Area Guide: Clerkenwell
Just Opened London’s Area Guides cover a combination of recently opened venues and established London favourites, to make sure you get the full lowdown on where to spend your time and hard-earned cash.
Words: Sian Meades
Clerkenwell is a Jekyll and Hyde of a place. In the week it’s busy, thanks to its myriad offices and design studios. Hatton Garden becomes a place of bustling industry, Leather Lane is still rough around the edges (and we hope it is ever thus).
On the weekend, everyone goes home and it takes on a different kind of busy. The lazy hungover brunch and casual ‘can’t be arsed to cook dinner’ sort of busy. It’s central but slightly tricky to get to, and like all of the best parts of London, it feels like its own village. And you’re never short of a place to eat or drink, whatever day of the week it is.
Localist is the new kid in town and it’s catering very well to a Clerkenwell niche: people in the office who are having a birthday. Not too expensive, on the nicer side of a pub meal so it still feels special, enough variety to keep everyone happy (even Barbara ‘I’m on a gluten free paleo vegetarian but no avocado diet’).
Beautiful decor (if a little Riding House Cafe) and interesting ingredients keep it from being boring, but it doesn’t stray too far from the norm. If you’re after a simple lunch and a decent bottle of wine without any fuss or queues, The Localist ticks those boxes nicely.
The Localist, 38-42 St John Street, EC1M 4DL
Best for… a fancy lunch
Hoo boy, this pub has seen some incarnations over the years. Most of them entirely forgettable. In an area that’s packed to the gills with decent places to have dinner, the ones that don’t factor onto your radar when you walk by tend to close pretty quickly.
The people behind The Culpeper took over this Clerkenwell Green spot at the start of the year and they’ve really done a number on the place. When even the butter is incredible and made on site, you know the rest of your lunch is going to be excellent.
Every dish is well thought out and every single ingredient – down to the salted almonds in the courgette salad, to the whipped feta – is a treat. Renowned gastropub The Eagle is nearby and gets a lot of attention, but we’d rather come here.
The Green, 29 Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0DU
Best for… a twist on a classic
They call it ‘Britalian’, but don’t let that put you off. The Clove Club team have come over all Italian with their second restaurant, and it’s a simple concept: Italian food made with produce sourced within the British Isles. So Orkney scallops and Hereford beef are given a classic Italian makeover. We’re happy as long as they keep serving up plates of fluffy Parmesan fries.
Luca, 88 St John Street, EC1M 4EH
Best for… tacos
Clerkenwell has always been a hot spot for Mexican food, thanks to the huge amount of office workers looking for a quick bite that’s more interesting than a Boots meal deal.
The site for Breddos was originally meant to be a dumpling restaurant, but the plans were shelved. Instead, every sense is bombarded in this noisy and brash taco joint. Flavours are bold, music is loud – actually, everything is pretty out there. Long may it continue.
Breddos, 82 Goswell Road, EC1V 7DB
Best for… an early dinner
Berber & Q Shawarma Bar
Exmouth Market is best avoided on Friday evenings when it becomes a bit of a playground for post-work drinkers spilling out of pubs. It’s an altogether more enjoyable experience on a Saturday.
You still need to be quick, though, because Londoners are savvy about queuing if there’s a decent feed to be had. Berber & Q’s Shawarma Bar is worth the wait. You’ll ‘accidentally’ over order every time.
Berber & Q Shawarma Bar, 46 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE
Best for… classic British
Quality Chop House
Stop reading this and go and order some confit potatoes immediately.
Quality Chop House, 88-94 Farringdon Road EC1R 3EA
Best for… avoiding the queues
Polpo might not be as exciting as it once was, but this branch remains something of a secret. When everyone is still snaking their way down Exmouth Market waiting for a table, you’ll be tucking into your pork and fennel meatballs and drinking Aperol. It never feels too quiet, but we’ve never had to wait for a table, except when we wanted to because we fancied a cocktail in the bar downstairs.
Polpo, 3 Cowcross St, EC1M 6DR
Best for… meat
Of course, St John makes our list. There’s no doubting that their nose to tail eating helped revolutionise London’s food scene, but their innovation goes further than that.
It’s in the wine, it’s in the bakery. It’s packed into their doughnuts with their delicious custard. Oh goodness, the doughnuts. St John excels in the oft-forgotten and it works. And while we’re waxing lyrical, let’s give a shout out to the beautiful restaurant space.
St John, 26 St John Street, EC1M 4AY
Best for… cocktails
There is one hidden bit of respite on Exmouth Market. Upstairs at the always rammed Exmouth Arms is 5CC. The cocktail chain does this all over London; find a popular pub with a beautiful upstairs room and turn it into something a little bit special. There’s a branch in Harrild & Sons on Farringdon Road, too, but this is by far our favourite. Make sure you book and order an old fashioned.
5CC, Exmouth Arms, 23 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QB
Best for… an aperitif (or a nightcap)
The Zetter Townhouse
It’s no secret that we love The Zetter Townhouse bar, but everyone else in the area does, too. The eccentric bar full of curiosities is packed most nights now, which means we have to make the most of our favourite cocktail times: far too early and far too late.
Zetter Townhouse, 49-50 St John’s Square, EC1V 4JJ
Best for… burritos
If Daddy Donkey was open all the time they’d be top of everyone’s burrito list. Sadly, the teeny corner spot is closed in the evenings and weekends, so only those in the area get to experience the best burritos in London.
Daddy Donkey, 50b Leather Lane EC1N 7TP
Photo: Ewan Munro on Flickr
Best for… a late night
The Old China Hand
The best nights in the Old China Hand tend not to be planned. We’ve never been there before 10pm. You go for one more drink, then run into a friend, then someone else joins after working late and before you know it’s 1am and you’re still playing board games and drinking excellent craft beer and someone has ordered a pizza from the takeaway down the road and you’re definitely not going to make that 8am meeting.
The Old China Hand, 8 Tysoe Street, EC1R 4RQ