The best vegetarian and vegan fine dining in London
Meat-free menus get a fine dining makeover with big-name chefs and venues
Upscale veggie options can be found at Pollen Street Social.
It’s far from an open secret, but strolling along the Thames Path is surely the most underappreciated activity in London. With small interruptions, be it a bridge, apartment block or members’ club, the riverside walk stretches for 184 miles from the depths of the Cotswolds to the industrial sites of East London. All along, the sense of tranquillity that pervades is medicine for the heaving mile-a-minute city, even in its busiest junction along the Southbank, which offers a dizzying amount of must-see shows in its unofficial European centre for arts on one side, and the calming river with views of London’s unmistakable still skyline on the other. Glorious.
London’s second most underappreciated activity is on the other side of the spectrum, within the confines of four walls. It’s vegetarian fine dining, and it’s found in the upper floors of imposing buildings, or tucked away on a residential street, or in rooms through the annals of hotels.
Cosmopolitan London has always had strong casual offerings, like the institution that is Mildred’s, and the buffet-style Tibits on Heddon Street. But vegetarians, reducetarians, flexitarians and vegans are on the increase – latest stats suggest up to a quarter of evening meals in the UK are meat-free and even KFC will introduce vegetarian burgers to its UK fast food joints next year. Critically, the trend is seeping upwards.
A new survey from hospitality recruiter The Change Group found that half the fine dining restaurants in London now have vegetarian options, a number which belies the point that they’re now carefully considered and it’s no longer the finickity option stuck on the menu as an afterthought (the gluten-free diet has inherited that burden instead).
Until now, San Francisco held the crown for meat-free fine dining with the likes of Millennium and Green Restaurant in its midst, but these days, veer off the Thames Path and a vegetarian or vegan tasting menu won’t be far away. Most likely, it will be in a restaurant that cater for meat-eaters and non-meat eaters alike – a move in the right direction, especially for those of us who have zero chance of prising a dinner party away from scallops and steak.
So praise be that upscale veggie options can be found in Pollen Street Social (Jason Atheron’s buzzy Michelin-starred venue), Asia de Cuba (think chilli-rubbed tofu and black bean empanadas) and Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester: the three Michelin-starred restaurant from the chef who’s famously fond of meat-free options for ecological reasons.
Top of the tian for mixed-menu dining is Gauthier Soho. It’s found unassumingly in a cosy townhouse in Soho, the heart of London’s restaurant scene. Five years ago it served 20kg of foie gras to its diners every week as a high-end French restaurant. Then chef-patron Alexis Gauthier had a Peta-prompted epiphany and turned vegan, and is slowly leading its menu to the same. Now, 75 per cent of its menu is plant-based, with traditional options like chicken and venison still present and popular alongside inventions like “faux gras”: a rich, meaty mixture of lentils, walnuts, shallots and mushrooms topped with vegan butter.
Its vegan tasting menu, Les Plantes (£70/€80), is full of such interesting options: my visit to its front room-style dining area last year rounded off with a yolky mango coulis filling encased in a vegan meringue ball made with aquafaba. A medal for whoever stumbled on the fact that chickpea brine is a perfect replacement for egg whites in this instance.
Served over the course of a long, lingering evening, the eight-course menu is a testament to the idea that while most talented chefs can do great things with chicken, it takes a special level of pizzazz to turn vegan food into nouvelle cuisine.
Yet the breadth of options in London means that high-end vegan dining can also dial back the creativity and let the ingredients do the talking. That’s the ethos in Theo Randall at the Intercontinental. Set back in a quiet corner where Marble Arch meets the five-star hotel thoroughfare of Park Lane, its rustic Italianess lends itself to plenty of vegetarian and vegan options – its vegan menu has been around for about 10 years. The inclusion was a natural step given he’s a River Café alumnus, he explains.
“Vegetables were a big part of the cooking there, and it’s the same here; it’s all about simplicity where less is more,” he says, as homemade breads slathered with slow-roasted datterini tomatoes arrive at the table, proving his point. “We like to cater for vegans and vegetarians, but we’ve also found people eat much more vegetarian food without noticing. They don’t come in with the mindset that they’ll have a fish starter and a beef main. The ravioli with squash and ricotta cheese is one of our biggest sellers. Then they might have a vegetarian risotto or sformato: twice-baked soufflé.”
He notes that his global clientele – including many residents of the £300-a-night Intercontinental Hotel – are spoilt for choice in London, which has only pushed the standard and variety he offers.
“Gone are the days where you have one tasting menu. London is full of restaurants, and being in the centre, you have to attract a large crowd.
“But London has always been open-minded. We have great produce here and the cuisine of the UK is international. Cities like Paris or Rome won’t have as many variations of Indian food, Chinese or Middle Eastern.”
Indeed, vegetable-forward ethnic cuisines play a key part in luxury London dining. As those who know Atul Kocchar’s culinary alchemy from Ananda can predict, Mayfair’s Benares is beautifully bursting with intense flavours, even since he stepped down as chef-patron in August. Nobu’s vegetarian options are irritatingly worthy of its reputation as a London celeb hotspot. And just off Regent Street is Nopi, Ottelenghi’s flagship restaurant. It’s full of his trademark twist on Middle Eastern cuisine, the type that can’t be replicated at home no matter how many cookbooks he releases. In its more formal upstairs room, try sharing dishes like the roasted aubergine drizzled with creamy feta yoghurt, zingy pomegranate and flaked almonds (£9.80/€11.15), or the heavenly beetroot, goat’s cheese and za’atar salad (£9.50/€10.80). Pair these with an orange wine for the novelty; they serve three by the glass.
Die-hards might prefer the menu length of a vegetarian-only restaurant, and if it’s choice they want, it’s choice they have. Imagine.
There’s The Gate in both Hammersmith and Islington, serving global dishes done to perfection, and Manna in the well-heeled neighbourhood of Primrose Hill (which has a solid reputation, though I’ve always found its dishes mid-range and its service patchy). The final and foremost restaurant is Vanilla Black by Chancery Lane, which provides a great excuse to start at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese: a cavernous, historical pub where Fleet Street hacks of yesteryear enjoyed boozy lunches, and Charles Dickens himself was a regular, back in his day.
Fans of Café Paradiso will be at home in Vanilla Black; its unfussy wooden tables and chairs belie the appeal of the dishes served. They’re presented in that familiar too-good-to-eat manner of drizzles and deliberately placed accoutrements, but it’s the balance within the ingredients that stands out: the tomato shortbread, sheep’s milk and broccoli is a contemporary take on well-known flavours, for example. It’s competitive value in the capital at £31/€35.20 for a two-course meal, or add on a dessert to make it £41.50/€47. But with rich options like the vegan coconut sorbet served with toasted rice mousse and coffee sponge, it turns out not even vegan fine dining is truly guilt-free. Time to veer back onto the Thames Path and walk off some of the indulgence.
A little more time to spare? These vegetarian options are a must-try if you’re nearby.
The Fat Duck, Bray
Much has been said about Heston Blumetnhal’s three-Michelin starred restaurant that takes you on a theatrical journey back to childhood. Not enough has been said about the vegetarian tasting menu, which creatively mimics the main menu where it can, and replaces it if not. With delicious choices like mock turtle soup or bone marrow made with artichoke and radish, it’s worth every penny of its £275/€315.
Never mind that The Gainsborough is the only hotel in the UK to use its locale’s mineral waters, the vegetarian tasting menu (£60/€68) is reason enough to visit. Served in a refined yet relaxed restaurant, it’s a six-course meal that’s small on size and big on flavour – the stuffed courgette flower with roasted cauliflower is a particular highlight.
Terre a Terre, Brighton
An hour away from London by train, Brighton is the epicentre of alternative lifestyle, so it’s no surprise that it houses a reputable high-end vegetarian restaurant, Terre à Terre. Successfully employing a global menu, it’s delicious and substantial enough to have turned more than a few of its omnivorous customers into vegetarians over the course of a meal. Expect to pay around £36/€41 for a three-course meal.