The best Chinese restaurants in London - Cooking Index
It could not be said that London is famed for its Chinese restaurants in the same way as it is for its Indian restaurants but the quality of Chinese food available in London has risen sharply in the past decade. This is mainly because British diners have come to understand that Chinese food has many different regional variations and that there is more to Chinese food than egg fried rice, lemon chicken and prawn crackers.
There have been Chinese restaurants in London since the 1890s, although the vast majority of these were hole-in-the-wall joints serving the poor immigrant Chinese communities who were largely servants and manual labourers. There were a small number of smarter Chinese restaurants which catered for diplomats and traders who had lived and worked in China and across Asia; for example, Cathay opened in Picadilly Circus in 1908. The 1950s saw the start of the wholesale expansion of Chinese restaurants across the UK, led by staff from the Chinese embassy in London who fell out of political favour following the UK government’s recognition of the Communist party.
There are now more than 14,000 restaurants serving over 100 million meals a year; an estimated 75% of Britain’s overseas Chinese are employed in the catering trade. A crackdown on illegal workers, particularly in Chinatown, has meant that the supply of new chefs from China has declined markedly in the past 12 months.
For the average Londoner, Chinese food is all about Chinatown, which sits just south of Soho in central London. Peak time is usually after pub closing time on a Friday and Saturday night and the quality of food on offer is usually well below par. Unsurprisingly, Chinese people I know say that most Chinatown restaurants are nothing special and should be avoided. That said, there are some good restaurants that have opened in Chinatown recently, most noticeably HK Diner and Haozhan.
Elsewhere Chinese restaurants have started to open that specialises in regional specialities – Hunan in Pimlico and Yming in Greek Street, Soho both specialise in northern Chinese cuisine (although Hunan also has a large selection of Taiwanese dishes) while Szechuan cuisine is widely covered - Bar Shu in Frith Street, Soho (focussing on offal based dishes), Snazz Sichuan in Euston, Sichuan Restaurant in Acton, and Angeles in Kilburn are all Szechuan specialists.
My recommendations for the best Chinese restaurants in London are:
Best dim sum in London
Branches of Royal China:
Docklands/Canary Wharf: 30 Westferry Circus, London, E14 8RR
Queensway: 13 Queensway, London, W2 4QJ
I used to travel extensively in south-east Asia and over the usual evening meal of sea cucumbers and shark fins soup (I know it’s cruel…I wasn’t doing the ordering) my host would usually turn to me and tell me that if I wanted really good Chinese food in London there was one special place I should try and find. About 90% of the time I would be told to go to Royal China. It slightly deflated them when I told them that I went there pretty much every weekend for Sunday lunch and that it was the first ever restaurant my daughter had been to. Perhaps one of the most telling things about this restaurant chain is that they have opened a branch in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore – talking about taking snow to the Eskimos.
My preference is for Royal China’s branch in Baker Street, although the Queensway branch of Royal China is good too. The other branches don’t seem to be quite so good, although it is hard to work out why because most of the dim sum is made at a central catering place and then shipped in (uncooked) to the branches. Perhaps it is simply that the best chefs get put into the biggest and most popular branches and they produce a more consistent output.
It is hard to have a bad meal at Royal China but most people I know go for the dim sum, which is served from 11am at weekends and noon on weekdays until 5pm. If you want to avoid queuing, especially at weekends, you need to get there early; I would recommend arriving no later than 11.45am on a Saturday or Sunday and shortly after noon on a weekday. If you’re later than that you may well queue for up to an hour, depending on whether it is a special occasion (Chinese New Year and Mother’s Day are especially packed) and how big a table you want (a table for 10 will make it an especially long wait).
The dim sum is not too expensive – I would normally expect to spend about £15 per head for a meal for four. Particular favourites of mine include roast pork buns, steamed dumplings with coriander and prawn, steamed dumpling with prawn and chives, vegetable dumplings, scallop dumplings, roast pork puffs, vegetarian bean curd rolls, various cheung fun (eg Royal China, vegetarian, prawn) and sesame pork buns. There are also seasonal specials; recent features include prawn and crab dumplings with almonds, steamed fish with mango and Vietnamese fresh rolls. For those who like their food totally authentic there are plenty of things like sticky rice wrapped in a banana leaf and chicken’s feet.
The one potential downside to Royal China is that some people feel that the service can be quite abrupt. It is certainly true that at peak times they try and hurry you through the meal and it can be somewhat chaotic. About 10% of the time one of our dishes fails to turn up, although it is now a lot better since they computerised all the ordering. It is not elegant service and it can sometimes feel as though they are slapping the food down on the table, but that makes it authentically Hong Kong! Once you are a regular they treat you fantastically well, which may not be much consolation to the average reader but shows they can deliver the goods if they need to. Some people particularly object to the 13% service charge that is added to all bills, especially as they leave the service option open when you pay by credit card in what looks like an attempt to get people to pay service twice.
If you are not careful you will end up at one of two Royal China Clubs, a more expensive, upmarket version of Royal China. One is located in the original Baker Street Royal China premises which they turned into a Japanese restaurant briefly before realising that they were better at Chinese food. The other is in St John’s Wood. While the food is very good at both restaurants, the bill can be pretty astronomical. If you’re being taken out on a business account and money is no object then go to Royal China Club but if you pay your own way then stick to Royal China.
Other good dim sum restaurants
3-5 Glentworth Street
Tel: 020 7486 3515
I used to eat lunch twice a week for about eight months at Phoenix Palace so I feel like I know the dim sum menu fairly inside out. Several Hong Kong friends prefer Princess Garden to Royal China as they feel it is more authentic but my personal experience is that the food tends to be slightly greasier than Royal China (that probably does mean it’s more authentic then).
All the classics of dim sum are on offer – roast pork buns, sticky rice parcels in lotus leaves, various prawn dumplings, fried beancurd rolls and so on – plus some interesting specials. Recent features have included soya sauce belly pork, crispy scallop dumplings and pork and prawn turnip patty.
The prices are very reasonable for central London and I know that a lot of the staff from the nearby Chinese embassy come here for lunches and dinners.
100 Walworth Road
Elephant & Castle
Tel: 020 7277 3388
I have not yet eaten at Dragon Castle but friends who I trust have and recommend this dim sum specialist in the wastelands of Elephant and Castle. A hotpot of braised garlic, pork and eel, jellyfish tossed in sesame seeds and salty clams with chilli all got particular mentions as gastronomic highlights.
15 Broadwick St
Tel: 020 7494 8888
In April 2005, Restaurant magazine released its fourth annual global ranking of the 50 Best Restaurants and Yauatcha ranked 43rd, alongside nine other London eating houses. The place was immediately packed and Alan Yau, its owner, was hailed as a genius. In November 2005 it was awarded a Michelin star, only the fifth Chinese restaurant in London to get such an accolade.
Is the food good? Yes, there are lots of really interesting dim sum to try and some really excellent innovations and experiments. Are the prices too high? Yes, it is some of the most expensive dim sum you will eat in the world.
What’s the menu like? Examples include salt and pepper quails, venison puffs, dark green spinach cube with crunchy prawns and water chestnut, har gau (scallop and prawn with fish eggs), shark’s fin and seafood dumpling consommé, pan-fried bean curd roll with prawn and yellow chive, gold-leaf dumplings with vegetarian shark’s fin, Chinese chive dumplings and pork and spring onions cakes.
Did I enjoy myself? Sort of. The basement space the restaurant occupies is slightly cramped, the noise levels are high and I often felt hurried by the staff. The food was great – and that is what I care about most – but I didn’t feel compelled to make this a regular haunt.
Incidentally, in January 2008 Alan Yau sold a majority interest in Yauatcha (and also Hakkasan) to Tasameem, part of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. I have no idea whether it has affected the quality of the food but I am always wary of when founders sell their businesses as personal experience tells me that focus is often lost under new owners, especially those who are pure investors looking for a financial return.
Chinese restaurants (non dim sum)
22 Wardour Street
London W1D 6QQ
Tel: 020 7434 9544
HK Diner is my current favourite Chinese restaurant in London. Please note that it really is diner style eating – no tablecloths and no reservations. The service is brisk and, some might say, not particularly friendly. But the prices are incredible value and the food is, almost without exception, great.
As you enter you pass a small kitchen area where vast cauldrons of gizzards and tripe tend to be stewing, alongside various ducks, cuts of belly pork etc that are hanging up. This is a good sign, in my opinion.
You will then almost certainly be offered a table in the basement. Avoid this if you possibly can. It’s much better to wait for a table upstairs than get stuck in a slightly airless, dingy room downstairs.
Be sure to order from the Chinese speciality menu (a single laminated sheet with the menu in Chinese on one side and in English on the other). This is one of the few places in London that offers flowering Chinese chives in a wide variety of styles. Other favourites include deep fried aubergine, hot and sour soup (there are lots of Chinese soups not listed on the English menu but if you say what you want then the waitresses will usually get the kitchen to prepare it for you), deep fried prawns with chilli and salt and steamed chilli crab . The crispy aromatic duck is very good too and was being widely ordered by Chinese patrons, which is not something I see that often in and around Chinatown. One of the best strategies is simply to tell your waitress/waiter what kind of food you like and how spicy you want it and let them make a selection – but you need to point out that you do not want the typical Western dish otherwise you’ll be getting chicken in a black bean sauce.
If you’re prepared in advance for a non glamorous night out but you like great Chinese food then HK Diner is a great choice. If you’re looking to impress someone on a first date you might want to look elsewhere.
51 Pimlico Road
Tel: 020 7730 5712
Pretty much every review I have ever read of Hunan starts off with a comment about how unlikely a location Pimlico is for a decent Chinese restaurant. And it is true that unless you live in Victoria then Pimlico is a pain to get to. However it is worth the trip.
The key to this place is to get Mr Peng (or his son, Michael) to recommend what to eat. The owner, who is Taiwanese, will generally suggest you get a ‘feast’ of ten small plates and then the kitchen will start producing an array of excellent dishes. Several Chinese friends have commented that it is the best Chinese food in London, which is high praise indeed. The selection is ever changing and depends what was available in the market that morning but it is always varied and interesting.
One word of warning, it is a small restaurant (35 covers) so it is well worth booking in advance. At about £45 to £60 per person (depending on what you eat) it is somewhat expensive but excellent value and highly recommended.
Incidentally, the food comes from all over China, not just Hunan.
I’ve also had good meals at Superstar (17 Lisle Street, London, WC2H 7BE) with a group of friends but it’s definitely a menu that is designed for a non Chinese audience and I felt too many concessions had been made to a Western palate. But of it’s type, it is well worth trying.
I would also like to mention Wong Kei (41-43 Wardour Street, London, W1D 6PY) which has a reputation for some of the rudest waiters in London and refusing to take credit cards. For some reason it also has a reputation for good Chinese food. In my opinion, this is a place to avoid. The scenario is usually that someone who has been brought up on takeaway Chinese food in some dismal Yorkshire village announces that they know a fantastic restaurant in Chinatown. At this point my brain starts flashing red neon warning signs and about 10 seconds later they say it is called Wong Kei. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to follow their advice. There probably are some genuinely good dishes to be found at Wong Kei but your party will almost certainly insist on ordering sweet and sour chicken and beef with black bean sauce and you’ll wonder how the hell you agreed to this nightmare. There are plenty of other decent places within a 100 metre radius so there is no need to go to Wong Kei.
In the same vein, you may find that they mention New World, a cavernous restaurant opposite the Fire Station at the other end of Chinatown. I have to confess that I ate their often as a teenager and always thought it good. They were one of the original London restaurants to offer dim sum and are still unusual in that they offer a trolley service (waitresses pushing round carts with all the dishes on and you point at whatever looks good and hope for the best), which some consider to be authentically Hong Kong. My last few meals at New World have been disappointing though and they seem to have rested on their laurels for the past five years; this doesn’t stop it from being extremely popular.
Harbour City is another restaurant that used to have a high reputation among London’s Chinatown restaurants but now seems to have lost some of its appeal. I won’t be going back there.
What do other people think?
All the above are purely my own views. Recent articles in British food magazines about Chinese food have come up with a few other ideas.
Jay Rayner, food critic of The Observer (and probably the most reliable of the food critics in the national newspapers as he writes mainly about the food rather than how long his journey to the restaurant took or the conversation the table next door to him were having) has the following top four Chinese restaurants in Britain in the May 27th 2007 edition of Observer Food Monthly:
3. Yang Sing
4. Red Chilli
Restaurateur Alan Yau (the man behind Wagama, Busaba Eathai,Yauatcha and Hakkasan) named his top five Chinese UK restaurants for Observer Food Monthly as Maxim's (Ealing), Royal China (Bayswater), Dynasty (Bristol), Dragon-I (Glasgow) and his own Yauatcha (although he was told he had to include that by OFM staff, apparently). Honourable mentions went to Hunan in Pimlico and Singapore Garden in South Hampstead.