Beat the tourists: cool restaurants, secret bars, and foodie places to visit when visiting London during the Olympics

worship street whistling shop3 - AlcoholAlchemy_TristanStephenson.jpgIf you’re planning to visit London this summer for the Olympics, get the most out of your trip by taking in all that the capital has to offer – including its red-hot dining and drinking scenes. Square Meal’s run-through of the hippest haunts, most atmospheric bars, and most impressive foodie locations will bring out the best London has to offer for both foreign tourists and Brits from outside London. What’s more, we have suggestions for every budget and taste.

Visit foodie areas and food markets

Borough Market

London’s most popular food market for both tourists and locals offers a wealth of stalls selling everything from sweet and savoury dishes to artisan cheeses and mulled wine – as well as top-notch fresh produce. Don’t miss a stroll along nearby Bermondsey St, with its wealth of lifestyle boutiques, art galleries and foodie gems, such as José Pizarro’s two eponymous Spanish restaurants, Italian favourite Zucca, and wacky urban hangout Village East.

Exmouth Market

This bohemian pedestrianised street permanently bedecked with bunting is within walking distance of Angel tube station. When it comes to small independent restaurants, you’re spoilt for choice – try Moorish tapas and sherry at Morito (or book dinner at its big brother Moro), bavette steak at hip hangout Medcalf, or fusion cooking at stripped-back gem Caravan.

street food1 - streetfood1.jpgEat St

Slicker than your average pavement purveyor, Eat St’s traders are a committed and ever-expanding bunch of grass-roots foodies who serve sustainable, carefully sourced, lovingly made specialities to discerning London diners from a pitch in King’s Cross. Cuisines range from Italian to Indian, and from Mexican to Mauritian, with every taste catered for, all at reasonable prices.

Brixton Market

The past two years have seen this once-unloved and half-empty market transformed into a thriving hub of start-up restaurants run by supper-club graduates, brave locals and scene-savvy entrepreneurs. New locations are popping up all the time, but Square Meal’s favourites are dinky Thai restaurant Kaosarn, Honest Burgers’ mouth-watering products, and pioneering organic pizzeria Franco Manca (the first to set up shop).

Sunday (Up)market Brick Lane

Brick Lane’s heart is in its hip art galleries and retro clothes shops, but even cool cats have to eat somewhere. The (Up)market, in The Old Truman Brewery, is fittingly understated, with market stalls dotted around basic communal tables. The food – be it pad thai, homemade salads, or cakes and brownies – is plentiful, well priced and hits the spot. Sundays 10am-5pm.

London’s most in-demand restaurants: book in advance for these sought-after seats


It’s difficult to bag a table at what is currently one of London’s hottest restaurants by phone, but word on the street has it that walk-ins can sometimes be in luck if there are any last-minute cancellations. In any case, you won’t have a wasted journey, as the basement bar is a destination in itself, and the restaurant’s location in the heart of Fitzrovia means second options abound.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal at Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park

Heston Blumenthal’s London restaurant was the highest new entry in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards 2012, coming in at number nine. Bookings are scarce, but worth the effort. Once you’re in, ordering the signature dishes – meat fruit, tipsy cake – is the way forward. If you don’t manage to get a booking, hole up in the Mandarin Oriental’s other restaurant, Bar Boulud, a buzzy brasserie that serves one of London’s best burgers as well as terrific cocktails.

The Ledbury

Another British restaurant that regularly graces the World’s 50 Best list (it ranked just below The Fat Duck at number 14 in 2012), The Ledbury is a tasteful neighbourhood eatery that has somehow managed to maintain a cool edge. Aussie chef Brett Graham serves wonderfully inventive food, but the kitchen team also made headlines for the heroic way it rushed to diners’ rescue during the London riots in 2011.

Pollen Street Social - Pollen_Street_Social_2011_-__MG_4646_WEB.jpgPollen Street Social

Former Maze chef and Gordon Ramsay protégé Jason Atherton hit gold when he struck out on his own with this dressed-down Mayfair fine-diner. Pitch perfect in every way, the restaurant offers outstanding à la carte dishes, plus a dessert bar (pictured, right) – all in a beautifully designed dining room with views of the kitchen.

St John

You don’t go to this most British of restaurants for the decor – which, with its bare walls and functional tables, is austere at best – you go for its famed, gutsy approach to nose-to-tail eating. Have your fill of offally old-fashioned approaches to cooking tailored to a modern audience – and don’t miss the signature dish of bone marrow and parsley salad.

Try your luck at these red-hot venues (no reservations)

Burger & Lobster

As the name suggests, there are only two choices here – a huge, juicy, ground-steak burger with all the trimmings, or lobster (steamed, grilled, or stuffed into a brioche roll) with chips. All are excellent choices; all cost £20. Cocktails are tip-top, service is slick, and the atmosphere is alive and kicking. If the queue is too long at the original Mayfair branch, try B&L’s sister venue in Soho, which does take some bookings.

ceviche - Ceviche_2012_-_sakaru_Maru.jpgCeviche

Another ‘does what it says on the tin’ place, Peruvian restaurant Ceviche serves its namesake (pictured, left) five ways – but the menu doesn’t stop there. Don’t miss deliciously charred beef-heart skewers, sizzling classic lomo saltado, and devilish pisco sours served in style from the capital’s first pisco bar. A loud, colourful and cheerful Soho venue, Ceviche has personality in spades – and queues to match.


With its dark decor, throbbing music and southern-US-style food, Meatliquor (whose original incarnation was a mobile food wagon) is quite the draw for London’s young foodies about town. Tip up early if you want to dine at a decent time, and don’t expect to linger. However, while you’re there, your money will buy you what’s been labelled the best burger in town, served with a side of cool, plus live-for-the-moment whiskey-laced cocktails.

Pitt Cue Co

Another street-food venue that has graduated to a permanent postal address, Pitt Cue Co is all about the American grill experience. Squeeze into the tiny basement bar for bourbon sours or the house ‘pickleback’ (a shot of bourbon mixed with pickle brine – yes, really), then descend to the spartan dining room for a feast of sticky, tender beef ribs served with spiced ’slaw, or mash with ‘burnt ends’.


Yet another American-style restaurant – this time themed on the hip dives of New York’s Lower East Side – Spuntino has only 12 stools arranged around the central bar, plus one lone booth and limited standing room. Plan your visit strategically at an off-peak time because it’s nearly always packed. Once you’ve got a seat, enjoy friendly service by tattooed staff, a rocking blues soundtrack, and finger-licking food such as sliders, pizzette and the gut-busting truffled-egg toast.

Drink in central London’s coolest cocktail bars

Happiness Forgets

Refreshingly unpretentious and only underground in the literal sense of the word, Happiness Forgets draws a friendly Shoreditch crowd to its doors with its well-built signature cocktails and cosy, candlelit surroundings.

Mark’s Bar at Hix

Pitched underneath chef and restaurateur Mark Hix’s flagship Soho restaurant, this swanky, dimly lit bar is a world-class drinking den. The cocktail menu is a fantastic read, and spans all eras. Staff are deferential and well-versed, but still manage to make every drinker feel like a regular. Note: it’s best to book ahead to clinch your spot.


Artfully presented, perfectly balanced cocktails are the name of the game at this speakeasy-style Shoreditch bar. The polished art-deco interior references Prohibition-era America, live jazz and soul on Thursdays and Saturdays ups the 1920s’ vibe, and complimentary snacks come in the shape of smoked popcorn. Booking is essential.


An extraordinary venue (pictured, left) hidden underground in the depths of Marylebone, Purl’s talented bartenders serve up skilfully balanced drinks using flashy technology more frequently employed by high-end chefs (think liquid nitrogen and the like). Note: reservations and natty attire are pre-requisites to entry.

Worship Street Whistling Shop

WSWS resembles a cross between a mad scientist’s lab and an Edwardian apothecary. Another disciple of the ‘molecular mixology’ trend, it serves up cocktail wizardry in a distinctly old-world setting. Cocktails are full of ingenious homemade ingredients, from bitters and reductions to ‘dusts’ and infusions.

Sink a pint or two of bitter in a traditional London pub

The Fox & Hounds

This tiny, low-ceilinged drinking den a Sloane’s throw from Chelsea Bridge is a true local hang-out crammed with just enough oak tables and wooden stools to seat most of the residents of the mews that hem it in. That said, it’s a friendly place serving real ales and no-nonsense bar snacks such as sandwiches and crisps. As its name suggests, the blood-red walls are covered with oil paintings of hunting scenes. Worth hunting out.

The Grenadier

Located on Knightsbridge’s leafy Wilton Row, The Grenadier really is a find – although some intrepid tourists have made it to its doors over the years (as evidenced by the signed dollar bills decorating the ceiling of one of the pub’s back rooms). The Grenadier boasts historic links with The Army’s 1st Royal Regiment of Foot Guards, though wealthy residents of this posh enclave sip pints of London Pride and Timothy Taylor Landlord in peace.

The Nag’s Head

Another characterful pub just yards from Harrods, The Nag’s Head is a welcome antidote to the brash, showy side of SW1. The garrulous landlord, an ex-serviceman, bans mobile phones in favour of good old-fashioned face-to-face banter over a pint of draught ale. The drinking takes place in a cluttered, cosy snug covered in newspaper clippings and eclectic knick-knacks.

Ye Old Mitre

Gloriously decked out with dark-wood panelling and Dickensian-style fixtures and fittings, this ancient East-End boozer has been a proper drinking den since 1547. Hole up in one of its nooks and crannies and savour a pint of Fuller’s Discovery or London Pride with a side order of sausage rolls.

If the weather is sunny, find London’s best beer gardens.

Get the best of British experience while visiting London

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British restaurants in London
Quirky restaurants and bars
Cheap-and-cheerful restaurants
Pop-up restaurants
Hidden restaurants and secret bars in London

This feature was published in July 2012.