For many years, W11 and W8 were synonymous with a house with a blue door, Hugh Grant mumbling and bumbling charmingly, and a dirty Welshman in his pants named Spike. Thankfully, Notting Hill has long since overcome its cinematic depiction in the 1999 film, and today offers some of London’s best dining. It has always been very well represented at the highest level with Brett Graham’s The Ledbury, which has slowly evolved from neighbourhood restaurant to two Michelin-starred culinary temple, and Clare Smyth’s Core – of which more anon – is often cited as the best place to dine in the capital at the moment.
Yet you don’t have to earn a telephone digit salary to eat well in this part of West London. There is still the feel, distant and quiet though it might sometimes be, of the raffish bohemia that dominated the area throughout the 20th century, and some of the most interesting and unusual restaurants offer cooking that is genuinely innovative and delicious, at far from bank-breaking prices. Here are half a dozen of our favourites, from special occasion destinations to the sort of neighbourhood treats that everyone needs in their little black book.
Core by Clare Smyth
If it was to be a straight choice between this and The Ledbury, we’d opt for Core, for several different reasons. Clare Smyth is the only woman in the world to have been awarded three Michelin stars, for her cooking at Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, and it’s come as no surprise that her Notting Hill restaurant has waiting lists the size of a telephone directory (remember those?) and an A-list clientele fighting each other for the tables.
Once they’re in, they’re unlikely to be disappointed. Smyth currently holds two Michelin stars for her cooking, and will surely – and somewhat shockingly – become the only female chef in Britain to hold three stars under her own name in the near future. The ever-changing menu has a series of ‘Core classics’ which include likes of ‘potato and roe’, monkfish and shrimps with Swiss chard and a deconstruction of the Malteser, the ‘core-teser’. Whatever one orders, one is assured excellent cooking with a rare sense of fun. Not cheap, but worth it.
92 Kensington Park Road, W11 2PN
Fergus Henderson has very much made his mark on the London dining scene with his St John restaurants, which – dare we say it – are now beginning to verge on the ubiquitous, with recent openings at the Bridge theatre and a new one planned in Los Angeles. Still, if you want to try St John-quality food, but at a considerably kinder price (especially the £15.50 set lunch, still one of London’s best-value meals for three courses), then ex- St John head chef Tom Pemberton’s bistro, set in a quiet road just off Notting Hill Gate, is unmissable.
Dishes follow soundly in the Henderson tradition of nose-to-tail eating include deep fried calves’ brain, onglet with celeric and anchovy and buttermilk pudding and raspberries. It might sound adventurous but Pemberton’s skill behind the stove means that you’ll enjoy every morsel. The wine list, which is heavy on the organic and biodynamic, is equally top-notch.
3 Hereford Road, Westbourne Grove, W2 4AB
Books for Cooks
Situated just over the road from the fictitious travel bookshop in Notting Hill is one of London’s best kept secrets, which we are going to spoil for you, Spectator Life readers. All you need is a sense of fun and a willingness to be outside 4 Blenheim Crescent just before midday to enjoy the delights of the lunch hour at Eric Treuille’s charmingly bohemian bookshop.
The best way of imagining what goes on here is to see it as a mixture of largesse and experimentation. Every weekday, a selection of dishes are cooked from one of the thousands of cookery books – such as crispy chicken with couscous and chocolate Guinness cake. The cost? £7 for two courses, £9 for three. But get there early, as food runs out fast. No wonder it calls itself ‘the best smelling shop in the world.’
4 Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill, W11 1NN
Jackson Boxer’s third restaurant opened on Kensington Park Road early in 2019, and focuses mainly on fish and seafood, with mains including lemon sole and romano courgette and a wood-grilled John Dory with smoked bone marrow bordelaise. Aficionados of Boxer’s other restaurants, which include Brunswick House and St Leonards, will know what to expect; delicious food served with friendliness and good grace, at prices that are reasonably kind for the area.
Those who pop by for the lunch menu and abstain from booze will be delighted to find that there’s excellent homemade lemonade and cucumber soda for the teetotallers. For the late-night patrons, they’re well looked after with snacks including beer and buttermilk bread, stuffed olives with oxtail and lobster and, for the big spenders, Exmoor caviar at £40 for a 20g pot.
31 Kensington Park Road, W11 2EU
If you’ve tried to get a table at Mazi any time over the past few years, you’ve probably been disappointed. It acquired a cult reputation amongst the area’s well-heeled as far back as 2011, and has maintained it ever since. Which is why the arrival of a sister restaurant, more informal and laid-back, is an extremely welcome addition to the so-called ‘Hillgate Village’ area.
The idea behind it is to capture the feel of traditional Greek tavernas, with a casual approach and a sharing menu. It has gone slightly upmarket since it opened – scarlet prawn tartar and sea urchin both go over the £20 price market – but the likes of Grandmama’s meatballs will keep the whole thing light and affordable. Plus, the smoked aubergine with tahini and honey is to die for.
18 Hillgate Street, W8 7SR
Referred to as ‘London’s best Lebanese restaurant’ by virtually everyone who has ever been there, this veteran Westbourne Grove establishment offers excellent food and a refreshingly old-fashioned feeling. It has attracted anyone from David Cameron to Miranda Richardson over the years, and none other than Colin Firth has called it his favourite restaurant, announcing ‘you can’t eat badly here’.
Firth is absolutely right. Al Waha’s confidence in having a name that means ‘oasis’ is justified by the excellence of the food, ranging from the tabbouleh to vine leaves that, for once, actually taste how they are supposed to. Plenty of carnivorous and fish options, too, especially anything that’s come from the charcoal grill, and drinkers will be pleased with a wine list that offers plenty of Lebanese choice beyond the ubiquitous Chateau Musar – although the Musar Jeune is something of a bargain at £28 a bottle.
75 Westbourne Grove, W2 4UL