Updated April 2015
A lovely lassie on one of the recent Soho Food Walks asked if I could recommend ‘somewhere nice’ to go for a special occasion dinner. Not too fancy or expensive but a place with good food and a nice vibe. I promised to email a fabulous long list of London’s best restaurants – with a focus on Soho. I parted with a reassuring ‘leave it with me’ smile. Oh yeah, I was going home to do it straight away.
I had a supperclub coming up at the time and soon became enveloped in chopping and peeling and burning my eyes with chilli fingers. I forgot. Fortunately they didn’t wait for me and managed to celebrate said special occasion without my involvement. Phew. There will be others, she said in a gracious acceptance of my apology, and asked for the list anyway.
So this list of excellent London eating establishments, is brought to you by Kat. And my guilt and procrastination.
I’m unreasonably proud of Bubbledogs. Ms Scratchy and I started dining here not long after James and Sandia opened the controversial eatery and I take certain vampiric proprietorial pleasure in their success. ’We went there very early on you know…’ Nothing like the smugness of the early adopters.
Half hot dog and champagne bar and half 19 seat Michelin starred Kitchentable, the place could have flopped on its belly. But it didn’t. The front hot dog and bubbles bar is fiscally savvy. The rear, intimate U-shaped kitchen table is an exciting gastronomic playground.
I’ve not eaten in the hotdog bit but the Kitchen Table is my ‘go-to’ place for special occasions. I love everything about it; the produce, the passion the playfulness. This is no ‘fancy-pants sit at white clothed tables in hushed silence and adore us’ establishment. It’s theatre and hospitality and a lesson in the seasons and eating well.
It’s not inexpensive – quite possibly the priciest of my five options – but for anyone with a more than a casual interest in fine food it is memorable and special. It’s also not the sort of place you should go if you want a good old chinwag with a dear friend, or to propose to your beloved. You sit next to your dining companion, not opposite them. The focus is on what’s happening in front of you as the twelve or thirteen wee courses are prepared, assembled and dressed before your eyes.
There are 19 seats with diners served across two sittings – an early sitting of 9 and a later sitting of 10. These overlap briefly as one troupe enjoys dessert and the other is being settled into their appetisers. It sounds a little cumbersome, but it’s elegantly executed.
The staff are gracious and warm, and James is free and generous with his extensive food and cooking knowledge. Save your petty cash pennies for as long as it takes. For a special occasion with a die-hard foodie, this is bliss.
Pricing: Save your pennies, it’s worth it
Vibe: Elegant but educational
Food: Innovative. Exciting. Seasonal.
Where: 70 Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia
Good to Know: It’s a set 12-13 course tasting menu. Sommeliers are amazing so come with your wallet fed.
A gorgeous, glamorous restaurant by Australian ex-pat, Skye Gyngell on London’s bustley The Strand. Food is fresh and inventive and the service fabulous. I’ve done a full scale review here, so have a look if you like the sound of Spring but think you’d like a little more detail.
Pricing: Pricey, but fair.
Vibe: Lush. Not intimidating. Dreamy.
Food: Unfussy, produce-led.
Where: Somerset House The Strand, London
Good to Know: If it’s not ‘special occasion’, you could opt for something more informal at Skye’s recently opened ‘Salon’ – the internal courtyard next to the fine dining restaurant.
I won’t go on at length about Brasserie Chavot as I’ve done a full review here – so skip across if you’d like the details. The abridged version is that it’s just fab. Classic, elegant Frenchy fare with all of the style and none of the stuffiness.
Pricing: Fair For What You Get
Vibe: Charming Frenchy elegance, no ‘tude
Food: Solidly delicious Frenchy fare
Where: 41 Conduit Street, Mayfair
Good to Know: You can pre-order the most magical Boulibaisse with a bit of notice
There’s something very Antipodean about 10 Greek Street that had me snared me at the front door the first time I visited. The décor is simple – comfortable but not fussy – a couple of blackboards for the menu, wooden table tops, linen napkins, industrial chic lampshades. It’s all a bit understated, I like that. And when the food appears it’s clear that the Australian chef’s food is bold and creative in that classic ‘Antipodean’ way. There’s great experimentation and an inclination towards fusion food – but not in a contrived, studied way; it’s organic, natural, relaxed.
Moderately priced and consistent, 10 Greek Street is rarely far from my foodie radar. The downside for ‘special occasions’ is its No Bookings policy. That said, you pop your name on the list and saunter off to have a drink nearby. Before you know it they’re briiing briiiinging you and you haven’t even started your negroni.
It’s hard to know which pony in Jason Atherton’s stable to include here. They’d all qualify on their own. For the WOW factor, City Social has it in bucket loads thanks to that skyline, but on my last visit I was a little less than wowed by the food. In the trade off between skyline and food the skyline rarely stands the victor. So then it’s Pollen Street Social, Little Social, Social Eating House or Berner’s Tavern? I love them all for different reasons – Berner’s for it’s OTT opulence, Pollen Street for it’s super-serious approach to dessert, Little Social for it’s warm and cosy vibe, but I think Social Eating House gets my vote for clever cooking, a chic, slick interior and that feeling of being somewhere a bit ‘classy’.
It’s moody dark interior both sets the tone, and gives the vibrancy of the food something to bounce off. I love their wee ‘Jars’ as starters or appetisers. There’s wonderful balance and finesse to the food at Social Eating House. I also love the understated exterior of the place – which looks like a design studio or fashion magazine from the outside. Glam up a little though or you’ll be outshone by the glamour-puss hostesses.
Pricing: Heading Up There
Vibe: Cool school glamour
Food: Finessed euro-centric
Where: 58 Poland Street, Soho
Good to Know: Hard surfaces make it a little noisy. If this is going to be bothersome head for Pollen Street instead
Polpo quite possibly shouldn’t be here. Russel Norman’s Beak Street restaurant is not classically ‘special occasion’ dining. It shimmies its way on to this list because it’s romantic. Not traditional romantic, but that ‘toss your head and let your non-existent wavy locks fall upon your shoulders’ kind of romantic. Polpo invites you to believe you’re in a teensy Italian trattoria and a very attractive someone is flirting with you across the dimly lit room. The food is fine, not exceptional but solid, and the wine list is ok. But if it were on X Factor, Simon would usher it through because as a package it’s pretty compelling.
You can have a very moderately priced meal here sipping cheap red wine from tumblers and still feel like you’ve been special occasion-ed. One to keep up that lacy, billowy. silk sleeve.
Vibe: European Youth-Chic
Food: A tinsy bit *meh
Where: 41 Beak Street, Soho
Good to Know: Whilst not a ‘chain’, Mr Norman has a few other good Soho eateries, my next fave is Polpetto in Berwick Street