“Where shall we eat?” If you’ve lived in west London for the past decade that has been a tricky question to answer. Not for us the wave of cafés and restaurants with menus written up in chalk on blackboards that have bloomed across east London. The food scene here in the west (give or take a few hardy perennials) has been a bit dry.
In the early ’90s, west London enjoyed a bustling food scene. Richard Curtis had yet to transform the ’hood into the star of its own Hollywood movie. Notting Hill had 192 on Kensington Park Road – created by the same team who founded the Groucho Club – and a five-minute walk away was All Saints Restaurant, which sat on the eponymous street. They were unarguably the beating heart of the creative cultural community. By day, the All Saints would see young fashion stylists meeting for breakfasts prepared by a young unknown chef called Skye Gyngell (Spring Restaurant). By night, the mood would shift to 192, which would bear witness to some brilliantly decadent behaviour.
Although there have been many credible restaurants that have opened over the intervening years, that convivial, bustling neighbourhood-character-led eatery has been lacking. Until now. It may have taken nearly 30 years, but it is beginning to feel more like a real community again, connected by a new wave of restaurants providing just the kind of social theatre that makes all the difference. The look today is less vintage bias-cut dresses and Converse, and more Molly Goddard and beards, but the spirit is the same. And many of the chefs and restaurateurs grew up in the area and are friends, eating in each other’s restaurants, cooking in each other’s kitchens.
Two cafés that make you want to jump out of bed are the tiny Burnt on Shepherds Bush’s surprisingly cool Askew Road, and Layla Bakery, found on a corner at the top end of Portobello Road. Burnt was opened on a post-Covid government grant by Honor Powley (sister of actress Bel) and her talented partner, the chef Finlay Logan. The little space is light, with Scandinavian-inspired woodwork and white walls; vases of flowers from a neighbouring florist offer a cheery welcome from breakfast to dinner (the latter just Thursdays and Fridays for now) on each of the tables. The clientele is as stylish as the menu – nduja toast with miso aioli and tomato jam, cheddar, cauliflower and kimchi croque madame, honey-truffled ricotta toast. Breads and pastries imported from east London’s Dusty Knuckle Bakery are a big crowd-pleaser.
Layla Bakery, meanwhile, is a one-minute walk from Golborne Road just beside Portobello market. Founded by Tessa Faulkner, it has an airy Brooklyn vibe with white walls and wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows, and, outside on the wide pavement, a bank of trestle tables. Everything is made on site in an open kitchen filled with friendly young bakers preparing croissants topped with a perfect crisp, cinnamon- and cardamom-spiced babka and unctuous cheese toasties. The produce invariably sells out, so get there before lunchtime. Expect to find Neneh Cherry grabbing breakfast with her daughter Mabel, and a dusting of young screenwriters and novelists cradling their locally roasted coffees and tapping at their laptops.
A five-minute walk away, at the foot of the Trellick Tower, alongside the popular Moroccan food stalls that are an integral part of the market, are another two spots that are worth a visit. Caia, a wine bar, music venue and restaurant, opened earlier this year to great reviews and it’s a good spot to enjoy a selection of wines and sharing plates such as crispy chicken skin with preserved lemon and nori emulsion. Further down the road, Thomas Straker – the former Casa Cruz and Elystan Street chef and Instagram star with over 800,000 followers – has opened his much-anticipated restaurant Straker’s. I survived Covid cooking from his highly charged, slightly bonkers and totally more-ish Instagram videos. Here, he’s serving up steaming plates of clams with nduja and basil, alongside grilled asparagus and burrata and raw artichoke dressed with parmesan and lemon. Along with his well-connected address book, Straker’s might well turn out to be the love child of the 192 and All Saints restaurants.
Another engaging bon vivant is Chris D’Sylva, who made a name for himself by bringing together a group of fish, meat, veg and fruit suppliers and putting them all under one roof at Notting Hill Fish & Meat on Westbourne Grove. A master of hype-building, D’Sylva would hand out free espressos to the queue of well-heeled customers who would wait patiently in line as though going to a VIP event. His subsequent act, Supermarket of Dreams, with its neon-pink signage on Holland Park Avenue, has only further highlighted his flair for maverick showmanship.
Patrons are now heading to his first restaurant, Dorian, a neighbourhood bistro on the lesser-known Talbot Road, serving as he puts it, “the kind of accessible real food you want to eat”. Dorian offers what he calls “British bistro food” – steaks, sea bass, chicken-liver parfait, guinea fowl, duck, grouse, oysters – which are prepared on an open grill. D’Sylva says he named his restaurant Dorian because, like its namesake in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray, it will be “a little bit naughty”.
In the spirit of community, most days find D’Sylva grabbing his lunch next door from Secret Sandwich Shop, a tiny gem hidden behind the green, red and gold façade of The Globe. One of London’s longest-running clubs, it was opened in the ’60s by Roy Stewart, a Jamaican actor and bodybuilder. It has since undergone many incarnations. In the ’90s Fergus Henderson cooked from a tiny stove for regulars like Lucian Freud and his daughters. Today sees it in the stylish hands of Robie Uniacke. While still a nightclub by night, by day it sells Japanese wanpaku sandwiches. Uniacke lived for a time in Japan; he and his wife, the creative director Lowell Delaney, became obsessed by the light-as-a-feather, fluffy Japanese shokupan bread – fermented for three days – that never left them feeling heavy. By chance they discovered a Japanese master baker in Shepherd’s Bush and the result is another pandemic-born success story. The sandwiches are enormous. My personal favourite is the Crispy Greens, made from layers of French beans, avocado, pickles and cucumber, with a layer of salt and vinegar McCoys crisps and a topping of crispy shallots, all dressed in a house basil mayo. It’s unbelievably delicious.
If you want something more like an actual Japanese restaurant, then head to Sumi on Westbourne Grove. The crowd is international and expensive, likewise the food. Created by chef Christian Onia, the slick, pale-wood interior is beautifully presented and the menu sings with flavour. Make sure you try the nigiri sushi: I loved the Otoro, seabass and salmon and the temaki hand rolls of scallop and Hamachi, but make sure to reserve some appetite for the seafood gohan that arrives at the table in a cast-iron pot.
The Pelican is a pub that has stood on what has long been considered the “wrong” end of All Saints Road. No longer. Founded by friends Phil Winser, James Gummer, Ritchie Squire and chef Owen Kenworthy (formerly at Brawn and North Street Kitchen in Cornwall), The Pelican is fast gaining a reputation for serving up the best of British produce. It really is the warm-hearted local treasure the area has been waiting for.
There is also a great private room upstairs with a roaring fire where popular game nights are held. Their signature starters, roasted bone-marrow mince on toast and potted shrimps are properly delicious. The chicken and mushroom pie with a side of smoky chips is perfect. By the time you get round to dessert, baked plums in custard and a salty chocolate mousse, you’ll already be planning your next visit.
Brunch and dinner menus with Italian, north African, Korean and Japanese influences. Fresh pastries. 163 Askew Road, London W12; burntrestaurant.co.uk
Wine bar, live music venue and open-fire restaurant, plus cocktails
46 Golborne Road, London W10; caia.london
New bistro and wine bar from Chris D’Sylva, who brought us Notting Hill Fish & Meat and Supermarket of Dreams. Classic dishes based on a seasonal menu
105-107 Talbot Road, London W11; dorianrestaurant.com
A nightclub by night, by day the purveyor of Japanese wanpaku sandwiches in fluffy shokupan bread
103 Talbot Road, London W11; theglobeclub.com
Croissants, cinnamon- and cardamom-spiced babka and cheese toasties. Arguably one of the best country loaves in London…
332 Portobello Road, London W10; laylabakery.com
The best of British. Think mince on toast to start, then Porterhouse and monkfish and lobster pie
45 All Saints Road, London W11; thepelicanw11.com
Neighbourhood local with seasonal ingredients from Instagram and TikTok star Thomas Straker
91 Golborne Road, London W10; strakers.london
Little sister to sushi master Endo Kazutoshi’s Michelin-starred White City restaurant, Endo, helmed by Christian Onia
157 Westbourne Grove, London W11; sushisumi.com