The mental image that most people have of North London is a splendidly well-heeled place, full of parks and lidos and grand houses. What it is not, and has probably never been, synonymous with is especially interesting dining. I lived in Highgate a decade or so ago and remember it – one of London’s most prosperous and wealthy areas – as being beset by the least adventurous chains imaginable, so one’s choice on a Saturday evening came down to Café Rouge, Strada or Pizza Express.
Thankfully, things have changed dramatically in the past ten years. Now, there are numerous interesting and innovative places to go and eat throughout Hampstead, St John’s Wood, Camden and beyond, ranging from the cutting-edge to the more traditional. Here are some of our tried and tested favourites, including, of course, Oslo Court, a stalwart of London dining that would see the city collapse into the Thames if ever it closed its doors.
Chris Corbin and Jeremy King have made a successful career out of giving their customers exactly what they want, and their latest restaurant, Soutine in St John’s Wood, follows on from their highly successful French bistro Colbert in Sloane Square. You know what you’re going to get almost before you arrive: the comfort and style of a classic Parisian establishment, transplanted to North London, with well-chosen brasserie classics and well-drilled service.
Just as well, then, the food is of an outstanding high standard, from the plump, juicy escargots to the excellent steak frites and a particularly good coq au vin (the ‘vin’ in this case being Riesling). By the time that an epic chocolate mousse (‘a partager’, the menu helpfully suggests as if there was any possibility of getting through it solo) arrives, diners are likely to be both replete and extremely satisfied with their new neighbourhood spot.
When people of a certain age talk wistfully about ‘the glory days of dining out’, they mean places like Oslo Court. To visit here is to step back into the most glorious of time warps, where the waiters bow obsequiously to all of their guests, and where the menu takes delight in dishes that have all but disappeared from public view. One can begin with deep fried garlic mushrooms or avocado prawns, continue with veal schnitzel or steak Diane and then conclude with that most retro of treats – the dessert trolley, which comes coquettishly towards diners, laden with expectation.
If the food wasn’t as good as it is, this would remain a curiosity, but the cooking here is superb, and the atmosphere endlessly inviting. The proprietor Tony Sanchez has been there for 35 years, and runs the restaurant in a friendly, accessible manner that delights the blue rinse brigade, but is also bringing in curious diners of all generations and backgrounds, keen to see what the fuss is about. Their first visit is unlikely to be their last.
Oslo Court, Charlbert St, London NW8 7EN
Hampstead itself remains something of a problematic area for restaurants – the rents are just too expensive for independent places to succeed, on the whole. Which is why the innovators and trendsetters who want to remain in the area have ventured slightly further afield to more unusual territory, or in this case West Hampstead, for so long the area’s unfashionable sibling. Anyone who has visited this stylish neighbourhood restaurant, an oasis of good taste in a desert of bland uniformity, falls upon it with arms outstretched. No wonder it’s usually busy.
Hām – pronounced ‘harm’, rather than ‘ham’ – sets a great deal of store by the provenance of its ingredients, which go into dishes like torched raw mackerel with celeriac and horseradish and Cornish monkfish with a hot and sour sauce and buckwheat. Those in the know suggest that the best way to get the most out of Hām is to go for its excellent-value tasting menu – £39 for six courses, which can be paired with wines or cocktails as diners see fit.
The Bull and Last
Although it doesn’t quite have the reputation that it had when it opened (and the Scotch eggs, complete with runny yolks became famous overnight), this celeb-haunted gastropub just down from Highgate still does a superb line in game and fish. Some might bemoan its inexorable shift from local pub into upmarket restaurant – despite its setting, this is very much a place of ‘dining rooms’ rather than a local boozer – but the food continues to be excellent
It has been closed at the time of writing for refurbishment, but when it reopens (which it should, imminently) it will come complete with six brand-new bedrooms. And as for those who slumber here, they will have the joys of waking up to the Full Bull breakfast, which comes strongly recommended.
168 Highgate Road, Highgate NW5 1QS
There are iconic London delicatessens, and then there is Panzer’s. Recently celebrating its 75th anniversary, this St John Wood’s stalwart caters to a mixture of well-to-do locals (including pupils at the nearby American school) and visitors from further afield, lured in by the boast that the deli serves London’s best smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels. This is no idle claim: they are utterly exemplary, using the best-quality fish and completely moreish bagels to make this the lunch stop of dreams. And if this isn’t your bag, there’s plenty more choice, including daily specials of the likes of paella and a comprehensive sushi selection.
Yet a visit here is a wallet-opening temptation on every conceivable level. Shelves groan with the freshest fruit and vegetables, the wine selection is highly comprehensive and they even have their own selections of everything from chocolate bars to jams. Throw in their famous range of hampers, designed for a range of budgets and occasions alike, and you’ll see why this particular stalwart shows no signs of fatigue.
Primrose Hill has long been home to London’s fashionable set, and they have been falling on Bryn Williams’ neighbourhood restaurant for decades, although Williams has only been its chef-patron for a comparatively brief 13 years, the last 11 of which he has operated as Odette’s owner. It has attracted acclaim for its excellent cooking, which comes at kind-for-the-area prices, but let us tell you about its best-kept secret: the set lunch menu.
Driven, as they proudly announce, by the fruit and vegetables that can be obtained from the kitchen garden, those who can spare a couple of hours for a midday repast will be pleased to sample the likes of Welsh beef tartare with mushroom ketchup and a rosemary cracker, followed by Cornish Pollock with salt baked celeriac, and end the meal with pineapple tart tatin and cinnamon ice cream. And the whole thing costs less than £20 for three courses. A steal, a bargain, grand larceny – call it what you like, but this makes Primrose Hill luncheons a very affordable treat indeed.
York & Albany
Gordon Ramsay’s atmospheric Camden restaurant is a failsafe choice for a meal out – housed inside a regency townhouse near Regent’s Park. With seasonal menus in the main restaurant and a separate pizzeria, there’s something for everyone. The slow roasted pork belly is a must, as is the wild mushroom tortellini with aged parmesan.