The last few decades have been a rollercoaster of innovation and hype for the food scene in London. It's been exciting at times, but this winter we decided to go back to something more honest and authentic.
Moving to London in the noughties was pretty exhilarating for a young food fanatic. Growing up in a rural corner of the Thames Valley, gastronomic experiences were fairly limited . We had pubs and restaurants, sure, but I’d never heard of a supper club or a pop-up.
In the capital, the experience of eating out was being disrupted and revolutionised. Modern American style ’dirty’ food joints like Burger & Lobster and Bodean’s filled the back streets of Soho. Along came multi storey street food complexes, like Street Feast in Haggerston, full of bao buns, kombucha and kimchi. Abandoned spaces were repurposed by aspiring young chefs - the first pop-up I went to was in a crumbling unused Volkswagen garage just off Angel’s Upper Street. ‘Residencies’ became a thing - cooks who didn’t have a location could create their vision from pub kitchens, I loved the ‘White Men Can’t Jerk’ set up at the Star in Bethnal Green.
Eating well had formerly been more of an elitist pursuit, something hard to access; but there was a democratisation going on. You could book a spot at a large table in someone’s front room with a bunch of strangers at a supper club, or eat ‘immersively’ at Gingerline dining adventures, complete with themed worlds and actors. A lot happened quickly, and I loved it.
At some point, though, more recently, I’ve started too feel a little disillusioned; like we’ve lost something. All this progress in London had been creative and exciting in so many ways, but the rise of social media, (while it was useful as a disruptive tool originally) has now created a slight atmopshere of shallowness; one often finds a lack of substance in the hotspots that we queue up for. Many concepts are for a concept’s sake; we often eat in places that lack heart. There are too many extortionate small plates, and we care more about where we're seen eating than what’s actually on offer. We tick places off and spot celebrity chefs or influencers, but are we actually enjoying the eating? Furthermore, the disruption we had previously seen had opened up good food to far more people, but that’s gotten lost somewhere and I feel like right now value for money is at rock bottom.
So this winter, we decided to turn back the clock. We found ourselves wanting to eat in places which were authentic and had survived for years on the quality of their cooking rather than their content’s ‘shareability’. We wanted multi-generational family businesses and dishes based on recipes true to a certain culture. Places that don’t take card and look like they need a bit of a facelift; even those that make you feel a bit unwelcome, but you don’t care because the food is so darn tasty! They’re still here, and they’ve survived the many waves of London food innovation. They don’t need TikTok because they do what they’re supposed to do: cook you delicious food at a reasonable price. Here are some of our favourites.
- Kokeb, nearest Tube Station: Caledonian Road. Ethiopian Food
The first place I ever tried Ethiopian food and still my favourite. The larger-than-life owner who runs the place has such a wonderful warmth and presence, and fear not if you have never eaten Ethiopian before, she’ll help out with your order and show you the best way to tackle an injera. I love this food, and working your way through a large teff pancake covered in vegetarian curries with your hands feels like such a satisfying and celebratory way to eat. It’s completely delicious here, trust me.
- Thanh Binh, nearest Tube Staton: Camden Town. Vietnamese Food
Fortunately Thanh Binh has changed very little in the 15 years I’ve been eating here. It’s the best Vietnamese I’ve had in the capital and always such a satisfying experience. There are no frills or excess pleasantries, but the dishes are vibrant, generous and utterly delicious. Opposite, the Camden market buzzes with dining options and vendors wave samples from their stalls to try and entice you in. But I urge you to cross the road and take a seat in Thanh Bin; order a Bun noodle salad (my favourite) or a steaming bowl of Pho and thank me later.
- Seto, nearest Tube Station: Mornington Crescent. Japanese Food
I spent a number of years in Japan working and travelling, and completely fell in love with the food there. Finding something comparable in London hasn’t always been easy. Many places masquerade as Japanese, but the food is miles off. The first time I ate in Seto I felt genuinely nostalgic. It was just like countless little Izakaya-style eateries I’d been in up and down the peninsula. In fact, it’s run by a small Japanese family and everything is delicious and authentic. The ramen is great, as are the takoyaki, karaage chicken and fried tofu.
- Chutneys, nearest Tube Station: Euston. Southern Indian food
My Mum showed me this place when I was still a kid. Lunch is a generous southern Indian vegetarian buffet with never ending bowls of pakoras, curries and above all, pickles and chutneys. The abundance of flavours and colours made such an impression on me when I was younger, and I love to go there still. This area around Drummond Street is filled with delicious veggie southern Indian restaurants but for some reason has remained unknown to many. Chutneys is BYOB and when the bill comes it seems too good to be true. It has a band of loyal customers and you’ll understand why. Plus you won’t miss meat at all!
- Dilpasand, nearest Tube Station: Aldgate East. Pakistani Food
We found this one really recently. On Commercial Road there are a few restaurants celebrating Pakistani food, like the Lahore Kebab House, but Dilpasand is a true gem. I love London for places like this; from the moment you walk in you are transported to somewhere else far away. The open kitchen is a flurry of activity, smoke and noise, while in the restaurant large families sit around tables spilling with chats, puris and grilled meats. The lamb biryani here is a fluffy and succulent dream that makes me salivate whenever I think about it. We are slowly working our way through the menu with each visit and it’s always a joy. It’s BYOB too!