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London’s buzziest restaurants: from Lisboeta to Rita’s, the 10 hottest tables in town

From candlelit suppers on the canal to timeless trattorias, David Ellis names the capital’s dining rooms that everyone’s talking about

<p>A looker: Sessions Arts Club </p>

A looker: Sessions Arts Club

/ Press handout
By @dvh_ellis
08 June 2022
T

he sun settles in and the crowds flow out: London in the summer brings its own joys. As the city empties and things quieten, briefly, tables begin to free up at even the most fiercely overbooked restaurants. Now, then, is a perfect time to test the hype and take a seat at some of the buzziest places in town. Here’s where.

Sessions Arts Club

Seduction can call on a cast of props — charm, kindness, cash — but beauty is rarely bettered, and Sessions is nothing if not a looker. New last summer, it remains the place to be and while it’s not a club — the name is, well, wrong — sometimes it feels like one, given getting in here seems so much easier if you know someone on the inside. Most who nab a table are after the room, not the food: the great arched windows where light gusts in like wind; the unfinished wood floor: the craggy pink plaster breaking through the paint. Acclaimed chef Florence Knight’s menu changes with the weather, but revolves around Italian-inflected British dishes, fresh fish, and sauces that need bread to finish them off. The bill will mount quietly and unexpectedly, but when the seduction is complete, few will care.

24 Clerkenwell Green, EC1, sessionsartsclub.com

Lisboeta

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Every chef’s reputation bobs up and down, but near-mythic tales told about Viajante and the undeniable popularity of Chiltern Firehouse — along with a couple of Michelin stars over the years — meant that Nuno Mendes’ return to London this spring became 2022’s food moment. What he calls his “love letter to Lisbon” is written over three floors; with each verse the chef proves that Portuguese cooking stretches further than peri peri chicken and custard tarts. Seafood is perhaps strongest — the bacalao (dried, salted cod), or the astonishingly Arroz de Marisco (raw prawns lounging on seafood rice) — but the thing, really, is to enjoy being swept up in the clattering noise of the place; wine flows, chefs scurry, laughter is everywhere.

30 Charlotte Street, W1, lisboeta.co.uk

Acme Fire Cult

Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd

Dalston to a tee — natural wine, craft beer, everything militantly for sharing — this is a cult that doesn’t even believe in stocking coffee (though they’re apparently happy enough to flog t-shirts). But for all the east London earnestness, chefs Daniel Watkins and Andrew Clarke and their wood-fired grill make a compelling trio. Clarke — him with the Rapunzel-length beard — is there practising alchemy, extracting ferments from leftover grains donated from the next-door 40FT Brewery, with whom this place is a partnership. The outside hums, the mezcal Negronis sing; there is a sense of inventiveness that feels inspired, especially with vegetables championed over meat. But perhaps the most inspired thing is that — in spite of the tattoo-and-fire vibe — it doesn’t feel too blokey. A cult classic.

Abbot Street, E8, acmefirecult.com

Caravel

Clerkenwell Boy

Caravel floats on the Regent’s Canal, moored to the greying deck stretching the length of Holborn Studios. Arriving is an inauspicious thing; security gates and guards do not scream a welcome. Fin and Lorcan Spiteri sense this; their barge is built to soothe, to console. In the dayime, it is light, lively and made for long, endless lunches, but in the evening candles are lit and tables each sit away from each other — conspiratorial whispers are encouraged — and drinks are never more than a moment away. Food is all braised or stewed or melted or crisped and grilled; sauces splash like the water below. Other places take coats; Caravel removes stresses.

172 Shepherdess Walk, N1, thestudiokitchen.co.uk/the-boat

Bibi

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It’s a national crisis: handfuls of food writers everywhere are running out of things to say about this place, such is it written about so often. Months after opening, Bibi is still everywhere. Any doubts about its initial promise — did Mayfair, already bulging with them, really need another high-end Indian? — have swiftly and decisively been swept away in the torrent of wide-eyed praise. It is a cause of gratitude that the chef here, Chet Sharma, decided to pack in physics after casually picking up a PHD in it from Oxford. The scientific pedigree is not, in the end, so hard to deduce: there is an evident diligence, a meticulousness, in both the sourcing of his British ingredients and the partnering of them to piles of spice. The grill smokes and spits all day long: great turbots and lobsters lie alongside lamb chops slowly blackening at the edges. Bibi offers a new era of Indian cooking.

42 North Audley St, W1, bibirestaurants.com

Boiler and Co

Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd

The hype here is from those in the know; chefs behind closed doors muttering either with praise or envy about just how right chef Kerth Gumbs has got it. His cooking — which this paper’s Jimi Famurewa dubbed as “some of the most astonishingly clean, complex and enrapturing flavours I’ve experienced in a long time” — is giving Boiler and Co something of a cult following (though no t-shirts are on sale — yet). The tasting menu, somehow just £65 for seven courses, shows Gumbs’ aptitude for precision: food comes in high definition, scallops seared and sat on fine crumbs of carrot and washed with curried lobster sauce, say, or the Caribbean-influenced saltfish served with octopus carpaccio, pea hummus and okra. Attention-grabbing dishes to silence idle chatter.

5 Canvey Street, SE1, boilerandco.com

Plaza Khao Gaeng

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Plaza sits in a food hall but, while food halls often bring on the cold sweats — flashbacks of buzzers rattling and endless queues for underpowered cocktails, that sort of thing — Luke Farrell’s fierce southern Thai sensibly sits tucked up on a mezzanine level. Forget the downstairs, it has the feeling of being out of town entirely. A doppelgänger of a real restaurant near Phuket, there is a strange sensation of being on a film set of sorts — behind the blinds and under the neon strip lights, you half expect someone to call “cut!” — but the food is so overwhelming, so often quite brilliant, that it hits with an awakening slap. Chillies lurk with menace, meats come sticky with soy-soaked sauces, rice is served in great bowls to help soothe the heat. Drinks are suitably strong. You leave dazed, thrilled, alive.

103-105 New Oxford Street, London WC1, arcadefoodhall.com

Brutto

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Tables here appear on Instagram stories, popping up like prizes; owner Russell Norman will send them out on his socials, where punters vie to be first to spot them, like some kind of reservations safari. Swiftly they’re poached; seven or so months have passed since it opened, but the appeal of Brutto’s red-and-white chequered tablecloths and bottles of wine in baskets — in other words, its “Italian trattoria straight out of Eighties Soho (London or New York, take your pick)” vibe — remains. Food is simple; come for £5 Negronis, pasta paddling in thick, rich ragus, or great hunks of steaks with insides as red as hot coals. Do not expect culinary fireworks, but do come comfort, a happy time and Norman’s wolfish charm.

35-37 Greenhill Rents, EC1j, @bru.tto

Manteca

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The appeal of a decent Italian, then, never dulls — last year, after 10 years of service, there was a deserved hoo-ha about how good Hackney’s Ombra still is. Similarly, Manteca, a once-nomadic nose-to-tail gaff with a fondness for pasta, has heaved since it settled in Shoreditch last year. Its appeal is simple enough: ‘nduja steamed mussels bathed in cream and parsley; ragu slow-cooked, variously, with duck, beef shin and morels, or pig-skin; and, perhaps most pertinently, a feeling that hours of eating might pass interrupted only by a waiter wondering about another bottle.

49-51 Curtain Rd, EC2, mantecarestaurant.co.uk

Rita’s

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Like the Aubrey underneath the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, Rita’s has settled in as a place for the fashionable party set to head once they’ve tripped over from lunch at Cafe Cecilia. Once a Dalston pop-up, it has become a Soho diner, and one with a menu gently offhand about its creativity: beef tartare, for instance, is barbecued. There is America in the blood here: hot bean devilled eggs on Texas toast, say, or the sugar pit pork, or the San Francisco cioppino, a stew. But more than that, Rita’s is about its “oh this old thing?” brand of cool. Come to be seen, stay for the food, stay for the fun.

49 Lexington St, W1, ritasdining.com

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