Clerkenwell has been a drinking and dining destination ever since the medieval clerks dug their well in Farringdon Lane (you can still see it through a window in Well Court). After years of popularity though, it lost its cool crown to Shoreditch in the 2000s. However, thanks to the incoming Crossrail line, Clerkenwell is well and truly back on the map, with brilliant new arrivals moving in alongside the veterans. Here’s our guide to the best in the area.
Words: Ben McCormack
Bird of Smithfield 26 Smithfield Street, EC1A 9LB
Open from breakfast, this five-floor establishment also houses a lounge bar, cocktail bar, private dining room and roof terrace. Good-value brekkies include pan-fried Bantam eggs with hash browns, black pudding and home-made brown sauce; extras of streaky bacon or avocado are available too. Later in the day, the alluring menu of modish British cooking includes the likes of perfectly cooked scallops with crushed cauliflower cheese and truffle puree.
Fox & Anchor 115 Charterhouse Street, EC1M 6AA
Beer for breakfast? Yes please! This Young’s pub is licensed from 7am on weekdays to keep the porters of Smithfield Market lubricated after a night of lugging meat carcasses. We like the look of the City Big Boy Breakfast: two eggs, sweet-cured bacon, pork and leek sausages, onglet steak, calf’s liver, black and white pudding, roasted vine tomatoes, mushroom, Boston beans, fried bread and a pint of Guinness. After which you may need to have a nap in one of the upstairs hotel rooms.
Club Gascon 57 West Smithfield, EC1A 9DS
Pascal Aussignac’s Michelin-starred flagship specialises in dishes from south-west France and is very much the posh destination restaurant, with its exuberant floral displays, marble walls, velvet curtains and extensive wine list. Lunch however offers a relatively affordable three-course set menu. The quality of the ingredients seldom disappoints, and the kitchen creates some tantalising combinations with clean, precise flavours – think roasted lamb neck with red cedar, cucumber and wild garlic.
Luca 88 St John Street, EC1M 4EH
The second outing from The Clove Club team proves that the Young Turk trio are more than one-hit wonders. They call Luca a ‘Britalian’ restaurant – Italian cooking recast with British ingredients. Meals follow the classic four-course format; highlights include the Parmesan fries (actually gloriously gooey churros) and fabulous pasta. But the most striking feature of the place is its 1950s Italian styling, resulting in a relaxing, rustic vibe.
Anglo 30 St Cross Street, EC1N 8UH
Anglo is a pocket-sized, pared-back British bistro serving high-end food in simple surrounds via a no-choice, seven-course dinner (lunch is à la carte). It’s co-cheffed by two young rising stars, Mark Jarvis and Jack Cashmore, who deal in exciting, beautifully fashioned assemblies of rare intensity, kicking off with the cloud of house-whipped butter to spread on soft sourdough. To drink, most of the snappy European wine list is available by the glass.
Sushi Tetsu 12 Jerusalem Passage, EC1V 4JP
Securing a stool at the counter of this tiny sushi joint requires flexible forward planning for one of the two dinner sittings, which get booked out over a month ahead. Once seated, you’ll join a handful of punters in grateful awe of chef/proprietor Toru Takahashi, calmly preparing the sushi and sashimi with near forensic precision; what you get depends on what he decides is good enough that day. This is a husband-and-wife outfit, with spouse Harumi completing the perfect circle that is Sushi Tetsu.
Morito 32 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE
This dinky offshoot of big-hitting Moro fills up fast (arrive early to avoid queuing) with diners in search of small plates with a decidedly rustic Spanish flavour. Salt cod croquetas, Padrón peppers, jamón Ibérico, patatas bravas and other tapas classics are all here, but keep an eye out for the specials too – perhaps deep-fried rabbit shoulder flavoured with rose harissa. The enticing all-Iberian wine list features some splendid sherries.
Worth paying a bit more for…
Moro 34-36 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE
From day one, Sam and Samantha Clark’s ground-breaking eatery made an impact with its zinc-topped bar, pavement tables, wood-fired oven and compelling Spanish/North African cuisine. The whole shebang still thrills, although nothing can trump the food: heady spicing and subtly matched flavours are at the heart of things, from wood-roasted chicken with farika spiced labneh and salsa, to luscious chocolate and apricot tart.
St John 26 St John Street, EC1M 4AY
Once ahead of its time, St John is now of its time – and still relevant. The industrial minimalism of the starkly white interior places the focus firmly on matters gastronomic, while the nose-to-tail menu reads like a foodie’s dream – not least the legendary starter of bone marrow with parsley. Alternatively, play it safe with a damn fine crab on toast. The wine list is exclusively French, with interesting options by the glass and bottles to take out too.
Sosharu 64 Turnmill Street, EC1M 5RR
Jason Atherton’s culinary homage to Japan might be based on a humble booze-fuelled izakaya joint, but Sosharu is an expansive, cool, urban space with clever use of blond-wood slats, an open kitchen and space-age loos. Expect an array of small plates, from sashimi as good as you’ll find anywhere, addictive temaki rolls – and Wagyu rib-eye with a zingy price tag. Kisetsu, a 10-seater chef’s table, is Sosharu’s inner sanctum, with a market-fresh daily changing menu.
The Modern Pantry 47-48 St John’s Square, EC1V 4JJ
Given that she was born in Canada, raised in New Zealand and has parents with Belgian/Danish roots, it’s no surprise that fusion queen Anna Hansen takes her foodie inspiration from far and wide. The signature sugar-cured prawn omelette with smoked chilli, sambal, spring onion and coriander is a must order, or mix and match small plates such as grilled aubergine with yuzu and tamari dressing and crispy shallots – washed down with own-label Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, perhaps.
The Eagle 159 Farringdon Road, EC1R 3AL
The kitchen may be a bit of a squeeze (it’s only big enough for two), but since launching in 1991, the trailblazing Eagle has maintained a reputation for gastropub food of the best sort. The daily menu is scrawled on blackboards, you order at the bar, the decor is unreconstructed corner pub and there’s an impressive range of beers, while the intelligent wine list offers everything by the glass. It’s an all-round winning format that’s still deserving of your attention.
The Quality Chop House 92-94 Farringdon Road, EC1R 3EA
There aren’t many Grade II-listed dining rooms in London, but this is one of them, with wooden booths and black-and-white tiled floors recalling its relatively humble Victorian origins. Sundays always see a whole roast chicken and a vegetarian roast, plus beef, pork or lamb – whatever the kitchen fancies roasting that day. The wine list is updated monthly (co-owner Will Lander is Jancis Robinson’s son, so no pressure).
The Bleeding Heart Bistro Bleeding Heart Yard, EC1N 8SJ
Quirky and colourful, this classically styled French bistro could almost be a set from Amélie. Inside, vintage posters line the ochre walls, table settings show off the tricolour palette and there are wine bottles everywhere; the large outside area, complete with red awning and vineyard sculpture, is a delight in summer, when lobster and rosé are the top shouts at tables on the cobbles. The offering may be a little corny but it always delivers.
Oriole Smithfield Market, EC1A 9LH
From the team behind Nightjar, Oriole promises a subterranean world of indeterminate provenance, but suffice to say it’s a little bit retro, a little bit glam, a little bit pan-Asian, and a fun place to hang out. Style is important here, and the cocktails look stunning in their assorted serving vessels: the Umckaloaba, based on Mount Gay Black Barrel rum, tastes like the best adult dessert you’ve ever had. If you want food proper, a menu of globally inspired small plates awaits.
ZTH 9-50 St John's Square, EC1V 4JJ
The brainchild of cocktail whizz Tony Conigliaro and chef Bruno Loubet, the Zetter Townhouse hotel’s cocktail lounge feels evocative and indulgent, like the salon of some Victorian adventurer. The drinks are more up to date: The Clipper involves whisky, samphire syrup and a dash of absinthe. Monsieur Loubet’s menu is short and to the point – assorted sharing boards, mugs of soup, nibbles and small plates.
If that wasn’t enough for you, have a browse of our list of the best restaurants in Clerkenwell, or check out our pick of Clerkenwell bars.
This article was published 27 April 2017