London’s Greatest Gastropubs

Whether you pop in for a pint or a three-course meal, these new-school taverns boast the best of British gastronomy today.

By Will Hawkes

Published on May 29, 2024

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when eating in a London pub would have seemed wilfully perverse. Before The Eagle on Farringdon Road became the first “Gastropub” in 1991, pub food in the British capital ran the gamut from basic (crisps, nuts, pickled stuff) to microwaved (everything else). Pubs were for drinking; restaurants were for foreigners. Londoners largely ate at home.

In the 1990s, Britain experienced a culinary awakening, buoyed by the arrival of a spate of game-changing restaurants—most notably the late, great Rowley Leigh’s Kensington Place—and a widespread desire for better casual dining. In London, that transformation was evident in the many historical pubs that began putting food first (even if some locals grumbled about drinkers being elbowed out). But today, Londoners are less bothered by pubs’ evolving identity and more concerned about their very existence. Thanks to a complex blend of factors, notably social change and planning law, pubs are shutting left and right. Any neighborhood pub is a good pub in this economy, even if it’s a far cry from the sawdust-floored barrooms of yore. A lot has changed since and, on balance, mostly for the better. 

Since moving back to London in 2001, I’ve become quite fond of these new-school gastropubs, where quality and flavor are paramount. They’re a good bet for a tasty pint, particularly cask ale, which makes a terrific sidekick for updated pub grub like devilled kidneys, braised lamb shoulder, and lemon syllabub (food with “Big Flavours and Rough Edges,” as the name of The Eagle’s 2001 cookbook anoints it). These are places to drop into as much as make a booking, whether for an impromptu after-work meal or a Sunday lunch. 

Gastropubs are no longer a trend but rather a fixture of London’s food zeitgeist, but they haven’t stopped evolving, thanks to a steady stream of talent escaping London’s high-pressure restaurant scene. In recent years, pubs like The Tamil Prince and The Camberwell Arms have taken the genre to new heights with internationally inflected food that includes homemade pickles and ice cream. Wine, natural or otherwise, is now as important as beer. Translation? There’s never been a better time to eat in London’s pubs. Let’s dig in.

41-43 Mount St., W1K 2RX
+44 20 3840 9862

Given the money that sloshes around Mayfair, London’s swankiest district, it should have more high-end pubs. But The Audley, which opened in 2022, has only two or three comparable rivals, and no real equal. The space is delightful, a symphony of brown wood crowned by gently curving, multicolored art by British artist Phyllida Barlow, who died last year. The bar menu offers a half-pint of lusciously juicy prawns, “London rarebit” (Welsh rarebit, but the cheese sauce is made with London Pride ale), and—rather eccentrically—a no-frills sausage on a plate served with nothing but mustard. From the main menu, it’s hard to look past chicken and Marmite pie, all savory umami tang, and the London dip, a steak sandwich served with gravy for dunking. 

Can a bouchon, a traditional Lyonnaise eating place, also be a pub? Bouchon Racine answers that question with its bright, lively room above Farringdon’s Three Compasses pub. The cooks are British but the food is French: Chef Henry Harris, who formerly ran Racine in Knightsbridge, is as Francophile as they come. On my last visit, I enjoyed Bayonne ham with celeriac remoulade (a lovely balance of fatty and fresh) followed by piquant, creamy lapin à la moutarde complemented by a cherry-rich Morgon by Jean-Marc Burgaud. This is the sort of place where you can’t help feeling celebratory, especially when—as when I came here for my birthday—sunshine floods through the glazed ceiling at the front and fills the room.

Courtesy Bull & Last

The Scotch egg—a hen’s egg encased in ground pork and breadcrumbs and deep-fried to a distinctive ginger hue—is synonymous with modern pub food. My favorite rendition is at the Bull & Last, which tosses extra herbs into the meat mixture and cooks the yolk to jammy perfection. The rest of the menu jumps Britain’s borders with dishes like oyster mushroom tempura, baked sea bream with tomatoes and olives, and a show-stopping fish board piled with house-cured gravlax, smoked mackerel pâté, brown crab (boiled and blended with mayonnaise, paprika and lemon), chipirones (deep-fried baby squid), and crispy cod cheeks.

Courtesy The Camberwell Arms

If you live in London longer than five minutes, you’ll notice that pubs change hands all the time. The Camberwell Arms was once The Castle—I had my stag party there—but it has remained under its current name for more than ten years, a tribute to the inventive, punchy food: Scotch bonnet pork fat on toast—bite-sized and mouth-coatingly good—or grilled kohlrabi with potato fritter, cashew cream, preserved lemon and chili, a masterclass in complementary textures and tastes. The beer program recently got a welcome overhaul: try The Kernel’s Table Beer, a low-ABV, high-impact pale ale made up the road in Bermondsey.

Courtesy The Canton Arms

Some of my most memorable London meals have been large-format feasts. The steaming pigeon and trotter pie at St. John comes to mind, as does a haunch of venison, served on lush spring greens, at the aforementioned Palmerston. This may be the reason I like The Canton Arms so much: here you’ll find a magnificent shoulder of salt marsh lamb, glistening and falling off the bone, served with a huge potato gratin and greens, designed to feed five. The food here reminds me of the cooking I grew up on; there’s fish pie, dense and comforting and served with buttered greens, and lemon posset for dessert, equal parts tart citrus and creamy richness.  

Few pubs have captured Londoners’ imaginations of late like The Devonshire. Everyone from Ed Sheeran to Nigella Lawson has visited since it opened in November, and it’s easy to see why: This street-corner Soho pub offers Dublin-quality Guinness and, upstairs, wood-ember-grilled hunks of meat alongside other comforting classics. From the beautiful handwritten menu, my favorites are potted shrimps (tiny shrimp suspended in nutmeg butter), beef cheek and Guinness suet pudding—a rib-sticking Dickensian delight—and sweet Scottish langoustines.

The Marksman (Photo: Anton Rodriguez)

254 Hackney Rd., E2 7SB
+44 20 7739 7393

The Marksman was founded by Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram, who cut their teeth at St John, and their food embodies the uncomplicated yet refined approach of that era-defining Spitalfields restaurant. Dishes like dressed Dorset Crab with Rye Crackers—a taste of the English seaside—or chicken and wild garlic pie. On Friday, the “Worker’s Lunch”—$19 including a drink—takes this to its logical conclusion with simple, delicious dishes like Tamworth sausage and mash, or cottage pie, its ridged potato lid irresistibly golden and crunchy.

The Parakeet (photo: Justin DeSouza)

Reopened and renamed last year after an extensive refit, The Parakeet is a harmonious blend of green upholstery, soft furnishings and elegant detail, most notably the delightful etched-glass bar back. Much of the grub is cooked on a Japanese-made Hibachi grill and in the wood-fired oven: there’s a lamb chop with artichoke heart, charred and halved and a hazelnut pesto, smoked mutton sausage, and grilled lettuce with shrimp-head butter—which is a sweet, tender and richly savory revelation.

Kent, the county southeast of London, is known as the Garden of England, a nod to its cornucopia of produce. The Pig’s Head sources much of its veg from there, from plump broad beans to purple-green asparagus. Vegetables are often an afterthought at British pubs, but they’re what I look forward to here, served roasted, buttered, pickled, or glazed alongside, say, a thick Barnsley chop, red-pink, treacle-cured chalk stream trout, or mushrooms on toast, a British tea-time classic made with lion’s mane and fermented mushrooms and bolstered by red wine ragout, walnut pâté and pickled walnuts.   

2 Tyrwhitt Rd., SE4 1QG
+44 20 8692 2665

What, you may reasonably ask, is a Talbot? It’s a hunting dog, once sent in pursuit of beasts from Scotland to the South Coast, but now extinct—unless you count pub names. This Talbot is well worth chasing down: a few weeks ago, I enjoyed a plump, succulent venison pie on a thick mound of buttery mash, followed by a chocolate tart so dark and intense I could taste it an hour later. The Talbot’s other delights—like whipped smoked cod's roe with crispy chicken skin and radishes, a genuinely show-stopping blend of textures and flavors—demonstrate how pub food has evolved, both in Brockley—a neighborhood of parks and sleepy rowhouses—and beyond. 

Indian food has long been served in British pubs, particularly in England’s West Midlands— where Desi Pubs, opened to feed arrivals from the Indian subcontinent in the 1970s and 80s but now beloved by all, were born—but London gastropubs have been slow to embrace the flavors of the subcontinent. Not the Tamil Crown, however, the more relaxed and pub-like offshoot of sister (brother?) restaurant The Tamil Prince. Menu showstoppers include coconut prawn moilee, a South Indian curry made with coconut milk, and robata lamb chops, marinated in masala spices and cooked over hot charcoal, plus Indian-inclined roasts on Sundays. My favorites, though, are the starters and sides—like a crispy, spidery deep-fried nest of onion bhaji, served with mint sauce, or roti bread, which flakes and melts in the mouth. Both are the perfect accompaniment to a pint of Purity ale, served here on handpump. 

58 Ledbury Rd., W11 2AJ
+44 20 3946 9555

The Walmer Castle reopened in 2023 with a focus on food. This is the fancy end of Notting Hill, just beyond tourist-heavy Portobello Road, and the food reflects locals’ love of simple, elegant European grub: a ham hock and chicken terrine is a feast for the eyes as much as the stomach, while smoked halibut with beetroot and soft-boiled egg is a balance of punchy and delicate, rustic sweetness and soft smoky flakes. Pudding (dessert to you Yanks) is an unexpected forte: on my last visit, I enjoyed sticky toffee pudding with salted caramel ice cream, a combination so sweet it sounds too much—but was actually just right.

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