages add to the decor.

The menu is thoughtfully created with influences drawn from the continent, with dishes such as veal shin and roast cep lasagne, and cod cheeks with sauce Grenobloise (brown butter, caper and parsley). In the evening, diners choose from an array of small to large plates that are meant to be shared. Lunch is all your own — and a superb-value prix fixe (£24 for two courses). On a recent visit, I hoovered up a feta and tomato salad followed by a ricotta agnolotti with squash and mushrooms. I am a pasta obsessive, and at Leroy it was gorgeously delicate and rolled perfectly thin. I could have eaten another plate of it, or more.

A real highlight at Leroy, however, is the drink. The restaurant was set up by two sommeliers, Ed Thaw and Jack Lewens, who artfully curated the 350-plus wine list, which ranges “from the classic to the crazy”. As an unashamed fan of fizz, I was both surprised and delighted to see so many grower champagnes (and even a handful of crisp zéro dosage, or no added sugar, blends — a menu rarity) all in one place. Plates, £9-29

7 Saints (Notting Hill)

7 All Saints Road, London W11 1HA

  • Good for: Most if not all occasions

  • Not so good for: Show-offs. The vibe is local and friendly

  • FYI: A private dining room next to the basement kitchen can accommodate groups of up to 10

  • Website; Directions

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7 Saints is a Notting Hill neighbourhood gem . . . 

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. . . that fits the bill for most if not all occasions, writes Niki Blasina © Tim Cole (2)

A 20-seat restaurant on All Saints Road in Notting Hill, 7 Saints is a real neighbourhood gem. This wonderful little place is an easy choice for where to enjoy a long lunch or dinner with family or friends — or for couples seeking a good meal, a bottle of wine and a little romance.

Start with a cocktail, the stylings of which are generally classic. The wine list takes a similar approach, with two dozen or so bottles that are predominantly old world and will satisfy most tastes. A sprinkling of less conventional wines come from Romania and Greece. Ask for the single-bottle list for something particularly special.

The food menu is short and seasonal, offering four starters, four mains, four puddings. Some form of breaded, fried meat (pig’s head croquette, for example) will start a meal in the right direction. Lighter fare does not disappoint and might be offered as slip sole with ’nduja butter, or delicately treated hen of the woods mushrooms.

Look out for main dishes that feature game: lean meats such as guinea fowl or rabbit are difficult to master and easy to overcook, but at 7 they are always skilfully handled by chef Adam Parker. Do order a side of crusty sourdough to mop up any leftover sauce, and save room for pudding. Any fruit tart — rhubarb, raspberry, whatever is in season — will be perfect. Starters, £9.50-12; mains, £19-26

Parsons (Covent Garden)

39 Endell Street, London WC2H 9BA

  • Good for: Upscale fish and seafood dishes in a relaxed environment

  • Not so good for: The fish averse

  • FYI: You should never order fish on Mondays, hence Parsons is closed on that day

  • Website; Directions

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Fresh seafood and fish dishes are the name of the game at Parsons . . . 

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. . . a little restaurant tucked on a quiet street in Covent Garden

Let’s briefly rewind to 2018, when the FT’s Tim Hayward wrote an enjoyable review of a new seafood restaurant by the same people behind the excellent 10 Cases wine bistro. While reading his delightfully hyperbolic prose (one dish “focused the mind like a good BM really should”), I handed the article to my partner and said, “We need to eat here.” We did, we loved it and have returned countless times since.

Parsons is a 28-seat restaurant housed on a side street in Covent Garden. Doing clever things (or indeed very little) to seafood and fish is its modus operandi. Dishes highlight quality and freshness in ways that conjure alfresco meals on blustery Scottish waterfronts — in the beating heart of central London.

The menu here should be explored vastly. Parsons is a lovely spot for a solo meal, or to eat à la carte for that matter, though sharing with dining companions comes recommended by this seasoned customer. More really is more.

Some menu favourites include the potted shrimp croquettes, sea trout tartare (served with a punchy Bloody Mary jelly) and brown crab pissaladière (a smearing of brown crabmeat dotted with a herb aioli on a wafer-thin flatbread). Consider the catch-of-the-day chalkboard a biblical tablet of commandments and order whatever is on and draws your eye. In winter, the fish pie will warm your soul. And do not skip dessert: even following a slew of stunning savoury dishes, the pud might be the pièce de résistance. There used to be an apple tarte fine on the menu that I would make a Faustian pact to eat again. Starters, £9-12; mains: £18-22 (£68 for a whole turbot)

Myrtle (Chelsea)

1A Langton Street, London SW10 0JL

  • Good for: Refined Irish cuisine. Myrtle is where hearty food meets fine dining 

  • Not so good for: Meat and potato haters

  • FYI: Order the boxty, a traditional Irish potato cake. Myrtle’s version is stuffed with slow-cooked beef

  • Website; Directions

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Lamb served with a miniature dingle pie is often on the tasting menu at Myrtle © Brian Dandridge

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Chef Anna Haugh named her restaurant after the late Myrtle Allen, a pioneer in redefining Irish cuisine

Who can resist Irish hospitality? Chef Anna Haugh’s Myrtle, an Irish fine-dining restaurant just off the King’s Road in Chelsea, should delight even the most difficult to please. The service is warm and generous. Her menu, which highlights Irish produce, is ultrarefined but accessible. Myrtle is an easy choice whether you are dining with someone who eats restaurant reviews for breakfast, or a person very much not into fuss. Four-legged friends are welcome too.

Myrtle offers a seven-course tasting menu that is essentially a mini-tour of Ireland: half a dozen or so of the counties are represented through the ingredients used. You can otherwise order à la carte. Whatever the chosen path, start with oysters, which are plucked from the waters of the country’s north-east coast and served with a lovely lemony dressing. When the warm, treacly Irish soda bread arrives, offer the table an obligatory reminder not to fill up — and subsequently ignore the advice.

As for the rest of the savouries, look out for a black pudding starter, beautifully wrapped in spiralised potato like a meaty cigar, or the pork brawn croquette, which is as satisfying as anything breaded and fried should be. Myrtle’s moreish version of boxty, a traditional Irish potato cake, is stuffed with slow-cooked beef. It comes as one of the accompaniments to roasted beef fillet, but is so popular it can be ordered as a snack on its own. This all sounds weighty, but with Haugh’s delicate touch the dishes are balanced and not overwhelming. And yes, fish and vegetables are available too. Starters, £13-14; mains, £28-32.50; tasting menu, £75

@nikiblasina

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