When it comes to food, London's West End district in the city center doesn’t have the best rap. Many locals will say that you need to venture out of zone one to eat some authentic cuisine. I disagree.
There are nine million Londoners, one-third of whom were born outside the UK. Thousands travel into the West End daily to work and play — and they’ve got to eat somewhere. My immigrant parents sure knew it, so in the 1980s, we opened a Chinese takeaway in Covent Garden. On weekends we would exchange meals with neighboring Indian and Caribbean restaurants. We also held all our big family gatherings in Chinatown. Then at Christmas, Mom would splurge on dinner at a fancy hotel to “take photos”.
Admittedly, the West End can be expensive. After all, it's home to the city's poshest neighborhoods, most iconic attractions, museums and theaters. I’ve fine-dined and partied across the city for decades, thanks to TopTable deals (aka the 2000s' Groupon), media invitations when I worked in television, and opting out of a pension plan completely (not recommended). I love to share tried-and-tested spots, so when my friends are visiting they are not eating at chain restaurants in Leicester Square or tourist traps by Buckingham Palace.
Here are my favorite places to eat in the West End right now.
My favorite place for breakfast with company is The Riding House Café, open from 8am on weekdays. They have three casual-chic outposts, including Fitzrovia (tube: Oxford Circus). If I’m feeling indulgent I’ll do the malted deep-dish pancakes (£13.50), otherwise it’s always the large eggs benedict with Kassler ham (£13.20). Bloody Marys are served from 10am.
If I’m alone and catching up on work, then I’ll go to The Hoxton, Holborn for Rondo, their lobby restaurant. It’s a nice spot to be undisturbed, so bring a book and enjoy the morning at leisure. The Full English breakfast (£15) is so filling I’ll skip lunch.
Russell Square is such a gorgeous stroll, but before you enter, stop at the red phone box at its east entrance. Inside there’s a café called Walkmisu (tube: Russell Square). It’s only open Friday to Sunday, and the best thing about it is the homemade tiramisu. They have rotational flavors beyond the classic, like strawberry and pistachio, and they’re always under a fiver.
Many museum cafés in Central London are worth visiting for coffee. Try Espresso Bar by Muriel's in The National Gallery (tube: Trafalgar Square); Café Bar in The Photographer’s Gallery (tube: Oxford Circus); or the Courtyard Café in The Wallace Collection (tube: Bond Street).
For something quirky, visit Fitzrovia's Attendant (tube: Goodge Street). a tiny coffee bar located within a former Victorian men’s public toilet (yes, really). Built in 1890, it still has all the original porcelain urinals and floor tiles. Don’t worry, it’s all squeaky clean — there’s been no peeing here for over half a century. The team uses seasonal espresso blends from their roastery and the brew is rich and aromatic. Flat white (£3.50).
Lunch & Afternoon Tea
I’ve been going to Wong Kei since the 1990s. The Chinatown fixture (tube: Leicester Square) is notorious for ‘rude’ service, but that’s what I love about it. This is Hong Kong fast food, with absolutely no frills and no small talk. Walk in, sit down (you might have to share a table) and order their big bowl of juicy £7.50 won-ton noodle soup. It’s cash only. Craving Peking duck? Mom and I go to Chop Chop, in the basement of Hippodrome Casino. The papers say it’s the ‘best roast duck in the world’, and while we disagree (we’ve been to Beijing!), it is the best we’ve eaten in Central London.
As this is London, you can't visit without spilling the tea over afternoon tea. I like Mariage Frères (tube: Covent Garden) because their first floor Salon de Thé is so ornate and the view over King Street is great for people-watching. Being part of a tea shop, the brew list is massive, akin to a wine list. Try the signature Marco Polo black if it’s your first time, which pairs perfectly with their scones.
Then there’s high tea for special occasions. You can’t miss The Grill Room at Café Royal (tube: Piccadilly Circus). Frequented by Oscar Wilde and Princess Diana, it's housed within a majestic Grade-II-listed golden boudoir. The traditional tier features sandwiches, scones, cakes, plus accompanying tea (£70), and it’s only an extra £10 to add champagne.
My beloved pub is Audley Public House (tube: Bond St). Built-in 1888, the beautiful listed building has a colorful ceiling designed by London artist Phyllida Barlow. The bar serves beer from an independent supplier in Battersea called Sambrook’s Brewery, but you’ll get all your liquor mainstays too. Do as the locals do, and accompany your pint with a scotch egg (£7.50).
West End dining is synonymous with glamour and 5-star hotel 45 Park Lane (tube: Green Park) hosts some legendary dinner parties. My friends and I once had chef Wolfgang Puck join us for dinner at its American steak restaurant CUT. I recommend the lamb chops (£38) and a table next to Damien Hirst’s Diamond Dust Psalms series. We also like the steak at The Connaught Grill and Amazonico. Pro Tip: to dine fancy in Mayfair (tube: Green Park) on a budget, look out for Sunday Roast specials.
This part of London has the best Japanese food in the capital. For casual eating, try the hearty bento boxes from Tokyo Diner (tube: Leicester Square), which cost between £19 and £26. No reservation required. You will need one at Roketsu (tube: Marble Arch), which only has space for 12-15 diners. It offers a traditional, 10-course Kaiseki dining experience each evening that's centered around dashi (Japanese soup stock). Dishes change monthly. Allow two-and-a-half hours for dinner.
Every visitor I take to Cahoots (tube: Piccadilly Circus) has a brilliant time, but then who doesn't love a 1940s-themed cocktail bar in an abandoned train station? Thee are three rooms comprising a ticket hall, a signal statation and my favorite: a tube carriage. The cocktails are so creative and come in funky mugs, like the Winston Churchill (£15.50). Come on Fridays for live music, and always book ahead.
Friendly Society in Soho (tube: Piccadilly Circus] is a classic LGBTQ+ hangout. As the name suggests, I’ve stepped outside with armies of new pals over the years. The crowd is diverse and they play music that makes you smile. The more you drink, the trippier the kitsch decor of disco balls and Barbie heads seems to get.