London Heathrow Airport reported March 2022 was its busiest month since the start of the pandemic, with passenger travel from North America, in particular, increasing by more than 60 per cent from January 2022. Yikes! As the world springs back to life, and we hanker after a trip to London, it got me thinking about my favourite bars and restaurants, gems I turn to for respite when the sightseeing, shopping and wandering get too much. If you’re heading to London and want an escape hatch, this post is for you. My selection of hidden bars and restaurants in London includes something for every taste, occasion and budget, whether it’s a date with a friend, yourself, a loved one, a catch-up with family or a celebration. It goes without saying I’ll add to the list if I come across any other worthy entries.
The India Club, A time-worn bar and Indian Restaurant hidden inside a little-known hotel
If you find yourself near Covent Garden looking for a quiet, understated and down-to-earth place for a drink and maybe a bite to eat, this 70-year old Indian restaurant and bar is an absolute treat to discover. You’ll find it hidden up a flight of stairs inside the unassuming Hotel Strand Continental which no one has ever heard of.
As well as its secret location, it also has an interesting history. It was founded in 1951 just after Indian independence, initially as a members’ club by Krishna Menon, chairman of the Indian delegation at the United Nations General Assembly from 1953 to 1962, President Nehru and Lady Mountbatten, to ‘promote and further Indo-British friendship’. It quickly became a vibrant hub for a growing British South Asian community in London. Today it looks pretty much as it did when it opened in the 1950s, with simple decor, walls hung with the odd Independence-era portrait, and has the feel of a classic first-generation ‘curry house’. Foodwise, it specialises in simple and cheap south Indian cooking, including vegetarian and non-vegetarian options. Think scampi pilau, chicken with mushrooms, egg curry, and snacks like masala dosa.
In September 2017 it was saved from being partly demolished and turned into an upmarket hotel after a petition reached over 26,000 signatures led the council to reject the redevelopment plans.
Find The India Club inside the Hotel Strand Continental, 143 Strand, London WC2R 1JA
Sessions Arts Club, Upbeat and stylish fine dining in a renovated 18th-century courthouse
Sessions Arts Club in Clerkenwell is a buzzy restaurant set upstairs in a reimagined 18th-century courthouse where artwork and crumbling, dramatic décor are the backdrop to dishes prepared by chef Florence Knight – who used to work at a lovely little place in Berwick Street called Polpetto. It somehow managed to open and even thrive during the pandemic and is great for a splurge.
Dishes range from £10-£25 and mix British and European vibes: think sea bream with parsley and eel with creme fraiche. Not surprisingly, you have to compete to get a table. Bookings open 30 days in advance at 7am so set your alarms! It’s slightly easier to get a table for lunch.
Find Sessions Arts Club at Old Sessions House, 24 Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0NA
the Tiroler Hut, a cosy Austrian-themed restaurant hidden in a west london basement
The Tiroler Hut, as its name suggests, is a tiny Austrian-themed restaurant. It’s one-of-a-kind and you’ll find it tucked in a basement down a narrow set of stairs just off Westbourne Grove in West London. It’s been in the same spot for 52 years, and according to all the photos on the walls, has welcomed Hugh Grant, Kate Moss, and countless other revellers. Décorwise, think Alpine chalet meets Twin Peaks set – dark lighting, low ceilings, wood-panelled walls, chintzy curtains and tablecloths.
The best part? The entertainment! Halfway through your bowl of goulash, the owner, Josef Friedman – in his 80s now – plays songs on various instruments including a vast collection of cowbells and an accordion.
While researching this post, I read that he lost his beloved collection of instruments in a fire which ravaged the little restaurant in 2019. Apparently, a Crowdfunder has since been launched to raise money to help the west London gem restaurant back on its feet.
Find Tiroler Hut at 27 Westbourne Grove, London W2 4UA
The Churchill Arms, a beautifully decorated West London Pub hiding an exotic secret restaurant
If you’re looking for a traditional English pub with a twist for dinner on your next trip to London, here’s a place in Notting Hill I want to share with you. The Churchill Arms is probably one of the best-dressed pubs in the country. They go above and beyond to make it look like a giant bouquet of flowers all year round and always put in extra effort decorating for special holidays and big football matches.
It’s a similar situation inside, thousands of little British novelty objects and kitschy keepsakes are grabbing for your attention. It’s full of cosy nooks to curl up with a good book or have a catch-up with a friend, but if it’s dinner you’re after, you’ll find a Thai restaurant hidden out the back. They serve authentic family recipes from the Thai chefs that moved into the pub more than 25 years ago.
Find The Churchill Arms at 119 Kensington Church Street, London W8 7LN
WC Clapham, A cosy underground wine and cheese bar located in a former Victorian… lavatory
Don’t let the fact this little wine bar is set inside a former toilet put you off enjoying an evening at this architecturally beautiful venue in southwest London. You’ll find this architecturally beautiful gem hidden beneath Clapham Common Tube Station, where it’s been for over 100 years. Public toilets first appeared in c. 1848 around London and this one lay derelict for more than 30 years before it was restored by the company that owns it now.
While you sip your fine wine and cheese, you can marvel at all the original features around you – the majority of which have been preserved. These include the mosaic floors and tiled walls in the dining room, as well as the original wooden stalls and Royal Doulton porcelain toilets in the gents’ loo, and the attendant’s office which now forms the framework of ht bar. Don’t miss the framed pieces in the ‘actual’ WC found during our refurbishment process, which make for some interesting reading.
Find WC Clapham at Clapham Common South Side, London SW4 7AA
Do you have a secret London restaurant to share?