When even the irrepressibly cheery Russell Howard prefaced his TV show this week with the words - "We're all f***ed!" - it would be fair to conclude that 2018 has been rather challenging. And that's before we even get on to the issue of restaurant staffing and closures. Happily, there's quite a lot to offset the gloom, not least the fact that - in our opinion - 2018 saw London bounce back in terms of really interesting restaurant and bar openings. And while there are still places in this city of ours where folk of a creative and hospitable bent hold sway, things can't be all bad, can they?
Sabor - 35 Heddon Street, London W1B 4BR
If you were a betting person you'd have got particularly bad odds on whether Nieves Barragan's first solo venture was going to be a hit or not, such was the overwhelming certainty that her restaurant with business partner José Etura was going to be an iron-clad banger. And lo, it proved to be - gaining a Michelin star in less than a year, to boot. Most of our February Insta feed was clogged up with pictures of the above camarones, the amazing croquetas, the wonderful tortilla as every foodie in London clamoured to get a seat at the counter. At one point it looked as though Bob Granleese from the Guardian had basically moved in (our tip for a seat - the minute your work clocks off, dash here for a place).
There were a few other restaurants this year that came close to matching our experience here, but none topped it. A deserved winner.
Best dish - Potted Shrimp Crumpet, Cornerstone
Cornerstone - 3 Prince Edward Road, London E9 5LX
We've eaten a lot of good food in 2018, but none managed to beat this stunner from Tom Brown's Cornerstone. It's the one dish that immediately leapt to mind when this category came up. We loved our meal at Tom's new Hackney restaurant, but this was an immediate showstopper. It's down to that winning combo of brown shrimp and carbs with the addition of kohlrabi and gherkin to make you feel like you've eaten your greens too. And, frankly, just look at it. You want to lick the screen, admit it.
Honourable mention: The really quite phenomenal lobster custard at Whately Manor.
Best side dish - Hispi cabbage, St Leonard’s
St Leonard's - 70 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4QX
There was a lot to love at St Leonard's but one of the dishes we remember most from our dinner there was this super side - hispi cabbage all charred from the open fire, slicked with pork fat and topped with spicy xo crumbs. A fiver of your hard-earned cash gets you this, memorably described by Observer critic Jay Rayer as "a 97% non-meat dish that laughs hysterically in the face of non-meat eaters." One of this year's great bargains.
Best reason to save room for dessert - the Pistachio Katmer at Kyseri
Kyseri - 64 Grafton Way, London W1T 5DN
When it comes to being asked if we've room for dessert at the end of a meal, 99 times out of 100 it turns out, amazingly, that we do. It's almost as if we need that signal to our brain that the meal is coming to a close (we just can't have coffee in the evening). And while we had some cracking desserts in 2018, this one stood head and shoulders above the others. First of all - the theatrical aspect. It's all brought to your table and constructed in front of you - we love a bit of tableside theatre in restaurants. And secondly, it's - put simply - a sweet pastry ice cream sandwich. Just heaven. There are a lot of reasons we recommend Kyseri to everyone we know but finishing off with this dish is a must.
Best place to perch up at the counter - Evelyn's Table
Evelyn's Table at the Blue Posts - 28 Rupert Street, London W1D 6DJ
You have to sit up at the counter at Evelyn's Table because really there isn't anywhere else to sit. This diminutive restaurant is tucked into the basement of the Blue Posts, the latest opening from the team behind previous Hot Dinners award-winners The Barbary and The Palomar. Here, you can tuck into exquisite small plates, whilst chatting to the chefs. And when it comes to choosing the best day boat fish up from Cornwall, it's presented first on a platter with a bit of patter on what they're going to do to it. A super addition to the already-impressive mini-empire of Zoe and Layo Paskin.
Best use of a deep fat frier - The Duke of Richmond
The Duke of Richmond - 316 Queensbridge Road, Hackney, London E8 3NH
This year saw the arrival of the second restaurant from Tom Oldroyd as he opened up his first pub in Dalston. When we got over the fact that it wasn't our local, we settled down for a meal that delivered the best use of chips the entire year (and that's really an important achievement in anyone's book). The crab and chip butty is one of those dishes that just ticked off all of our favourite things - chips, bread, crab. And then brings them all together to elevate each component. It's very much worth crossing London for this - and then staying the night to work through the rest of the menu too, of course.
Our Duke of Richmond Test Drive
Honourable mention: The crab on chips at Two Lights - can you see the theme emerging?
Best out of town experience - Whatley Manor
Whatley Manor - Easton Grey, Malmesbury SN16 0RB
When you eat out as much as we do, a dish has to work extra hard to stand out. Our entire dinner here at this Wiltshire hotel restaurant by Head Chef Niall Keating was a joy from start to finish but the dish above - lobster custard with chicken broth and Exmoor caviar - was one of the nicest things we ate anywhere in the last 12 months. When you factor in the hotel itself which has beautiful grounds, a cracking spa and a very good cocktail bar too this really is the perfect minibreak destination for foodies. They've just announced a big kitchen refurb in January - so when it re-opens in February we think you should absolutely plan a visit.
Honourable mention: Great Fosters in Egham where we enjoyed a super pairing of Charles Heidseick champagnes with new chef Rob Chasteauneuf's beef dishes.
Most enjoyable dining experience - Brat
Brat - Shoreditch - 4 Redchurch St, London E1 6JL
Sometimes, everything in a restaurant just pulls together beautifully, and Brat is a perfect example of that. We knew that Tomos Parry could be relied on to produce outstanding food - the beef was quite exceptional and everyone still talks about the turbot. But there's so much more to Brat. In their first floor restaurant, they've managed to create one of the most welcoming dining rooms possible - the fire from the open kitchen, the bar at the centre of it all, the dark wood design all make for one of the cosiest spots in town. Throw in excellent wines from the Noble Rot guys and great service and you have a great all-rounder.
Best veggie dish - Potato spaghetti, 1251
1251 - Islington - 107 Upper Street, London N1 1QN
There was a lot of intense competition for this award - it felt like 2018 was the year London really got with the plant programme as London's chefs came up with dishes where flavour properly clasped hands with ethics. Eating at 1251, while chef James Cochran was cooking up a storm on television's The Great British Menu, was an eye-opening experience - exemplified by this dish.
The description says spaghetti but, in fact, those two mounds that you see are made by compacted potato noodles, topped with grated cured egg yolk, burnt buttercream and Italian truffle. They even knocked up a version without the egg for our ova-averse companion. Plus it wasn't the only great veggie-centric dish we had at James's Upper Street restaurant - the crispy cauliflower with bagna cauda and walnuts was super too.
Honourable mentions: The "Early Season Tomato and Coconut Salad, Green Strawberries, Tomato Shrub" at Scully was a knockout use of incredible tomatoes, and the "Cauliflower with golden raisins, salted grapes and capers" at Bryn Williams at Somerset House easily matched the non-veggie mains there.
Best reason to linger in the bar with a snack - the Merguez in Filo at the Royal Oak
The Royal Oak - Marylebone - 74-76 York St, London W1H 1QN
London's bar snack offerings have really seen a lot of innovation in 2018 - is there a menu in town which doesn't now have a proper snacks section? Honestly, it's the first thing we look for in any menu. With such competition it was always going to be hard to narrow this down, but these sticks of wonder at Dan Doherty's new pub in Marylebone really were standouts. Sitting here with a pint or a glass of decent wine and a couple of these and all would be well with your world.
Honourable mention: We worked our way through ALL the bar snacks at Kerridge's Bar & Grill and can highly recommend doing that. The Parmesan choux with wild garlic cream at Sapling are also excellent as are the short rib kievs at Gridiron.
Most transformed area for eating out - King's Cross
We've almost lost count of the number of new restaurants, bars and cafes that have opened in King's Cross's new shopping quarter, Coal Drops Yard (it's currently at 10 with more on the way). But in addition to the new Barrafina, The Coal Office, Hicce and more, the whole area's seen a clutch of new openings this year. Over on Cally Road, Kaki went down (and caused) a storm with Giles Coren. We've also seen Happy Face and Super Max open their doors by the Everyman Cinema. Flat Iron made King's Cross the location for their sixth branch and an ex-Hakkasan chef popped up with Tamashii.
Best excuse for carb-loading - Jolene
Jolene - Stoke Newington - 21 Newington Green, London N16 9PU
Fresh from the oven with a pool of garlic butter on top, the garlic and rosemary flatbread at Jolene in Stoke Newington was just wonderful. But there's a story behind this too - the flatbread's made using natural grains from musician-turned-farmer Andy Cato (you may have heard of his previous outfit - Groove Armada). And it's not the only bread thing about Jolene. They make their sourdough throughout the day, so there are usually loaves to buy and take home when you're there for dinner. So that's breakfast sorted for the next day. A carb-lover's dream spot.
Honourable mention: Gazelle's fennel and spelt bread was phemomenal. We had to order two of the mini loaves in the end.
Best looking restaurant - HIDE
HIDE - Mayfair - 85 Piccadilly, London W1J 7NB
East London studio Atmos were responsible for StairStalk, the undulating oak staircase that winds its way up through the heart of Ollie Dabbous and Hedonism Wines' Mayfair restaurant - just one element of the design behind this jaw-droppingly beautiful restaurant. Sure, it caught headlines for the fact you could drive up to the first-floor private dining room, but wandering around here, peeping into the lovely (non-car-friendly) private rooms in the basement and out of the huge windows looking out over Green Park, you can't fail to be impressed. Oh and the food's good too.
Best cocktail - Champagne on Toast - Bassoon Bar, The Corinthia London
Bassoon at the Corinthia - St James - Whitehall Place, London SW1A 2BD
Hot Dinners' Drinks Editor Louis Fernando picked his favourite drink from the past 12 months: "Champagne on Toast - a twist on a Kir Royale which employs cognac and brioche liqueur one of the new drinks introduced by Marcis Dzelzainis when the bar relaunched earlier this year - the perfect drink to have before settling down to dinner next door at Tom Kerridge's Bar and Grill." He's not the only one on the team to have loved this bar, the Meadowsweet Martini we had here was memorably good too.
Most instagrammable dish - The Cakes and Bubbles cheesecake
View this post on Instagram
This will be all over Instagram tomorrow with the grand opening of @cakesandbubbleslondon from @albert.adria.acosta. Looks like cheese, but that inside is a sweet cream, albeit with a very strong cheese taste. Fully expect this to divide people on the taste front but we thought it was excellent. And they’re giving away these to the first 140 in the queue when they open tomorrow @hotelcaferoyal. . . . #cheese #butnotcheese #dessert #buttasteslikestrongcheese #mindblown #mayfair #cafe #cheesecake #newopening #newrestaurant #londonfood #regentstreet #cakes #gift #eathotdinners
Cakes and Bubbles - Hotel Cafe Royal, 10 Air St, Soho, London W1B 4DY
It's a dessert... but it looks like a slab of cheese! It's sweet inside... but it really tastes cheesy too. Albert Adria's opening at Hotel Cafe Royal was always going to produce things that are very easy on the eye (the frozen coconut flower looks very impressive too) but this really was very impressive indeed.
London's most obvious food trend - dirty vegan
If 2017 was the year London's vegan and plant-based food scene went up a gear, then 2018 was the year it loosened up and got a bit more fun. 'Dirty' vegan fast food places were less about lecturing diners about the provenance of their food and a lot more about having a good time.
By Chloe brought a bit of NY glamour to the scene when they opened two restaurants in quick succession this summer, and there's been a lot happening around Camden where you'll find both What The Pitta and their vegan kebabs and Purezza up from Brighton with their vegan pizzas. And there's been LOADS of vegan burger places popping up all over the city from Halo in Pop Brixton to Biff's Jack Shack in Shoreditch.
...and the new restaurant we most regret not getting around to trying - Bright
Bright - 1 Westgate Street, London E8 3RL
You know how it is. A white-hot restaurant opens and you can't get a table to begin with. So you resolve to try a month or so later, and by then something else has your attention - and so it goes. We could come up with any number of reasons why we never got around to trying this must-praised Hackney restaurant from the people behind P Franco but we'll just have to put it on the list for 2019. Gotta have something to look forward to, no?
Now vote for YOUR favourite restaurant
You've seen our 2018 awards - but what do you think? Make sure to vote for your favourite restaurant here.
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