Should you find yourself in London these days, it’s tempting to soak up what’s left of the Shoreditch grunge to the east, or the bougie enchantments of Notting Hill towards the west side of town. (If it’s the latter, don’t miss the dueling animalistic gastropubs known as The Cow and The Pelican.) But in between, right in the heart of the British capital, you’ll find the posh members’ clubs of Mayfair and the Soho shopping and theater scenes as well as the many monuments of Westminster. And in amongst all of those, you’ll find some phenomenal restaurants, pubs, cocktail bars, and a few things that fit none of those bills. Below, you’ll find a microguide to Soho, St. James’s, Mayfair, and Fitzrovia, a crash course on what to eat, drink, and see in the city center. But we’ll begin on the other side of St. James’s Park in Westminster. If you’re not in the mood to start south, you could always run this in reverse.
The Regency Cafe
If you’d like to start your day hitting the classic Westminster sights, you can pregame with a classic English breakfast. This is a quintessential “greasy spoon,” a Brit diner, and it’s a treat. The walls are shrines to boxers, musicians, and North London footballing outfit Tottenham Hotspur. A commanding man behind the counter with a booming voice, Marco, scrawls your name and order down on a notepad. He is ceaselessly polite and thanks everyone as they go out the door, but you get the sense he’s not one to be crossed. You’ll want to have your order ready by the time you face up to him, and you’ll likely have time: the line is often out the door. I got the breakfast special: egg, bacon, sausage, cherry tomatoes, coffee, and toast (although they were out of the latter, so I added hash browns). When your food is ready, you’re asked which sauce you want and Marco splats it on top from a squeeze-tube as I’m sure he’s done forever. “Moritz, that’s a bit posh,” he said when one patron gave his name. The place attracts all kinds, including plenty of hard Cockney accents.
You can then walk up to Westminster Abbey and Big Ben to the northeast, or Buckingham Palace to the slight northwest, on your way up to Soho. The Churchill War Rooms are also highly recommended.
The Red Lion
If you hit some sights and then made your way through St. James’s Park—phenomenal horticulture, by the way—you might stop in at St. James’s Palace, commissioned by Henry VIII in the 1530s. From there, you can sneak down a little gaslit alley called Crown Passage to The Red Lion. (There are many Red Lions, including another just slightly northeast of here. This is the Red Lion you want.) You’ll find folks stationed with pints outside, and inside you’ll find some plush red-velvet-clad sitting areas and Albert, the charming Hungarian behind the bar. Albert suggested the place is more than 400 years old, though it’s hard to verify beyond that this is one of the oldest pubs in London. Get a pint, perhaps out of one of the old-timey beer engines, and eavesdrop on the mix of austere old St. James’s banker types and whoever else filters in.
Head north from here and you’ll pass through Jermyn Street, a men’s tailoring hotspot in the vein of the more vaunted Savile Row, on your way to Soho.
Gordon’s Wine Bar
If you chose to go northeast from the Regency, up past the Houses of Parliament and the marble façades of Whitehall to Trafalgar Square, you’ll find yourself near another old haunt that’s ideal if you’re looking to get out of the typical English weather. Well, kind of. Just off the Thames, this is a subterranean cavern lit by candlelight where, when I went after a rainy day, there were bits of water dripping from fractures in the ancient barrel ceiling. There was also the occasional rumble of the Tube underfoot—Embankment station and its four lines are right nearby. I sat in “the cage,” a kind of vault at one end of the long narrow space. There’s a sprawling selection of reds, whites, rosés, champagne, sparkling, natural and low-sulfur wines, and even some sherries, madeiras, and ports. Get one of the latter and you will be fully convinced you’re a 17th-century privateer on shore leave. You might also want to save this one for a night visit and a bit of romance.
Lunchtime. Just north of Leicester Square, London’s theater hub, and London’s Chinatown, this unassuming spot is meant to evoke the kebab joints lining the streets of Tehran, and it does not take reservations. The decor of the interior—where you can find a seat in a booth or at the counter to watch chefs cook up this homestyle Persian fare—has a bit of Soho refinement, however, and the place has a Michelin Bib Gourmand to its name. Order the taftoon sourdough, hummus, chicken kebab (marinated in yogurt overnight), and the spiked sharbat cocktail.
Time to head north again, for what I would consider the quintessential British pub experience. There’s no-frills, and then there’s The Toucan, a standing-room shoebox with a single little TV which somehow attracts dozens of viewers when the rugby is on. There’s space to sit downstairs, but on a nice Friday afternoon, the street outside is a scene. Professional types freshly clocked out, university-age lads, and other varieties of genuine Londoner can be found having a pint and a chat. Order a Guinness and stand on the sidewalk, even across the way, and maybe have a smoke if that’s your kind of thing. There’s a French Quarter libertine quality to the whole endeavor.
The Newman Arms
Further north, across Oxford Street in Fitzrovia, you’ll find The Newman Arms. A friend who lives nearby had me meet him there and, arriving first, I got to chatting with the bartender. “1666?” I asked, pointing to the inscription on the mirror behind the bar. Turns out that applies to Truman’s, the brewery that owns a bunch of pubs around town, but this place dates to 1730. It has lived a number of lives along the way, one of which was as a brothel. More than that, though, the bartender invited me to go downstairs and check out the room where she said George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’ve been unable to corroborate that, but there is an Orwell Room downstairs, and there seems to be little dispute that the scribe frequented this place and even based the proles pub in that dystopian classic on this bar. Weather permitting, this is also a fine area for a sidewalk pint.
By this point you aren’t far from the imperialist appetites of the British Museum, home to some of the very best stolen merchandise the world has to offer. But you might also be ready for dinner…
Back down in Soho proper you’ll find casual bartop dining where you can watch the staff go to work on dishes influenced by the region where Thailand borders Myanmar, Laos, and Yunnan, with fresh English produce matched to Thai and Chinese herbs. (Regency Cafe notwithstanding, the old maxim still holds true that the best British food ain’t English.) The clay pot baked glass noodles are the staple dish, which I supplemented with stir fried cornish greens and chicken slow-grilled overnight. Kiln’s cocktails and ferments are made with the same meticulously sourced ingredients used in the dish offerings. In all, it’s a microcosm of London’s melting pot with Grace Jones records spinning on a turntable in the corner.
Other options nearby: Bocca di Lupo, Sabor, and Gymkhana. The latter is widely considered the best Indian food in London at the moment—and that’s a high honor—but I could not secure a reservation. Drat!
Still standing and looking for a nightcap? You can hop across Regent Street—another famous shopping drag—and into the tony precincts of Mayfair, home to many of the members’ clubs so central to posh London nightlife. Good luck getting into Annabel’s on Berkeley Square—or most other members’ clubs, for that matter—but you should be welcome at the Connaught Hotel a little farther west. It’s home to a few different bar spaces, and the martini—and the many spinoffs on offer—has secured a legendary reputation. Red Room is the most fun space within this grand old 19th-century structure.
Other options nearby: The Painter’s Room and The Twenty Two, a sprawling manor house remade as a hotel and members’ club. You can get a table in the plush Living Room, a sitting room-slash-study befitting some landed gentleman overlooking Grosvenor Square. If you choose to start this circuit from bottom, you could kick off here with an Americano and a copy of the Times of London.
Jack Holmes is a senior staff writer at Esquire, where he covers politics and sports. He also hosts Useful Context, a video series.
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