In an ever-growing battle to outdo each other, restaurants in Britain’s capital have been trying to create the most memorable experience. Londoners no longer want a candlelit table in a quiet part of town. They want fire, theatrics and extra sauce.
From prisons to train carriages, London's restaurants and dining experiences have got them all. Quintessentially quirky or plainly bizarre, these are the city’s most unforgettable eats.
Circus is a restaurant with a difference. Having navigated yourself perfectly to that Google Maps pin, you’ll soon realise that Circus is nowhere to be seen. This is, until you spot the illuminated menu on the wall. With no sign whatsoever, it’s clandestine as well as quirky.
Inside, circus performances run every 15 minutes. Putting health, safety, and basic hygiene to one side, they take place on a long table at which you can sit. From fire-breathing to acrobatics high up in the rafters, the performances are short but brilliant.
The menu is a treasure trove of Asian delights. To start, we opted for tempura. For my guest, the chilli salt squid. For me, the lobster with white truffle aioli and lemon ponzu. The lobster was delicious and could easily have served two. Looking at its own deep fried body, the presentation was as macabre as it was artistic.
For the main, I opted for the Angus fillet while my guest went for the Chilean sea bass. Both were superb and the sea bass was especially soft and flavoursome. Topped off with a delicious dessert of chocolate and caramel fondant, the food was far from being simply supplementary. From its modern, characterful decor to the fantastic performances, this is dining with a difference.
Inamo is a high-tech restaurant brand with a handful of locations across London. Leaving Mornington Crescent Station, Inamo Camden is the first thing you see. Though not loud or garish, it’s somehow synonymous with technology even from the outside. However, inside is where the real magic happens.
Projectors cast a screen onto fixed tables on which you can order your food, draw or even play games with your guest. If you want to impress someone, this is sure to provide the “wow” factor. (Unless, of course, that person is a staunchly technophobic traditionalist.)
The cuisine is Asian fusion and having played a few games and scribbled a few pictures, our attention turned to the (digital) menu. To start, we opted for Korean chicken wings with desiccated coconut and a delicious beef tataki. These mouth-watering starters led into mains of Singapore noodles for my guest, and miso marinated black cod for me - which is soft, flavoursome and leaves you wanting more.
For dessert, things got even quirkier - with fried banana and caramel ice cream and “chocolate popping candy dipping sticks”, a mouthful in more ways than one. The desserts were delicious and different, which would probably be my three-word synopsis for this whole experience.
Beach Blanket Babylon
Located in a converted Georgian townhouse, Beach Blanket Babylon looks like the sort of traditional restaurant you might expect to find here in Notting Hill. However, on the inside, it oozes with character. The rococo styling goes beyond the decor and where we ate - in the Chapel - the curving walls, pointed archways and solid stone all combine to convince you that you’re in a castle and not a restaurant.
Along with an espresso cocktail and a sake champagne mojito, we had the beef carpaccio and fried squid to start. The carpaccio was thin, delicate and deliciously salty, while the squid - paired with chilli and lime mayonnaise - was light and flavoursome. For the main, I opted for the lamb cutlets with potato fondant and my guest had the crispy duck. The duck came with a delicious honey and chilli glaze which complemented flavour of the meat perfectly.
Rounded off with a porn star Martini and a Ledbury Garden, which combines cucumber, elderflower, basil and prosecco, this was a fantastic meal. But of course, it wasn’t quite complete without satisfying the craving for something sweet. A chocolate tart and a chocolate brownie did the trick.
There is something darkly different about Beach Blanket Babylon. The decor is gothic in parts and the atmosphere makes for a memorable meal. The chilled out electronic music, while it might not be to everyone’s liking, seems to suit the vibe of the restaurant. Decadent yet somewhat alternative, this is a unique setting for enjoying great food.
London Cat Village
Shoreditch is London's answer to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg. Replete with bespectacled hipsters and thrift shops, this is where you'll find London Cat Village – the ultimate destination for feline enthusiasts.
Everywhere you look there’s a sleepy Siamese, a playful tabby or a curious ginger tom. While you can’t pick them up, they are generally very friendly and there are toys you can use to play with them.
The food is more of a "tea and cakes" affair but there are also warm sandwiches. I chose the serrano ham toastie while my guest went for the avocado sourdough. Both were tasty, served promptly and followed by something sweet. For me, this took the form of an incredibly moreish "No Nonsense Choc Brownie" while my guest opted for the generous slab of lemon drizzle cake.
While some people might be sceptical of combining eating and animals, London Cat Village was very clean and more importantly, the cats are extremely well looked after. Standard bookings last one hour, which is just enough time to eat a sandwich, sip tea and play with some cats. But personally, I could have stayed here all day.
For this review, I was joined by food blogger Lima to London. Below is an abridged version of the full review, which you can read on her website.
Sketch in Mayfair is a unique restaurant offering a very distinctive menu. Dining in the Gallery room feels like you’ve been blasted in time, with a quirky bourgeois design. Everywhere you turn you see avante garde sketches all over the walls, contrasting completely to the interior of the restaurant.
From opening the menu and being presented with pop-up forks, the whole experience is brought to you with surprises. Starting with razor clams baked in a whole leek, salmon in a “Tchouki-Tchouki” marinade and a perfect wine pairing of Picpoul De Pinet to match flavours in the dish. Followed by a rack of iberico pork, mint lamb croquettes matched with a Montepulciano D’Abruzzo to bring out the flavours of the meat. The attention to detail in each dish is flawless, both desserts to finish, a complete work of art. Aubenas, which is a chestnut cream with coffee parfait and a Tchouki, soya milk custard, with Malabar ice cream and frosted banana. Not forgetting that sweet dessert wine.
The staff all uniformed in the same grey jumpsuits and dresses, a very modern, quirky way to serve, completely mismatched to the interior of the restaurant, yet somehow working perfectly. Never with an empty glass, or empty plate, impeccable service from beginning to end. If the quirkiness wasn’t enough throughout the Gallery room, step out into another dimension into the white pods, which hold the toilets and wash area. The huge contrast from the food, music, drink and art makes this a truly different yet exciting experience.
Sarastro manages to pair two concepts which might otherwise seem disparate. “Opera” and “Turkish cuisine” don’t usually go hand in hand, but here in Covent Garden this is exactly what you’ll find.
Don’t be too keen to get to your table, however. The incredible and sometimes erotic decor is a showstopper in itself. Not all tables are on balconies but all balconies have tables, meaning you can choose to watch the performances from above while you eat. The performances are truly brilliant and the singers will move around the room, sometimes interacting with the crowd.
We ate from the set menu and were therefore automatically provided with not two but all of the starters. Highlights include the kisir (bulgur wheat salad) and the cheese börek (cheese filled puff pastries). For the main I opted for the Chicken Mediterranean – served with spinach, orzo pilaf and béchamel. This wasn’t quite what I was expecting to find on a predominately Turkish menu but it suited me perfectly. My guest went for the Savoury Crêpe – with vegetables, cheese, tomato and pesto. Topped off with a couple of bowls of delicious ice cream, we were well and truly satisfied.
One might expect the performers to be out of work opera singers but they are the real deal. But there’s more than just opera. To start, we had a mini orchestra play for us, which again was superb. Furthermore, there are also motown, 70’s and 80’s performances depending on the day you go. Both the music and the food are fantastic, just watch out for the paintings in the bathroom.
Yuu Kitchen is a vibrant new restaurant in Whitechapel offering cuisine from South-East Asia and the Pacific Rim. The interior features what can only be described as an art installation made of birdcages and plenty of manga-style pop art.
With wine, beer, and bubbles on tap, we were sat at the bar where you can watch the skilled cooks work their magic. The first serving of sorcery came in the form of Filipino sticky wings which were sweet and delicious.
The tapas style menu means you can be as restrained or indulgent as you like. We choose the latter and highlights included the spicy tuna tostada and the incredible twice-cooked 7UP braised pork belly bao. The meat was as good as it sounds and the bun was steamed to perfection.
In fact the bao was so good we had to order another - the soft shell crab. Rounded off with the suitably quirky chocolate-filled spring rolls, this cemented the restaurant as a fun, quirky and incredibly good place to eat.
Maman Le Mot
Under an archway in a secret location, amid the low rumble of trains and distant cries of railway construction workers, sits a portal to the past. Maman Le Mot is at once a restaurant, a spy school and an immersive comedy experience. Upon signing up, you can either invent an identity or opt to have one assigned to you. You will then drink, dine and work as a team, all under the guise of your new alter ego.
Having been inducted into Section 18, a special clandestine division of the British Army, you are transported to a Moulin Rouge-themed restaurant offering a set menu. The “Anything goes Patê”, which is less scary than it sounds, led into a delicious yet concerningly titled “Cat ou Vin” (for those who don't like surprises, this may or may not contain chicken). Dessert was a tarte au citron, washed down with one of the barman's famous cosmopolitans.
You are then taken into a world of espionage where you work to complete various tasks from logic puzzles to infiltrating other teams. Scores totted up and prizes handed out, you can then dance the night away to hits of (or inspired by) the '40s.
Maman Le Mot is a truly immersive experience featuring group activities and interactive comedy. Anyone with an interest in secret cinema, acting or the war era would love it. My only advice would be to give yourself plenty of time to find the place and remember to bring a passport photo (for your ID card) to avoid having to scrawl a borderline racist caricature of a Frenchman like I did.
Bunga Bunga Battersea
“Bunga bunga” is a phrase you may have heard in the news recently and you'd be wrong to assume that this restaurant is completely unrelated to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his illicit “bunga bunga” parties. In some ways, the restaurant pays homage to this idea of chaotic hedonism. Look up and you will see a raucous tribute to all things Italy. This 3D collage extends across the whole ceiling and even includes hats, handbags and suspended scooters.
To start, my guest opted for the burrata while I went for the wild boar. A generous helping of something both delicious and a bit different, the boar is definitely something I would have again. For the main, we went for pizzas (when in Rome, after all). I went for the “Frank’s Capra” with goats cheese and caramelised red onion while my guest went for the “Po-Pa-Polla” with chicken and pancetta.
Instead of supplying you with two separate pizzas, they combine this into one long oval, served on a board propped up on two tins - which I thought this was a brilliant twist. While delicious, it wasn’t quite crispy enough for my liking. But then, I am something of a pizza snob.
Bunga Bunga boasts delicious cocktails (they do a great daiquiri) and also has live music, karaoke and even a nightclub upstairs on weekends. Brilliant Italian food in a truly quirky setting, this makes for an evening to remember.
Underground Supper Club
As someone who spends 10 hours a week in a tube carriage, it’s curious that I would want to commit another two hours to this on a Thursday night. However, this is exactly the setting of Basement Gallery’s Underground Supper Club. Here, in a decommissioned 1969 London Underground carriage, you are privy to some of the best dining in the city.
Sat on the social table, we were dining with strangers yet in good company. However, even if they were the last things in my kitchen, I would simply never consider combining some of the ingredients in the dishes. Our first course was titled: “textures of parsnip, black pudding, rye, pea shoots, chervil”. As you can tell, the set menu was somewhat cryptic.
The second course boasted a brilliant balance of flavours - including beetroot, courgette, orange and goat’s cheese. The main course of poussin was moist and succulent and went down a treat. While there are certain inconsistencies between plates, arguably this is part of the charm.
The set menu changes regularly and the kitchen often boasts guest chefs. The ethos behind Basement Gallery is to provide diners with dishes they’ve never tried before, giving the experience an informative feel. As something of a traditionalist, the slightly wayward menu did put me off. But never before have I been so concerned by a menu and then impressed by the food.
Located in St Paul’s, The Fable is spread across three floors. Confusingly, there are entrances on both the ground and the first floor - from a lower road and an upper road. This might make it a difficult place to meet, but perhaps this adds to its fairytale charm.
To start, I opted for meatballs with cannellini beans, feta and pine nuts which - with succulent meatballs and a delicious combinations of flavours - was an incredible dish. Across the table: crispy squid, which was cooked to perfection.
For the main, my guest opted for the roast cod while I went for the venison pie that was rich, filling and - as you might expect - meaty. Dessert came in the form of a beautiful chocolate brownie and a suitably quirky chocolate orange jaffa cake. Topped off with a porn star Martini, this made for a sweet end to an indulgent meal.
The Fable has a very welcoming atmosphere and the fairytale stylings span all three floors. The portions are generous which is just as well, because the food here is great.
The Chambers of Flavour
Quirky in the extreme, the Chambers of Flavour were devised by Gingerline - a company comprised of food enthusiasts and creative visionaries. Version 2.0 is centred on entering a machine which will then transport you through a multidimensional dining experience.
A bit like a rave for people who are too old or too sensible, you are only given a vague idea of the location (along the East London Overground Line between Highbury and Islington to Canada Water) before you are messaged a more precise location at 4pm on the day itself.
The steampunk decor in the bar area is a clear nod to the concept of the “machine”. Here you can order drinks for beforehand and to take with you, which are provided in a handy neoprene bag. You are then given a briefing before entering the first of five chambers, each one an entirely different world.
From tasty morsels to a sitdown meal, each chamber boasts delicious food as well as interactive comedy from a range of characters. The actors are all incredibly talented and improv-ready. A million miles from a regular restaurant, this is a truly unforgettable evening. It’s not food with a theme - instead the experience itself is the theme. The Chambers of Flavour are brilliant but difficult to describe, not least because I’ve been sworn to secrecy.
Located in a working prison, this restaurant is undeniably different. Staffed by prisoners, The Clink is also a registered charity which provides participants with skills, qualifications and, perhaps most importantly, hands-on experience of the catering industry.
The Brixton restaurant is located in an octagonal building which was once the governor's house, inside the prison walls at HMP Brixton. Access is via the regular entrance - and feels starkly cold and utilitarian. Once inside, we started with tea-smoked duck which was delicately put together and beautifully presented. For the main, I opted for the poached and roasted chicken with puy lentils while my guest went for the duo of venison, which was perfectly cooked and served with cottage pie. For dessert, we decided on the chocolate mousse and the cox apple and comice pear tarte tatin - which went down a treat.
The nature of the restaurant makes for a unique setting, especially as the restaurant floor is also staffed by inmates. Everything from the artwork on the walls to the furniture has been made by prisoners and, among other accolades, the restaurant has received a three star award from the Sustainable Restaurant Association.
In regards to our visit, my only criticism would be that the food could have been a degree or two warmer. However, we did catch them on an especially busy day. The overarching feeling was that it’s a unique experience and a revolutionary idea. The programme also provides additional preparation for life on the outside and has been shown to reduce reoffending by 41 per cent.
Cereal Killer Cafe
A cafe that sells cereal instead of regular food is an incredibly simple idea, and one that’s come to fruition in the form of Cereal Killer Cafe on Brick Lane. Upstairs are two walls of cereal boxes, from which the staff get your favourite sugary grains. Downstairs is a haven of 90’s nostalgia – with magazine pull-outs, TV-VCR combis and eerily familiar cereal box toys. Decorated like a kid’s bedroom, it also features beds to sit on.
The cereals are all served as “cocktails” - containing a number of constituents. Faced with a glittering array of calories, we tucked into our breakfast banquet. Highlights included the stacked hot chocolate, the “Luckiest Charm” with Lucky Charms and freeze dried marshmallows and the “Chocopotomus” with Krave, Coco Pops, Chocolate Milk and a singular Happy Hippo.
The cafe is incredibly popular but you can’t book ahead so if you come here at the weekend, expect a small side of chaos. Interestingly, it’s also lacking a toilet. However, it was definitely an experience. It didn't feel pretentious or gentrified. It felt like a passion projected turned commercial success.
Most importantly, as was the overheard observation of another diner, they have managed to work out that most difficult of calculations – the perfect cereal to milk ratio.
Archipelago is known for its exotic menu choices. So, along with a bottle of Águila Real Viura Sauvignon, we opted for Cayman crocodile and desert orchard pork belly to start. It was clear that the combination of flavours in their dishes had been pored over, creating uniquely incredible tastes. For the main, I went for the ostrich steak while my guest chose the escolar fish steak. It's always interesting to be told that your food might make you ill and while the fish might seem like a safer option, it also had a very strong flavour. Of course, it's extremely rare that the oil from this fish does have any adverse effects and it’s perfectly safe when eaten with other foods. But it still adds to the excitement.
As ostrich tastes a bit like beef, perhaps this influenced the decision to go for the ostrich steak. But I simply wasn’t prepared for how good it would be. Tender and juicy, it was cooked perfectly. I tried not to look at the purple potatoes too much, aware that their colour would change how they taste. Again however, they were delicious.
Of course, no main is complete without a side of insects, so we also had a "love-bug salad". Considering that they require a fraction of a percentage of the water that cows do, swapping beef for bugs would have an enormous environmental impact. As such, I had already made peace with the idea of eating them. Admittedly however, they were slightly easier to stomach when dipped in delicious chocolate, which is why we opted for chocolate covered locusts and a chocolate soufflé for dessert. These were accompanied by a “visit from the doctor” where the waiter arrives with a physician's briefcase full of spirits, and administers a double shot of your choosing. My guest went for scorpion tequila while I went for dead-baby-python-absinthe. For anyone with more money and less courage, there's also a 1961 bottle of Pétrus wine for £7,630.
If “cool” means sleek and uncomplicated, Archipelago isn't cool. It tries too hard, it's got too much personality and the result is incredible. Stepping through the door, you feel like you're in the lair of some colonial explorer. Every object has a story behind it. But because it's a restaurant and not a museum, each story remains untold. From the menus served in treasure chests to the incredible food, everything has been thought about a great deal. A little microcosm in Fitzrovia, this restaurant provides flavour and character in equal measure.
Dans Le Noir ?
Dining in the dark is something a lot of people have heard of but few really consider doing. But once you know its name and location, it starts to feel less like an abstract concept. However, nothing can quite prepare you for entering a restaurant which is pitch black.
Located in Clerkenwell, you enter Dans Le Noir ? via a moodily-lit lobby abundant with style, comfort and books on French cooking. Here, the most unusual element is the row of lockers - in which diners put their coats, bags and, of course, electrical devices. You can choose from meat, fish, vegetarian or chef's surprise and pair it with two courses, three courses, degustation menu or five course tasting menu.
Perhaps it was because I overheard another diner's briefing but I entered the restaurant with a sense of excitement equal to that which you'd find in a queue for a rollercoaster. The waiting staff are all blind, meaning the lack of light in the room isn’t a hindrance. Having met our waiter, Darren, we formed a convoy joined by hands placed on shoulders. Being surrounded by dozens of strangers who you can't see is, at first, terrifying. But we were in good hands and were truly amazed by Darren’s ability to sense the room around him and know, for instance, that there was food left on a plate or where your hand is when you’re reaching to take a glass.
While I can't divulge what I ate, I can tell you with utter certainty that eating in the pitch black makes for a unique experience. However, for me, the enjoyment of food is intrinsically linked to a sense of familiarity and for the most part I was unable to work out what I was eating. But the experience is what you come for and it is one which provokes thought and forces one to consider what it might actually be like to be blind.
Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.
A fun family film about the life of a colourful character, Forrest Gump makes for the perfect theme. From the wall decorations to the parchment paper in which your fries are served, it runs throughout Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. This is an expansive seafood restaurant with a penchant for shrimp, located in the heart of London's theatre district.
Opting first for a couple of cocktails, we went for a Solarita and a perfectly sweet Strawberry Basil Smash. The Solarita was comprised of a bottle of Sol suspended in a special holder above a margarita - such that the drink gradually turns from Margarita to beer. It was, in the words of my guest, “one of the best cocktails I've ever had”. We then had Best Ever Popcorn Shrimp and a deliciously creamy Shrimp Shack Mac & Cheese to start, followed by a tasty Lobster Carbonara and Forrest's Seafood Feast - which was something of an oceanic treasure trove.
Undeterred by our distinct lack of hunger, we shared a Best of the Best Sampler for dessert. Cinnamon Bread Pudding and Strawberry Shortcake played supporting roles, while the Chocolate Chip Cookie Sundae stole the show.
The fried fish in Forrest's Seafood Feast was cooked perfectly and twirling into the Lobster Carbonara, I couldn't help but think it was a great addition to the menu. This was a great restaurant for family fun or a slightly alternative meal. Even I enjoyed it and I don't like shrimp.
Hyde Kensington offers an array of exciting cocktails alongside Pan Asian cuisine. Entirely subterranean, it is something of a hidden gem where you can drink, dine and dance all in the same place. The decor is modern and features a number of somewhat satirical takes on classics, such as a version of The Last Supper featuring pop culture icons. However, it was the cocktail menu which had my attention and so we ordered a Ra! and a Mad Hatter, the latter of which was served amid a cloud of smoke.
To start, I had the chicken satay, which wasn't like that which you might receive in a plastic tub via a food delivery company. This was a cut above. It was nicely flavoured without being too sweet, and came with additional peanut sauce on the side. Meanwhile, the prawns were cooked perfectly and the selection of dumplings complemented our journey into the East.
The portion sizes aren't especially generous, but good things come in small packages, as they say. This was especially true of my main - the plum miso-marinated Chilean sea bass. This is my favourite fish and, with its sweet sauce and soft texture, this was the best sea bass I've ever had. Its package? A bamboo leaf, in keeping with the Pan Asian theme. The tempura of soft shell crab was nice but its saltiness meant it needed washing down - with a rum, passion fruit and pomegranate cocktail named 3rd Rock, served in a cut-away globe.
The cocktails set the bar high at Hyde Kensington. However, the food was also incredibly good. My only warning would be that, as the night goes on, Hyde gets progressively darker, louder and livelier, and the air conditioning more aggressive. So it's best to get an earlier booking.
Mr Fogg’s Tavern
Mr Fogg’s Tavern is an homage to Phileas Fogg - the fictional character who famously travelled around the world in 80 days. You enter the tavern through a hidden door and are met with a multitude of hanging objects and oddities. With only about 50 people in the whole tavern, it has a certain air of otherworldly exclusivity. That said, it’s fairly snug - so expect to get to know your neighbours.
To start, we opted for the smoked sausage and the refreshing walnut salad. From here however, things got stodgier. For my main, I went for the roast venison while my guest chose the roast turkey. Both were served - by a man in a top hat - with roast potatoes, root vegetables and greens. Delicious, warming and traditional, the food seemed to fit the Victorian setting.
To round off the meal, we had the cheese and biscuits including the most powerful camembert I’ve ever come across. But of course, no meal is complete without a few cocktails. The Punch of The Bison, featuring Zubrowka vodka, Belvedere grapefruit vodka, orange juice and Earl Grey tea was a definite highlight.
The decor in Mr Fogg’s Tavern might lead you to believe you've travelled back in time which, I imagine, is the overall aim. My only warning would be that for the gin parlour upstairs, you may need a separate booking. Overall however, Mr Fogg's is fantastically irregular. A truly unusual pub, its charm lies in its uniqueness.
The Refinery Bankside
Centred on urban escapism, The Refinery Bankside provides drinking and dining in centrally located Southwark. It comprises an L-shaped bar and restaurant, each taking one wing. In the restaurant, grid-style room dividers do little to muffle the sound from the bar, but the sheer size of the place means that it’s not much of an issue.
To start, I went for the crispy duck flatbread which, in hindsight, was clearly a “sharer” and not a starter. My guest opted for the chorizo scotch egg - with smoked paprika mayonnaise - which was incredibly moreish.
For the main, my guest went for the buttermilk chicken burger which was nicely cooked, crispy and delicious. Meanwhile, I opted for the braised beef shin which, while nicely flaky, was too dry for my liking.
The Refinery boasts generous portions and modern decor. Standout cocktails included the “Gingerbread Man” and the brilliantly titled “Collin Fennel” which featured Tanqueray, absinthe, spiced sugar and fennel.
From quirky cafes to ridiculous restaurants, London is awash with strange ideas that have materialised into eateries which are calling your name. So next time you're making a dinner reservation, don't go for that place with the candlelit tables in a quiet part of town. And definitely don't go for that reliable chain. Dare to dine differently and take a leap into the unknown.