Islington sprawls. Strung out along Upper Street and the many streets off it, it boasts the best variety of restaurants outside Zone 1 (I am happy to be challenged on this). To secure a table at a decent Upper Street eatery on a Friday night, will require booking ahead or a willingness to queue. Things can get pretty rowdy as the evening progresses, so for a less frenetic experience head towards Clerkenwell or adventure into the side streets around Canonbury.
As ever this list – written with the help of a few epicurean friends – is not an exhaustive one, but it will give you somewhere to start…
Western’s Laundry is the second opening of Jeremy Cometto-Lingerheim and David Gingell, the pair behind Stoke Newington’s Primeur (recommended if you’re in the area). As good as its name, it really was an old laundry and inside has maintained a utilitarian feel. It’s all very a la mode, with food to match, centred around British produce – fish from the South West, in particular – with Asian flavours thrown in. A friend has been in raptures about a mackerel dish she had, but the menu changes daily so you never know quite what you’re going to get.
This little Chinese place doing regional plates from Hunan province is a treat for anyone tired of the standard run of sweet ‘n’ sour dishes. They pride themselves on their dry wok dishes. There’s a pig’s intestines special for the adventurous, but, as a general rule, be wary of the chills. They are not for the faint-hearted.
Rok seems to tick all the trendy boxes: informal, Scandinavian, fermented fare, British produce, smoked things. But it certainly delivers. The food, from the homemade pickles to the cured meats, is genuinely surprising and delicious. Ask the waiter to translate some of the Swedish words and be sure to sit somewhere where you can see the chefs beavering away in the open kitchen.
The Little Viet Kitchen
Don’t be fooled by the questionable décor or the surrounds of Chapel Market – a stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap road just near Angel station. The Little Viet Kitchen, opened two years ago by supper club chef Thuy Pham-Kelly, is a treat. You will need to book and certainly order the banh xeo crispy pancake: a stupendous lake of thinly fried batter.
Stood at a junction on Canonbury Road, Smokehouse is akin to a very good, slightly hipster gastropub. The regular menu is hearty – try kicking off with the pulled brisket starter – but the specials board is where it’s at: a daily-changing meat served by weight (420g of 21 day aged Galloway was ideal for two). The fish also varies day-to-day depending on the market catch. It’s busy but you can sit up at the oak bar where friendly, plaid-clad barmen will keep the drinks flowing.
The concept of Trawler Trash is to use up the fish that other restaurants don’t want: the stuff that comes in as a by-product of the daily catch. So the menu features such delights as witch sole, charred octopus and smoked mackerel carbonara. That’s not to say that you won’t find the odd bit of cod thrown in and the takeaway menu (a good shout for fancy fish and chips) isn’t quite as out there. Eating in is to be recommended particularly as the buffed marble tabletops provide a real fishmonger vibe.
A Singaporean friend (who knows her noodles) says Tenshi is the best Japanese restaurant in London. It’s unassuming frontage (not dissimilar to one you might roll into on a side street in Tokyo) hides a family run joint over two floors. The menu covers all the Japanese favourites: katsu curry, ramen, sushi, even cold soba noodles with tempura to this reviewer’s delight. All presented with impeccable Japanese politesse.
The first Jamon Jamon opened in the 1950s and there are now four outposts all specialising in tapas and paella (with lots of jamon, of course). Tapas run in the £5-£8 range – the bacon wrapped dates and nuts are a must – and paella for two for about £20. Don’t expect a lot from the presentation, but the Jamon team more than make up for it with their food’s punchy Spanish flavours. In the summer, wash everything down with some of the in-house Sangria.
Word is that not much changes at this tiny Afghani restaurant on Islington Green. Four meat dishes and four vegetarian dishes make up the list of mains and the menu does not give much away. Example: Lamb with potatoes. Booking is essential (as is bringing cash) and service can be hit and miss, but it is worth a tripfor the pillowy Afghan bread alone.
Riverford at the Duke of Cambridge
Islington is packed with pubs – many of them good gastro pubs. The Duke of Cambridge is one of the first and still one of the best: helped by the provision of soil-fresh vegetables from the Riverford team – better known for their veg boxes. This apparently makes it Britain’s first and only fully organic pub. The small menu changes according to what’s available on the day, on tap are a good run of independent, often organic beers and in the cellar all the wines are either organic or biodynamic.
Frederick’s is the kind of place that friend’s parents will reminisce about. It has been in Islington for 49 years on the atmospheric Camden Passage (which itself is great for an antiques shop rummage). The food is safe rather than experimental: steak tartare, duck leg, salmon fillets. But it is exactly the kind of thing that you want to be served when you are taking anyone whose taste you’re unsure of out for a treat. In summer ask for a table in the garden – and make sure you book.
The Pig & Butcher
A pub that – once inside – feels like it could be in the Mendips. As you might guess from the name, The Pig & Butcher is quite a carnivorous place but the menu does have a good choice of vegetarian plates too. It is very much of the farm-to-table breed of restaurant and many a rotund friend has rolled back on a Sunday night praising the roast (about £16-£18 depending on your choice of meat).
Among the myriad Turkish restaurants that you could choose in Islington, Pasha should be your first port of call. It’s been around since the early 70s but still looks one of the slickest. The menu won’t surprise hummus and shish aficionados but there are a few curve balls like the home-made lamb ravioli: absolutely recommended. It’s also good for a quick stop-in mezze lunch.
The Elk in the Woods
Trying to find a spot for brunch on Camden Passage at the weekend is something of a challenge. Book, or if you can, slide into The Elk in the Woods for hearty breakfasts, rustic décor and, if the mood takes you, some eye-popping cocktails. One is, in fact, called Popeye. It also does a good, if pricier, evening menu.
The Breakfast Club
Just across from The Elk in the Woods (and equally impossible to find a spot in come the weekend), the second opening of The Breakfast Club team is a worthy spot for brunch. The menu is a dream for the hungover, from the full monty fry ups to the more wholesome avocado on rye and plum and apple porridge. If you really want to risk a heart attack, try the salted caramel banoffee pancakes. Be warned: you can’t book.
Further up Upper Street, and formerly Blue Legume, El Otro is a fine choice if you’re after some Mexican fare for brunch. Try the quesadilla with chicken and courgette, or, for a truly authentic experience, the tacos with cactus and refried beans.
Sawyer & Gray
Intriguingly the pair that opened this coffee shop and bar know nothing about the name. They just dusted down the 1940s sign they found on the premises and got on with serving similarly no-fuss food: good toast, good muesli and good breakfast sandwiches. It also does remarkably cheap coffee for the quality on offer. Coffee nerds will be happy to find tasting notes for each.
The Modern Pantry
For a brunch-time treat, try The Modern Pantry. Disclaimer: it is really in Clerkenwell but only a brisk 10 minute walk from Angel station. Both food and interior is fresh, bright and oozes a general feeling of wholesomeness. There are such millennial friendly delights as chia seed and oat bircher muesli and grilled cornbread with avocado, but chef Anna Hansen makes sure it has style and substance. Grab a table outside come summer.
No prizes for guessing which day of the week this spot is most popular. Just by Caledonian Road station, this little brunch bolthole (it also does dinners later in the week) is a pleasure. Satisfyingly creamy yogurt and properly crunchy toast. There’s options for the adventurous too: French toast with tomato ragu has been recommended, as have the blueberry pancakes with honeycomb butter. Apparently there is often a queue. but it’s a fast moving one.
Always busy, this was the second opening by Yotam Ottolenghi – the man who introduced pomegranate molasses and sumac to our store cupboards. If you’re shopping on Upper Street and have time to linger over lunch it’s worth dropping in to fill yourself up on smart salads – roasted aubergines with saffron yogurt, bitter leaves with yuzu and the like. You’ll leave feeling mighty wholesome until you spot the cake encrusted window display (or the enormous clouds of meringues) and, inevitably, end up taking one home.
Prawn on the Lawn
What started as a fishmonger and seafood bar is now a 35-seater restaurant just off Highbury Fields with chef-owners Rick and Katie Toogood releasing their first cookbook this year. There must be something in the surname: the signature Prawn on the Lawn dish – chilli avocado toast topped with prawns – is frighteningly simple for something so good. Load up on adventurous small plates or order fish by weight for a deliciously nostalgic taste of the sea.
Adventure further into Canonbury and you’ll find Salut! – all vintage chairs and rustic brasserie style. The chefs working in the open kitchen whip up some mighty refined food though: dainty beef tartare with quail’s eggs to start, delicate red berry pavlovas to finish. And there are happy surprises for the foodies too. The regularly changing menu has includes things like frogs legs, octopus and red deer.
Bellanger dominates Islington Green like a grande dame though in fact it has only been open for about two years. Its owners, however, are the team behind The Delaunay and The Wolseley, so it certainly has very good pedigree. The a la carte menu reads as any Parisian brasserie worth its salts’ would, though with a slight leaning toward the eastern side of France with Gruyere and Gewürztraminer custard making appearances. Smart and hearty fare.
You may know Tom Oldroyd’s cooking from his Polpo days – he was one of the founders. Oldroyd is his first solo opening. Unlike Polpo the menu pays slightly more attention to the British produce than the Venetian cooking but there is still a good amount of Italian influence. The restaurant itself isn’t a big place but is smart and simply attired. Booking is certainly advised.
Carnivores prepare to be surprised. This entirely vegan and vegetarian restaurant, which has been open since 2012, is pretty darn good. The original Gate, in Hammersmith, has been frequented by the likes of green evangelists Gwyneth Paltrow and Stella McCartney. While it does do a good line in virtuous eating, don’t be put off. Things like the aubergine schnitzel and cappuccino cheesecake are satisfyingly naughty enough for a treat meal out.
There are some times when only a hearty steak and good glass of Cabernet will do. Le Mercury and its sister restaurant Le Mercury 2 are ideal for remarkably cheap French food and a cosy brasserie buzz. The original is squeezed onto the corner of Upper Street and Almeida Street making it an ideal spot for food before a show at the Almeida Theatre.
Before going here my instant thought on hearing ‘Georgian’ and ‘food’ in the same sentence was cabbage and potatoes. Turns out I was (happily) wrong. The list of dishes on the menu is largely unpronounceable but involves such nice surprises as a cheering pan-fried poussin with cold walnut sauce and Scottish salmon basking in the house plum sauce. A main, starter and drinks will set you back in the region of £35.
Trullo is the older sister restaurant of Borough’s Padella pasta bar. Good news for those who keep squinting at the Padella queue and deciding to go somewhere else instead: you can book a table at Trullo and the pasta is just as good. As you would expect from two chefs with River Café and Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen on their CVs, the main focus is on high quality ingredients simply served. And they also knock up one of London’s finest ragus.
Anytime near the weekend there will probably be a birthday party going on in Gallipoli (or Gallipoli Again – its second restaurant up the road). It will probably involve a belly dancer but it is worth putting up with the noise – or joining in the fun – as the cooking is great. A menu well-stocked with Turkish and north African classics is more or less what you’d expect. The Iskender, lamb with a ‘secret recipe sauce’, is delicious.
As you might expect for a foodie area, Islington is well served for pizza restaurants. If you don’t make it to Saponara, try Radici, La Forchetta or indeed Franco Manca’s Islington outpost next door. Saponara is a pizzeria-come-deli (that sells very moreish Genoese pesto). Classic varieties on chewy stone-baked bases, just like you’d have them at a scrape-your-chair-back joint in Italy itself.
Black Axe Mangal
The menu at this compact spot on Highbury Corner isn’t huge but it is intriguing: the fried pig’s ears and mutton ‘deep throater’ have been given honourable mentions by hungry friends. As the Black Axe bit suggests the music is rocky, whisky sours are popular and it’s quite likely you’ll end up in raucous debate with the table next door. A lot of fun for a Friday night – if a little pricey for the portion sizes.
BEST OF THE REST
Hoxley and Porter
A decent and affordable menu – all mains from the truffle mac and cheese to the rack of lamb are £13 – and full-on jungle décor. It’s an Islington stalwart, but has had mixed reviews in recent months.
Granger + Co
This is strictly in Clerkenwell but if you find yourself en route between Islington and Farringdon Station it’s absolutely worth a stop. Sunny Australian cuisine accompanied by an array of cocktails, juices and smoothies.
Another Islington mainstay, north of Angel station serving up classic Thai food including some excellent curries. The duck comes highly recommended as does the Pad Thai at the happily slim price of £9.
A whole lot of meat but in a surprisingly elegant environ. You can order steak by the 100g or try one of the signature mains that include things like kangaroo wellington for those with a jetset palette. Mean cocktails, too.