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Restaurants with a no-bookings policy divide opinion at Square Meal: some of us hate to queue in tense anticipation while some of us embrace the supposed spontaneity that this dining model affords our social lives. If you can’t decide where to eat out this weekend, or want to take a chance on something new, here’s our pick of the capital’s hottest no-reservations restaurants – plus a few golden oldies that are well worth the queues.
This ‘super-casual’ restaurant serves classic European cuisine at reasonable prices. Dishes change on a daily basis, taking in anything from octopus carpaccio to spring lamb fillet – so it’s a perfect destination for the spontaneous. Although reservations are taken for lunch, the no-bookings policy for dinner means it’s a case of elbows at the ready. Put your name on the list and repair to a nearby pub to pass the time.
This cosy and convivial tapas bar, serving authentic, top-quality Spanish dishes, is run by the Hart brothers, whose other successes include Fino and Quo Vadis. Queues form nightly from 7pm for classic dishes such as tortilla española (with its obligatory runny centre), croquetas, and grilled razor clams.
Thanks to stellar restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King, Londoners can enjoy a sophisticated Parisian meal in a hot-shot London dining room without breaking the bank. With its grand art-deco theme, and a wide array of traditional French dishes, it is no wonder that this spot is so celebrated. Lucky for walk-ins, a section of tables is reserved for customers calling in on-spec.
Four more branches of this popular diner have sprung up since the Mayfair original – some larger in size, which is good news for walk-ins. As usual, a three-item menu offers juicy burgers and fresh lobster backed up with fast and amiable service – what else would you expect from a venture dreamed up by the formidable Goodman steakhouse? If you want to avoid the risk of getting stuck in a queue, bring some friends to the Soho or Clerkenwell branches and book a table for six or more (or book a table of up to eight at the St Paul’s branch).
Located halfway between Vauxhall and Stockwell, this shabby-chic gastropub operates on a first-come, first-served basis. The menu is full of hearty, seasonal dishes (served family-style) using interesting cuts of meat, while the bar serves a good selection of wines and real ales, as well as seriously satisfying bar snacks (the foie-gras toastie is a must).
An Islington institution whose small selection of daily dishes is served to faithful regulars in its tiny dining room. It’s usually full come 6pm, so just finding a perch – either in the bar area or the dining room – is your cue to order. While you’re waiting, try a warm glass of mulled cider with homemade bar snacks.
Queue or no queue: once you get a table here, you are in for a relaxing evening full of wine sampling and constant nibbling. The cosy venue is fit for the young Soho crowd it attracts: enjoy a glass of chilled manzanilla and flavourful butifarra sausage while soaking up the warm, lively atmosphere. If you don’t want to wing it, bookings are taken for lunch.
With its marble-topped tables and kitsch vintage Bollywood decor, Dishoom is India repackaged for style-savvy Londoners. Small plates to share, from grilled toast and house chai to spicy lamb chops, are served from breakfast through to dinner in the lively dining room; at night, try the cocktails.
Another follower of the single-item menu trend, this hip steak joint makes ordering easy – would you like your meat served rare, medium, or well done? The no-bookings policy, friendly service, and relaxed atmosphere makes this spot an affordable treat for all carnivores. Try popping in during the week at lunchtime, or on Saturday afternoons, to avoid the long queues.
Consistently featured in lists of the capital’s stand-out pizzerias, this no-frills stall in Brixton’s covered market is certainly not luxurious, but the sourdough pizza bases and organic toppings, low prices, and inimitable style of owner Giuseppe Macoli, more than make up for the lack of razzmatazz – so much so that new branches are opening up all the time.
A small spot with a big reputation – our readers give it the well-deserved title of ‘best reasonably priced burger in London’. This is a simple, unfussy spot perfect for a quick and satisfying bite that lives up to its name by serving high quality, fresh patties supplied by chi-chi butchers The Ginger Pig. Beat the queues by placing your order ahead of time and taking it away. Another branch – the original – is located in Brixton Market.
You’ll be queuing around the corner for entry to this cooler-than-cool burger joint, but in the end it’s definitely worth the hassle. Try visiting this popular spot or one of its equally in-demand sister restaurants – Meatmission (which does take some bookings) and Meatmarket – on a Sunday afternoon to reduce your chances of running into crowds.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with big sister Moro, this friendly and laid-back tapas bar serves Middle Eastern, North African and Spanish dishes, as well as a stellar line-up of ice-cold sherries. To avoid drooling over other people’s food, the staff will take your number and call you when a table becomes available.
The ground floor of this Spanish/Italian hybrid – from the team who brought Dehesa and Salt Yard to the capital – takes no reservations, leaving theatre-goers and in-the-know Londoners to enjoy its excellent charcuterie, cheeses and critically-rated signature dishes.
This backstreet site may be small in size, but the monster beef ribs and smoky barbecue pulled pork keep the crowds coming back for more – queue or no queue. Even if you must wait in line, it will give you an excuse to enjoy a bourbon-laced sour at the bar to get you in the mood for a meaty meal.
Get a taste of authentic Spanish cuisine by stopping for a bite at the second Bermondsey restaurant by José Pizarro – ‘London’s tapas king’, according to Square Meal readers. Innovative small plates and convivial surrounds make this spot perfect for a meal to share. Queues are the norm: if your luck runs out at Pizarro, try visiting its micro-counterpart José, just a stone’s throw away.
This Venetian-style tapas bar is packed nightly, with most tables welcoming three sittings during the course of the evening (although once you get a seat, you can stay there for as long as you like). If you don’t want to queue for dinner, pop downstairs for an aperitif in the Campari bar while you wait, or try booking for lunch instead.
The bustling ground-floor tapas bar of Peter Gordon’s fusion mecca welcomes those calling in on spec – and there are plenty of them. Sit on high stools at shared tables, or hold out for a more intimate booth, sipping great wine from fishbowl-sized glasses while you wait.
The original Sophie’s, in Fulham, and its Covent Garden counterpart, have stuck firmly and successfully to their no-bookings mantra since they opened. The Covent Garden restaurant is the larger (and hipper) of the two venues; consequently, the wait is rarely longer than the time it takes to drink a cocktail at the bar.
For a fine French feast in a buzzing atmosphere, eat in the downstairs dining room of this classy modern brasserie – or, failing that, skip the queues and book a table in the upstairs dining room. The walk-in queue shouldn’t be too long, but if you do happen to wait, find a perch at the wine bar and treat yourself to a glass – there are 300 bins to choose from.