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53 Lexington Street
Despite the opening of Bao Fitzrovia in 2016, the diminutive original still entertains lengthy (some say “interminable”) queues, such is the power of those Taiwanese steamed buns. With just 30 elbow-to-elbow pine seats, this minimalist, no-bookings outfit definitely rewards patience and an adventurous spirit. It’s worth the time spent in line to access Bao’s short, tick-box menu of calorific, sticky-and-sweet treats. Xiao chi (snacks) include deep-fried nuggets of pig’s trotter and fried chicken slathered in hot sauce – “strictly not for sharing”, warns one fan. That said, bao buns remain the “stars of the show”: try the classic version with moist shreds of braised pork, coriander and peanuts or the confit pork option, which adds crispy shallots and hot sauce. The balance of pillowy dough and intense flavours is just right, thoroughly addictive and a snip at a fiver or less. Service is rather solemn but highly efficient (a necessity given the demand), and we recommend ordering a glass of peanut milk to wash it all down.
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SquareMeal 2 Stars
53 Lexington Street
Piccadilly Circus Tube Station 348m
Tottenham Court Road Tube Station 420m
Oxford Street Youth Hostel 80m
Beak Street 135m
Mon-Sat 12N-3pm 5.30-10pm Sun 12N-5pm
Food & Drink:
Rate & Review
Food + drink: 4
I, or rather we, knew there was definitely going to be a queue. So the plan was to set the maximum waiting time and discuss coming up with a contingency plan. In the first 45 minutes we did not move at all. Then just as we debated whether to leave or not, the queue moved and we edged forward a teeny weeny bit. It was both encouraging and frustrating at the same time. Do we leave now or should we stay on? So, as you might gather, BAO does not take reservations.
BAO has only 30 seats – all very cosy. Even the tables and chairs are mini size but were luckily, quite comfortable; a few stools around the bar, a couple by the window (one which we frantically prayed we never seated at because you are only a glass window away from the queuers. Hence, eye level when seating is the bum level of the queuer. But we were a company of trio so we were safe, phew!) and a few tables closer to the kitchen.
The menu? BAOs were the star of the show but there are plenty of side dishes for nibbles; with the exception my fried chicken; it is a strictly no sharing dish for me. We ordered almost the whole menu except for the soup, scallop, pickles and the fried chicken bun. The dishes are small portions and were served as and when they were ready. There are quite a number of tea, beer and cider choices. No wine. Few non-alcoholic (I find) interesting beverages are foam teas and peanut milk.
I love BAO in everyway. The entrepreneurs themselves are laudable. Growing from a humble beginning in the street food scene until a permanent location in Soho with queues that every restaurant craves for, they are a trio that still are as down to earth as any soil. When we left, an hour and a half later, there was still a queue.
Food + drink: 5
Picture the scene: it’s pouring with rain and not even midday yet from a distance I can spot a queue at least ten people long outside a restaurant. This is in Soho, where, within half a square mile, there are probably at least 100 other dining options. Wow, I thought, joining said queue, Bao better be good. Either that or all these fellow waiters-in-line must be as stupid as me. Fortunately, it was. Even, maybe, excellent. And my simple recommendation would be to brave the queue and savour every moment of this culinary sensation. From humble roots as a stall in Hackney, Bao has now established formal premises, helped by the family that has backed other notable London successes such as Trishna and Gymkhana. Far from any nod to India, Bao is Taiwanese. Most people would probably struggle to find Taiwan on a map, let alone tell you in what sort of food it specialises. Its closest culinary brethren are probably Korea followed by China. Here, the format is simple. Diners are given what looks like a betting slip and asked to tick which options they would like (yes – the concept works) from a menu of around 15 dishes. These comprise small sharing dishes and also steamed buns full of enticing-sounding fillings. The even better news is that nothing is priced above £8. My comrade and I were wowed with every offering brought to the table. The scallop, served in its shell, was light, but packed a punch; the pigs’ blood cake a beautiful take on British haggis/ black pudding, enhanced with spices and topped with a sunshine-yellow egg yolk; the fried chicken was light and non-greasy, evidence of both sourcing of high-quality poultry and good kitchen preparation. The accompanying chilli spice was among the best I have sampled. Onto the buns, and we were equally full of plaudits, in each a harmonious marriage of flavours. The coriander spice with my lamb filling worked a treat, for example. By the end, we were well satisfied and it felt as if we had eaten relatively healthily, even if the carb-overload may have belied this. My one quibble would be that the atmosphere and service felt somewhat clinical, but when the food is this good and there are hungry bellies that need satisfying, this can be easily overlooked.
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