There are more times in my adult life than I reasonably expected that I’ve had good reason to reference the Shrek films. “Get out me swamp!” is a suitable and highly mature way to tell someone to bugger off. Shoving your head through the front of the car to ask “Are we there yet?” in an approximation of Eddie Murphy’s voice multiple times on a long car journey is peak humour. And the soundtrack tune ‘All Star’ by Smash Mouth is superbly relevant to the increasingly rapid passage of time – ‘The years keep coming and they don’t stop coming,’ I silently think, as another month ticks pass. The song pops into my head as I realise I’ve lived in this country for four years. And it’s been cycling through my brain at regular intervals this week as it occurs to me that 2022 is very nearly over. How the hell did that happen?
It has been a year defined by consumption. The first 365 days without lockdowns in three years, 2022 saw restaurants come back with a vengeance. Existing eateries didn’t just reopen; new ones cropped up at a dizzying pace. My inbox was a frenzy of subject lines announcing new openings, and invites to all corners of the city to try out said newbies. And yet, all these months later, I can honestly say I haven’t been impressed by many of them. We are enormously spoiled in this city when it comes to dining, with a number of tried-and-true restaurants that stand the test of time because they’re reliably, wonderfully spectacular. It takes a lot for somewhere new to match up and unfortunately this year, many have missed the mark.
When my editor Mike Gibson and I were trying to come up with our five picks of this year’s best openings, we both angsted over it, honestly struggling to name five that we thought lived up to the places that we already hold as favourites. I don’t know if it’s the impact of Covid, the staffing crisis, or simply financial barriers stifling creativity, but in a year where it seemed like there was an avalanche of new openings, few managed to seriously impress.
And yet, there were some that undeniably did. Picking our top five may have been difficult, but the places on our lists seem like restaurants that will genuinely dazzle and survive. Places that have brought something new to the table (both literally and figuratively) and pushed the boundaries of what it means to eat in London. But why just take our word for it? Alongside our favourites, we consulted some of the city’s best chefs for their pick of the year’s best openings, too. Happy reading, and I’ll see you in this same column slot in 2023, freshly tanned from a month in NZ and ready to eat my way around the city once more.
Molly’s best openings of 2022
Akwasi Brenya-Mensa’s food is incredible, there is no doubt, but part of the joy of Tatale is the way in which it brings conversations around African food to the front and centre. Tatale is part of a group of restaurants finally giving West African cuisine the attention it deserves in the London restaurant scene.
Acme Fire Cult
This was one of those restaurants where I grudgingly loved it despite the fact the name made me want to run and hide. I hate gimmicky names, I hate that they referred to the establishment as ‘It’s not a restaurant, it’s a cult!’ and yet, after just one meal, I found myself a fully fledged member, ready to dedicate my free will to its spiritual leaders: Andrew Clarke and Daniel Watkins. They won me over with those marmite-y, parmesan-y chunks of grilled bread and the frankly glorious if vaguely carcinogenic charred vegetables.
Ok, look, I know Akoko has been around since 2020 but this is my column and therefore you’re playing by my rules and I’m allowing myself this addition because the restaurant welcomed a new chef this year: Ayo Adeyemi. Joining the restaurant off the back of a stint at Tippling Club in Singapore, alongside time at restaurants like The Fat Duck and Taj Campton Place Restaurant, Adeyemi combines classical training and experience with the flavours of his West African heritage. Each dish came with a story and a detailed overview of how the key ingredients have been woven into both his memories and the food of a nation which felt both informative and deeply nostalgic. It was one of those meals that perfectly personified the ability of food to transcend simply items constructed on a plate.
Plaza Khao Gaeng
Few restaurants have created as much of a ruckus as Plaza Khao Gaeng. Whispers began to spread like wildfire of people being so overwhelmed by the spice levels that they were sweating and passing out (lol). Did you hear about the guy who had to be given an ice pack while his eyes streamed with tears? How about the guy who coughed so hard he almost broke a blood vessel? I don’t know if any of it is true, but I do know I have a pretty good tolerance for spice and I still had to be brought some sad little milky drink to help tone down the chilli’s powerful impact. It was all good chat, but it also detracted from what is so great about Plaza Khao Gaeng, and that is the nuance of flavour and commitment to great ingredients that makes the food feel so authentic. On one visit I was sitting next to two Thai women who spent ten minutes rhapsodising about how the restaurant and the food felt exactly home. If that’s not a seal of approval, then I don’t know what is.
Special mention to: Rochelle Canteen
I wasn’t kidding when I said I struggled to pick five new openings for this list, and so as per my aforementioned note that this is my list and I make the rules, I’m including Rochelle Canteen because it was responsible for my favourite meal this year. Obviously the food is reliably wonderful, the setting bucolic and the service friendly and prompt, but truly this was one of those meals that was so fantastic because of the exact time, place and company. It was a scorching late summer day, the garden was in full bloom and I was with my family for the first time in three years. Quite simply, no other meal in London this year could beat it.
Mike’s best openings of 2022
The first UK restaurant from Adriana Cavita ended up being long, long-awaited, with the opening pushed back into early this year, but it was worth it for the acclaimed Mexican chef's deft, refined and flavour-forward dishes.
Upstairs at The George
Many a pub menu these days reads like a good executive chef is involved; sadly, the experience at a lot of them doesn't quite match up. Not in the new breed of food-focused London pubs, however – and both Dominic Jacobs' ownership and James Knappett's direction mean a modern take on British comfort food at Marylebone's The George is phenomenally good, especially in the upstairs private dining room, which is complemented by one of the best English wine lists in the capital.
Chantelle Nicholson's inherited ownership of Tredwell's and her pop-up All's Well in Hackney both ended up as short-term projects, but for good reason: her first permanent restaurant under her own banner, Apricity, seems like the place her philosophy and extensive experience can shine, with sensitively cooked plates that make innovative use of food waste and highlight spectacular producers.
We've all got one or two opinions on Gordon Ramsay. One of mine is that, despite the sweary TV appearances and bombastic Las Vegas Strip venues, the man still knows how to execute an exquisite restaurant, and 1890 at the Savoy is further evidence, alongside the still three-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea. Flawless tasting menus and some incredible wines make this a must.
Restaurant St Bart's
Tasting menus are also what you'll find here – practised at its owners' previous restaurants Fenn and Nest, and arguably perfected here. A beautiful room, a beautifully curated dining experience and brilliant execution make this a contender for the best opening of the year, in my opinion.
Stevie Parle, chef-owner of Pastaio - The Audley
I’m not big into pubs really but I loved The Audley, go for the food and drink (especially the London dip sandwich) but stay for the wonderful art especially the best ceiling in London commissioned from British artist Phyllida Barlow
Daniel Watkins, co founder of Acme Fire Cult - Cavita
I would say my favourite launch of the year is Cavita. With delicious, authentic Mexican food cooked over open fire, Adriana and the team have created a warm comfortable restaurant with great decor and vibes. Stand out dishes for me include the Mussels esquites and Pulpo a la brasas.
Jun Tanaka, chef-founder of The Ninth - Cadet
My favourite opening of 2022 is Cadet in Newington Green. It’s a wine bar and shop serving home-made charcuterie and small plates. I absolutely love this place! What makes it so special are the combined talents of the owners Tom Beattie, Francis Roberts, George Jephson and head chef Jamie Smart. Francis and Tom have a wine import business and they have curated an exciting natural wine list for Cadet. George is a charcutier so the menu will always have either a Jambon Persille, a Pate en Croute or something equally delicious. Jamie’s menu is full of the style of dishes that you will be happy eating twice a week. And the best part about Cadet is the service - warm, relaxed and super friendly. It’s the perfect neighbourhood spot!
John Javier, The Tent (at the end of the universe) - Cadet, Alex Dilling and Hotel Café Royal and Ikoyi
Cadet - My mates Jamie and Tom just opened up this killer wine bar in Newington Green. It’s just this super chill, neighbourhood spot serving banging wines and tasty food. The folks working there are an alright bunch too.
Alex Dilling at Hotel Cafe Royal - I haven’t been here yet but the moment I get the chance, this is on the top of my list of new places to try. Alex’s food looks incredible and I’ve only heard good things about it.
Ikoyi 2.0 - I'm really excited about this one. Jeremy made pretty spectacular food out of the tiny kitchen in the restaurant's previous incarnation. I can't wait to see how it's evolved in the new space.
Dom Fernando, chef/owner of Paradise - The Tamil Prince
The Tamil Prince in Islington was one of my favourite openings of 2022. Easy going pub vibes, fantastic cocktails, and a gorgeous South Indian sharing menu – the Ohanna bhatura is out of this world!
Charlie Tayler, head chef of Aulis - Plaza Khao Gaeng
My best opening of this year was Plaza Khao Gaeng at Arcade Food Hall. The menu is delicious, unapologetically spicy, and amazing value! The standout dish for me is the Muu Hong braised pork belly.
Chris Shaw, head chef of Townsend - Elis
I had the chance to try Rafael Cagali's Elis soon after it opened and was really impressed. It was cool to try some Brazilian flavours and ingredients which you really don't see much in London. A good addition to the East London scene.
Yuma Hashemi, chef/owner of The Drunken Butler - Berenjak Borough
Berenjak has always been one of my favourite spots to come on a day off as they make the kind of food I grew up eating. Their new, larger spot in Borough is perfect for going with a big group of friends and I particularly love their Ghormeh Sabzi!
Will Bowlby, chef patron of Kricket – Speedboat Bar
Speedboat Bar in Soho was a fun experience when I went. Restaurants are about warmth, hospitality and fun and Speedboat has it in droves!
Marc Summers, owner of Bubala – The Tamil Prince
Amazing food in a great pub setting, I love everything about it! Even more exciting as it’s only 10 minutes from my flat.
Jack Croft and Will Murray, chef patrons Fallow – Bottle + Rye
As South London locals we very much enjoy Bottle + Rye, a banging wine and cocktail list with some delectable nibbles! A new firm local favourite for us Brixtonians.
Greg Marchand, owner of Frenchie – Alex Dilling at Hotel Café Royal
I just loved the very precise cooking from Alex Dilling here; so well executed and the food was utterly delicious. He transformed French classics into modern cuisine which I like.