London’s 10 Most Important Restaurants for Visitors

What makes a restaurant important?

Some serve outstanding food. Some are game-changers that start trends and spawn imitators. Others are just fashionable.

Here are 10 of the current stars that you might care to try if visiting London. I’ve thrown in 10 reserves at the end, so you can’t accuse me of failing to offer value for money.

Diners on a budget would be wise to focus on lunch, as London restaurants are generally quiet then and offer bargains.

Here is the hot list:

Chiltern Firehouse: Owned by the hotelier Andre Balazs, this new restaurant has become such a celebrity hangout, it’s near-impossible for civilians to get tables. One option is to try for breakfast. The cooking by chef Nuno Mendes is good but this place is more about the buzz than the menu.

Clove Club: This British restaurant is housed in Shoreditch Town Hall, which was built in 1865, and the budget for renovations must have been limited. Isaac McHale, who emerged from the Young Turks group of London chefs, works wonders with tasting menus built around little-known U.K. ingredients.

Dabbous: Rarely has a top-quality restaurant opened with such a bang and then disappeared so quickly from view. Dabbous made No. 11 in the National Restaurant Awards in 2013 only to drop out of the Top 100 this year. Chef Ollie Dabbous is an original talent and his prices are modest. This may be the best restaurant you have never heard of.

Grain Store: Chef Bruno Loubet puts vegetables at the center of each plate at this buzzing restaurant. It’s the originality and creativity of the dishes that is most striking, with unusual combinations of flavors. Butternut-squash ravioli with mustard apricots, rocket and pumpkin seeds is my favorite, but there is plenty for carnivores.

Gymkhana: The U.K. has had Indian restaurants since 1809. Gymkhana raises a bar that was already set high. The cooking and ingredients are exemplary and Gymkhana was recently named U.K. Restaurant of the Year, topping the Top 100 after less than a year in business. If you are on a budget or have trouble getting a table, lunch is best.

Hakkasan: This modern Chinese restaurant was an immediate hit when it was opened by the restaurateur Alan Yau in a basement on a rundown street in 2001. He has since sold it to Abu Dhabi investors who are turning it into an international lifestyle brand. That’s a depressing thought, yet Hakkasan remains a glamorous venue with great food.

Ledbury: This gastronomic restaurant (with two Michelin stars) is a favorite with Londoners. Australian Brett Graham is a chef who is normally to be found in his kitchen. That may sound unremarkable, yet there are few with his popularity and talent who have shown so little interest in appearing on TV. His cooking is exquisite.

River Cafe: This Italian restaurant on the banks of the Thames river was ahead of its time in serving ingredient-led seasonal dishes. Alumni of its kitchens include April Bloomfield of the Spotted Pig and TV chef Jamie Oliver. The quality of the cooking and the produce is as high as ever. Be warned: It is expensive.

Wolseley: The restaurateurs Chris Corbin and Jeremy King opened the Wolseley in 2003. This cavernous European brasserie on Piccadilly has spawned many imitators but no equals. It is grand without being expensive; polished without being bland. Many celebrities are regulars and they are served with the same courtesy as everyone else.

Zuma: This Japanese-inspired contemporary restaurant has been around for more than a decade. There are so many imitators it is easy to forget the creativity of chef Rainer Becker in this marriage of modern design and cooking. While Zuma is fashionable and expensive, with great cocktails, the best part is the quality of the food.

And 10 others to consider:

Barrafina: This tapas bar is among the very best in London, with fine Spanish ingredients. It is very popular and you need to arrive early to avoid queues.

Bocca di Lupo: This cramped Soho venue serves tapas-sized plates from across Italy. Chef Jacob Kenedy’s flavors are strong and the wine list is also a winner.

Cafe Spice Namaste: Chef Cyrus Todiwala opened this Indian restaurant in the East End in 1995. It still stands out for the quality of the cooking and ingredients.

Fera: This restaurant at Claridge’s is the London home of Simon Rogan and shows why this chef has won so many plaudits at his flagship L’Enclume.

Le Gavroche: You might be happy to find such a traditional gastronomic restaurant in France. Le Gavroche is grand and impressive. Lunch is a bargain.

Gordon Ramsay: These days, this three-Michelin-star restaurant serves light and modern dishes by Chef Patron Clare Smyth. It is outstanding.

Hibiscus: Claude Bosi’s gastronomic French restaurant is one of London’s finest. It’s understated and the fireworks are in the cooking.

Pollen Street Social: Chef Jason Atherton is the most successful Gordon Ramsay protege and this is where he showcases his contemporary style.

Quo Vadis: If British cuisine conjures negative thoughts, this is the place to lose your misconceptions. This Soho venue is deservedly popular.

Wiltons: This is an old-fashioned and expensive British restaurant -- with a carving trolley -- that traces its history to 1742. It’s a beautiful institution.

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines).