Your Guide to the Best Seats at London’s Counter Revolution
Sometimes the best table in the house is a seat at the counter.
That's the case at London's a hottest new restaurant, Kiln. The Thai establishment that opened this month in Soho is one of several restaurants where counters may be the best choice. They are great if you are eating alone or want to dine without a reservation, or closely watch the chefs at work.
Here are 11 leaders of London's counter revolution.
This small restaurant won't take reservations, unless you want to come in a group and sit in the basement. The rest of us are happy to queue to watch chef and owner Ben Chapman and his team cooking. The short menu is based on Thai regional cuisine, with influences from Myanmar and Yunnan. Most dishes are cooked on a wood-burning kiln oven and grills. Chapman, who previously opened Smoking Goat, works closely with growers and farmers.
The prices are small and the flavors big. Wild ginger and short rib curry from Burma, with deep, rich flavors, is £8.50 ($10.30). A wonderful clay pot of baked glass noodles with Tamworth belly and brown crab meat is a steal at £5.75. Skewers include aged lamb (£2.90) grilled over wood embers and served simply with chili, cumin, and Sichuan pepper. Yes, there is chili heat in some of the dishes, but it's more of a warm embrace than a stinging slap. I love Kiln.
58 Brewer Street, Soho, W1F 9TL. No phone.
This counter-only restaurant is inspired by the cuisine of the Barbary Coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya. The menu should probably come with a translation service. The guys on the other side of the counter are happy to explain dishes such as chicken msachen — marinated in yogurt and sumac before being cooked over coals. Even something as simple as Tbecha roasted tomatoes (£4) pop and burst with flavors. The flatbreads (such as the naan e barbari at £3.50) are the perfect launchpad for dips that tickle your taste buds in so many ways.
16 Neal's Yard, Covent Garden, WC2H 9DP. No phone.
This restaurant serving the food of modern Jerusalem is from the same team as Barbary. You are likely to keep going back for the umami-rich flavors of dishes such as Shakshukit, a deconstructed kebab where the pitta bread is served atop a mixture of fried minced beef and lamb with paprika, harissa and tahini (£13). For desserts, try malabi, a rose-scented milk pudding, with raspberry coulis, coconut meringue, pistachio crunch, fresh raspberries and kataifi pastry (£7). Avoid the tables at the back.
34 Rupert Street, Soho, W1D 6DN; +44 (0)207 439 8777.
The new Seven Dials outlet of this Haggerston fried-chicken shop serves the same great meat but new dishes and a funky basement dining room take it all to another level. Well, I suppose a basement is another level in itself, but I'm talking about the enjoyment factor here. The K-Pop buns with Korean fried thigh, gochujang mayo, chilli vinegar, Asian ‘slaw (£12) are oustanding. There are fine cocktails, too. It's loud and it's dark, so this isn't the place to go for a quiet bite. The bar and tables are both OK.
1 Earlham Street, WC2H 9LL. No phone.
This casual restaurant at Borough is one of the most important and exciting of the year. There's a short menu of eight pasta dishes with different sauces, from tagliatelle with nduja, mascarpone and parsley (£5.50) to taglierini with Dorset crab, chilli and lemon (£12). Each is distinct and pretty much irresistible. The counter is a good place to sit. The tables are OK. Either way, you will probably queue. I couldn't get in the last time I tried.
6 Southwark Street, Borough, SE1 1TQ. No phone.
This new Italian restaurant is glamorous, with beautiful designs and a level of service you would be happy to find in Italy. The counter isn't the only good place to eat here — the corner tables are fine, too — but it's very convenient if you show up without a reservation or without a dining companion. Margot is the creation of two maitre d's: Paolo di Tarso (Bar Boulud) and Nicolas Jaouën (La Petite Maison) who became friends while working at Scott's.
45 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, WC2B 5AA; +44-20-3409-4777.
Chef Nieves Barragán Mohacho serves outstanding tapas dishes such as chargrilled milk-fed lamb's kidneys (£9) and stuffed courgette flower (£7.80) at the counter in Barrafina, which has now grown to three branches. The service and the team spirit is almost as impressive as the food. My favorite outlet is Barrafina Adelaide Street, which just won best U.K. restaurant in the Observer Food Monthly awards. Arrive early or be prepared to queue.
10 Adelaide Street, Covent Garden, WC2N 4HZ. No phone.
This is my favorite counter in London. Civilians used to find it almost impossible to get a table at this showbiz restaurant, but things are more democratic these days. Try walking in without a reservation, and there is a fair chance you will make it to the counter, which occupies the center of the room after a refurbishment last year. It's the perfect spot to people-watch, while the food is first class. Just beware of imitators called Ivy Cafe, Grill, etc. There is only one Ivy, and it is on West Street in Covent Garden.
1-5 West Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9NQ; +44-20-7836-4751.
This small Italian restaurant was a pioneer of counter dining when it opened eight years ago. Chef Jacob Kenedy and his team prepare small or large plates of regional dishes such as manzo di pozza home cured beef, pecorino, and rocket from Tuscany; and tripe with guanciale, chilli, tomato, pecorino, and oregano, from Rome. You can bring your own white truffle. The best seats are all at the counter. The tables squeezed in at the back are to be avoided.
12 Archer Street, Soho, W1D 7BB; +44-20-7734-2223.
This restaurant beside Fortnum & Mason has the feel of a private dining club. The room is glamorous and beautifully lit. The menu is accessible, with dishes such as burrata with heritage tomatoes and shallots (£10.75), and Dover Sole a la Meunière (£38.50). The counter alongside one side of the room is just the place for a hushed conversation over Champagne cocktails such as the Amilia (£13.50) with peach and apricot. It's open until 11:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays — handy for a post-theater supper.
45 Jermyn Street, St. James's, SW1Y 6DN; +44-20-7205-4545.
This East London restaurant serves French food with a North African twist, or vice versa. Dishes such as saffron couscous with tabbouleh and pomegranate yoghurt (£5.50) and warm smoked haddock with peas, potato, bacon, and grated egg (£7.50) taste good wherever you sit. But there is nowhere finer than to perch at the counter and watch life on Brick Lane.
204 Brick Lane, E1 6SA; +44-20-7729-7939.