Teeming with inspiration and innovation, the London restaurant scene shows no sign of slowing down. And this is reflected in the tens of thousands of survey comments we receive from you, our readers, to help compile our Restaurant of the Year shortlist
Featured image credit: Laurie Fletcher
Just like a well-run restaurant, the success of SquareMeal is a team effort. While we employ many professional food critics, the contributions from our readers play just as vital a role in guiding us to our critical stance on the restaurants we review. It is your feedback that helps us gauge the most talked-about restaurants in London, and from this comes our shortlist – and winner – for Restaurant of the Year.
Core by Clare Smyth's interior
Our Best New Restaurant award winner of 2017 has had a barnstorming 2018: Core went straight into the Michelin guide with two stars, while Clare Smyth was named the World’s Best Female Chef and catered for the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. No longer is she ‘Clare Smyth, who maintained three Michelin stars during her 10 years as chef-patron of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay; Smyth is a chef in no one else’s shadow and every inch her own woman.
Her food has the magical combination of being innovative, adventurous, experimental and, most importantly, enjoyable. Nibbles include crispy smoked duck wings, and jellied eel misted with a malt vinegar spray. Elsewhere, there’s a skin-on Charlotte potato topped with herring and trout roe, and a lamb-braised carrot studded with salt-and-vinegar crisps: dishes that bravely put vegetables centre stage, and the sort of free-thinking cooking that would have been unimaginable in the strait-laced world of Gordon Ramsay Royal Hospital Road.
But food alone is not reason for us to honour an establishment as our Restaurant of the Year – we’re looking for the total package; a restaurant that exudes star quality on every front. Core’s dining room is as chic, modern and formal as you want it to be – you could wear a suit for a business lunch or jeans for an evening with a friend, though details such as handbag stools, feather-light Zalto glassware and Bridget Riley artworks indicate that this is a restaurant with serious credentials.
Clare Smyth at work in Core's kitchen
A good team makes a strong Core
Smart, suited young staff (several of whom made the move with Smyth from Royal Hospital Road) deliver service that strikes a balance between reassuringly professional and good-humouredly down to earth.
Full-length windows, meanwhile, give an unimpeded view into the kitchen, where Smyth herself can be seen calmly directing operations. Pretty much every member of staff is visible to diners, so while Smyth’s name might be above the door, Core’s triumph is a collaborative effort from a well-run team that is just as committed to making Core a success as Smyth herself is.
Upon winning the award, Smyth said, “We’ve set out to achieve a fine-dining restaurant that offers informal luxury – and this award is an amazing endorsement of that. We think about the feedback we receive from guests as a whole, and it’s great that this award is judged by both restaurant critics and diners. We’re immensely pleased and proud.”
Core is, to be sure, expensive – the three-course à la carte clocks in at £65 and £85 for lunch and dinner respectively, the full-works tasting menu is £115, and there’s little on the wine list for under £50.
But at a time when there’s much talk of the idea of casual luxury and loosened-up fine dining – and yet few high-end chefs who actually manage to pull off the trick of both mood and food that are simultaneously rigorous and relaxed – Smyth is to be applauded for creating a restaurant that is absolutely of the moment while offering a taste of the future.
Potato and roe from Core by Clare Smyth
Restaurant of the Year 2018 shortlist
A. Wong, Victoria
Andrew Wong opened the casual Kym’s in the Bloomberg Arcade in autumn 2018, but the groundwork for success was laid with the self-titled Victoria restaurant that has been steadily winning him critical credibility since opening in 2013. This mould-breaking restaurant has changed European perceptions of how high-end Chinese food is viewed, whether in multi-course experiences in the evening or re-inventing the dim sum repertoire at lunch. Eye-opening event dining.
The year’s hottest – and best – newcomer comes from the UK’s hottest young chef. Tomos Parry is a former Young British Foodies Chef of the Year, the launch chef of Kitty Fisher’s and now the face behind his first solo restaurant, where he can be seen cooking over the wood-fired stoves in the open kitchen area. The warehouse-style dining room has the most zeitgeisty vibe in London, but the crowd of chefs and fashion insiders wouldn’t bother trooping up the stairs if the food wasn’t bang on the money.
Former Nathan Outlaw head chef Tom Brown is responsible for a steady stream of foodies who would never normally travel to the fringes of east London boarding the Overground to Hackney Wick. Exceptional, fish-focused small plates served in cool surrounds await – including the signature shrimp crumpet.
The £20 million collaboration between Hedonism Wines and chef Ollie Dabbous has been the most ambitious opening of 2018. Modern British cooking is served from breakfast time on the ground floor, but the first-floor fine diner, Hide Above, is the true showcase for Dabbous’ talents. The chef’s food isn’t the only thing that’s innovative: wine can be ordered from Hedonism and delivered within 15 minutes while Dabbous’ long-time collaborator Oskar Kinberg has made a cocktail destination out of the basement bar, Hide Below.
Image credit: Jordan Lee
Two years on, smoking-hot Kiln still has queues snaking out onto Berwick Street for a stool at the counter overlooking an open kitchen, where intensely savoury northern Thai cooking is barbecued and stir-fried. Cool and exciting.
Kitchen Table, Fitzrovia
This 20-seat, U-shaped counter attached to Bubbledogs serves cutting-edge food from chef James Knappett, washed down with a 100-bin wine list handpicked by his partner Sandia Chang. The list includes the exclusive ‘grower’ Champagnes on offer at Bubbledogs next door, and together, the food and drink offering is bold, ultra-modern and revelatory.
Pollen Street Social, Mayfair
Jason Atherton’s Mayfair landmark remains as popular with Londoners in 2018 as it was when it opened in 2011. Pollen Street Social is an essential fixture of the West End dining scene, as suitable for after-work cocktails or a glass of the house Champagne (vintage Moët), as it is for any sort of celebration, from business deals to birthdays. Dishes continue to evolve Atherton’s vision of preparing British ingredients with humour and sophistication, presented with plenty of tableside theatre. Thrilling food from Britain’s foremost chef ambassador.
Restaurant Story, Southwark
Tom Sellers was the enfant terrible of high-end London dining when he opened Story in 2013; his refurbished and re-opened restaurant shows that he has grown into one of the most mature practitioners of modern fine dining, serving witty small plates of stunningly flavoured food in bespoke tasting menus that maintain interest from beginning to end. Relaxed surroundings add to the sense of a chef now at total ease with his art.
Former Barrafina head chef Nieves Barragan Mohacho has unleashed her creativity at her first solo restaurant, whether that’s introducing London diners to the joys of Spanish roast meats in the first-floor El Asador or, best of all, cutting-edge tapas at The Counter on the ground floor. Don’t leave without trying the bombas de chocolas, a trio of doughnuts.