In 1200, parts of WC2 were walled off by Westminster Abbey, to be used for orchards and crops. So… who cares? Well, that land was known as the garden for the Abbey and the convent and, hey presto, 800 years and one spelling mistake later, here we are. These days, it’s a land of theatres, lost tourists and strolling Londoners, so eat and drink Covent Garden the right way with us.
Words: Neil Simpson
Balthazar 4-6 Russell Street, WC2B 5HZ (above)
Abundant praise is proof that this London outpost of Keith McNally's upscale bistro lives up to the reputation of his NYC original. By and large, the French menu wins approval too and the all-day offering includes weekday breakfast from 7.30am. The spread features delectable pastries from Balthazar’s boulangerie next door, scrambled eggs with Cornish crab and a full English.
Dishoom Covent Garden 12 Upper St Martins Lane, WC2H 9FB
The only thing we don’t like about this ferociously popular, casual Indian chain? Those massive queues at dinner time, thanks to no reservations. Which is why you should take advantage of reservations at breakfast (or lunchtime), from 8am in the week and 9am at weekends. You’ll find bacon naan rolls and sweet chai for breakfast – forget the Shreddies, this will set you right.
The Barbary 16 Neal's Yard, WC2H 9DP (above)
The Barbary Coast evokes images of an exotic land of traders and pirates – and it provides inspiration for this restaurant from the team behind The Palomar.The Barbary offers an enticing blend of Israeli cooking with Mediterranean ingredients, but also adds North African spices and cooking techniques. Queues are inevitable at this no-reservations joint, so lunch is a good idea (get there by 11.50am to be sure).
Barrafina Adelaide Street 10 Adelaide Street, WC2N 4HZ
There are now two branches in Covent Garden, though neither takes bookings (if this one is packed, try your luck at Drury Lane).The action takes place in an open kitchen behind a marble-topped counter, serving Barrafina’s Spanish staples such as pan con tomate, alongside brilliant signature specialities including herb-crusted rabbit shoulder.
Frenchie 16 Henrietta Street, WC2E 8QH (above)
Nantes-born Gregory Marchand gained his nickname, Frenchie, while working with Jamie Oliver at Fifteen. The ground-floor dining room here features 18 bar seats for walk-ins and the basement accommodates larger groups. A fixed-price lunch menu – £26/29 for two/three courses – is great value, while dinnertime dishes are designed for sharing. We named Frenchie our Restaurant of the Year 2016 – don’t miss it.
Encant 16 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7NJ
We were delighted when Victor Garvey, co-founder of the estimable Bravas Tapas at St Katharine Docks, launched his own venue. Starting out as Duende, this tapas restaurant has now rebranded as Encant (Catalan for ‘charming’) and on our visit, the food was seriously good, although a small space means tables are hard to book.
Hawksmoor Seven Dials 11 Langley Street, WC2H 9JG
“The best steak in London, by a mile”, declares one of our users, and we have to agree. The beefy Hawksmoor chain gets everything right, from its glorious 35-day-aged steaks supplied by The Ginger Pig to its creative cocktails – all presented by staff with a genuine passion for service. This atmospheric site in the old barrel-vaulted Watney Combe Brewery is one of our favourites.
Cinnamon Bazaar 28 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7JS
The latest venue from Vivek Singh’s Cinnamon Collection, this is the group's most casual format yet and also the first new project since it was acquired by Ranjit Singh Boparan (Giraffe) in January 2016. The budget menu revolves around different sized sharing plates and chaat (street food), with sides such as creamy black dal, mopped up with roti or paratha.
Pizza Pilgrims 23 Garrick Street, WC2E 9RY
A pizza joint named for the owners, whose love of pizza drove them all the way to Italy and back. Thom and James Elliot tried their product on the streets of London from the back of their Piaggio Ape van before settling down in permanent premises. This is their fourth bricks-and-mortar restaurant (following two in Soho and Pizza Pilgrims Exmouth Market).
Talli Joe 152-156 Shaftesbury Avenue, WC2H 8HL
This boozy Indian diner is the work of ex-Benares executive chef Sameer Taneja, cleverly offering quick bites (‘#halfplates’) and strong drinks to time-poor Theatreland goers. Cocktails are strong and adequate, but the real draw on our visit was kale chaat, a crisp and creamy melding of lightly fried kale, potato, pomegranate and yogurt.
Worth paying a bit more for…
Clos Maggiore 33 King Street, WC2E 8JD
This secluded French is often called the most romantic restaurant in London. Key to its appeal is an enchanting conservatory, where twinkly fairy lights, apple blossom and an open fire create a magical backdrop, although you’re not guaranteed a seat in there. Still, wherever you sit, you can take advantage of an award-winning wine list and polished menu of beautifully styled French dishes, cooked with consummate skill.
The Ivy 1-5 West Street, WC2H 9NQ
Celebrating its centenary in 2017, The Ivy is a celeb-friendly fixture of the glamorous West End scene. Yet, behind the iconic harlequin stained glass, the old girl certainly isn't showing her age – thanks to a glittering 2015 makeover that gave pride of place to a beautiful vintage-styled bar. Although the hype around the refurb has died down, there's still a warm glow of approval from our users, who praise the atmosphere and "utterly impeccable" service.
Rules 35 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7LB (above)
This institution flies the flag for British dishes and ingredients with its proudly traditional menu. As London's oldest restaurant (opened in 1798), it would no doubt still be familiar to former patrons such as Charles Dickens, who looks down over the plush, panelled dining room from walls crowded with old sketches and paintings. Quality is consistent across the board, with confident renditions of staples such as potted shrimps, steak and kidney pie or golden syrup steamed sponge with custard.
The Delaunay 55 Aldwych, WC2B 4BB (above)
Like its sibling The Wolseley, this buzzy restaurant bears all the hallmarks of a Corbin & King success story. Expect spot-on service, classy surrounds and a Viennese brunch menu including smoked ham, salami, Gouda and boiled eggs, served 11am-5pm.
Flesh & Buns 41 Earlham Street, WC2H 9LX
A sister to the Bone Daddies chain, this is designed as an izakaya joint: loud, boisterous and lots of fun. The menu features Japanese 'drinking food' so at brunch (Sundays only), expect chicken yakitori, crispy piglet belly buns and fried squid.
Savoy Grill The Savoy, Strand, WC2R 0EU
This legend has hosted a long list of famous diners since 1889, including Oscar Wilde and Frank Sinatra. Now a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, Sundays here means three classic British courses and half a bottle of wine for £60 per person.
It doesn’t get much more razzle dazzle than Covent Garden, thanks to all those theatres. Pick a great theatre menu from this lot before the curtain goes up.
Christopher's 18 Wellington Street, WC2E 7DD
Christopher's may have celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2016, but the Grade II-listed Victorian building has a longer history than that and was once home to London's first licensed casino. Come for classy Stateside staples and steaks.
Eneko at One Aldwych 1 Aldwych, WC2B 4BZ
With three Michelin stars awarded to his Bilbao restaurant Azurmendi, Basque chef Eneko Atxa’s arrival in London is quite an event. He’s certainly done his London research, producing an unfussy menu and setting with broad appeal.
J Sheekey 28-32 St Martin's Court, WC2N 4AL
This clubby, wood-panelled dining room exudes class with its crisp linens and smooth service, while the kitchen delivers reliably good seafood and fish dishes to match a pitch-perfect selection of whites on the wine list.
Margot 45 Great Queen Street, WC2B 5AA
Attention to service is Margot’s top priority – from the bowler-hatted doorman and white-suited bar staff, to the ornate silver olive oil jugs. The fairly priced menu follows the classic Italian route, from interesting salumi to hearty mains.
Beaufort Bar The Savoy, Strand, WC2R 0ET (above)
There aren't many London bars that can match the sheer glamour of this darkly-lit, seductive Savoy Hotel bar. Decorated in black and gold, it's a perfect spot for intimate dates. Luxuriate in some of the finest mixology around, from a team that's equally adept with classic serves and creative twists.
The Lobby Bar One Aldwych, 1 Aldwych, WC2B 4RH
This luxury lounge boasts all the trappings of a smart hotel bar, so expect silky service and high price tags. Two can share the show-stopping Bewitched Passion: vodka mixed with fennel syrup, pomegranate shrub and peppermint bitters, topped with Champagne and served in an absinthe fountain.
Radio Rooftop ME London Hotel, 336-337 The Strand, WC2R 1HA (above)
Impossibly glamorous (and sometimes impossible to get into if you haven't booked) the exclusive rooftop bar at ME London piles on the wow factor with its minimalist monochrome decor and views over the City skyline. On warm days, the prime spots are the white leather sofas by the rooftop edge.
Scarfes Bar 252 High Holborn, WC1V 7EN
Named in honour of political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, whose colourful works hang on the walls, this bar has character in spades. There's a real buzz about the handsome room, with its velvet armchairs, standard lamps and shelves of antique books, while the whisky selection is a notable highlight.
If you’re up for a deeper dive into WC2, take a look at our full list of restaurants in the Covent Garden area, with over 400 suggestions which you can filter by cuisine type
This article was published 7 March 2017