It seems a long time ago now, but once, refusing to take reservations was the hallmark of city’s chicest seats. Now, after a bludgeoning at the hands of the pandemic, London’s restaurants are packing out every last cover they can. But what about those of us who haven’t spent the last month addicted to Resy? Or for the spontaneous types wanting an evening to unfurl at its own pace? All hope is not lost – it’s just a matter of heading on an adventure.
Given the centre of town has steadfastly maintained its 28 Days Later vibe since last March – a few glorious free-for-all summer moments aside – it’s no surprise businesses are craving custom. Scaremongering and Anti-Asian sentiment left a once-crammed Chinatown often close to empty: many of the area’s top restaurants have new terraces with space saved for those passing by: go for a wander, but Jin Li (jinli.co.uk), Dumplings’ Legend, Plum Valley and Lotus Garden (all chinatown.co.uk) have all confirmed they’re holding spots. Nearby Soho is now boisterously busy and much of it is booked out for weeks, but like all Fullers pubs, the beautifully battered Coach & Horses (coachandhorsessoho.pub) is open to diary-shy drinkers, with half of its tables kept open. Expect the usual gaggle of Greek Street irregulars. After a pint, grab a cocktail at one of area’s best bars, Swift (barswift.com) before weaving through a crowded Old Compton street to the revamped incarnation of Mr Ji (mrji.co.uk), which is putting out tables out for its Taiwanese-fried chicken. Or, if you’re lucky, Sri Lankan wonder Hoppers (hopperslondon.com) on Frith Street is holding places for those without plans, as it is in Marylebone and King’s Cross. A little further north, in Fitzrovia, try Yalla Yalla’s (yalla-yalla.co.uk) bright, colourful terrace for the promise some Lebanese comfort.
It’s not just casual places keeping it, well, casual. Overlooking Green Park, undeniably high-end Hide (hide.co.uk) has half of its 70 seats kept free for those in the mood for Ollie Dabbous’ delicate and detailed menu. In Mayfair, there’s room promised at old school but forever fashionable French spot LPM (lpmrestaurants.com), while the Berkeley’s Blue Bar (the-berkeley.co.uk) is headed outdoors for the first time ever with its one-month-only Beach Club pop-up pouring tiki classics and running a firm no-booking policy. Similarly strict is Alto at Selfridges (sancarlo.co.uk), the rooftop restaurant and bar summoning a little Amalfi coast magic for walk-ins only.
By Embankment, reliable Gordon’s (gordonswinebar.com) – London’s oldest wine bar – is usually one to hide away in among its nooks and crannies but its always-packed terrace is now refusing reservations and is fully heated too. We’ve walked in twice lately without trouble.
Finally, try Covent Garden; as ever, it’s hoping to be heaving, but the area’s outdoors offering is twice what it was last year, giving better odds. For an old reliable, head to Flat Iron (flatironsteak.co.uk), which is sticking to its tried-and-true first-come, first-served policy for its excellent steaks.
Out to get the drinks in? Head north. Up in Finsbury Park, much-loved Irish pub the Faltering Fullback (falteringfullback.com) is reopening its leafy maze of decking; on the good days, it’s a sun-trap, and even on the bad days, their Guinness is glorious. They’ve never done reservations and aren’t about to start now. Camden’s The Farrier (thefarriercamden.com) is taking bookings, but tables will be available for those without one. Besides the beer, food is the thing: head chef Ash Finch trained under Alain Ducasse and Anthony Demetre, so there’s pedigree there. The place has a buzz about it but, being brand new, might not be overwhelmed just yet. For more choice, try Smokehouse (smokehouseislington.co.uk) in Islington, which has 20 beers on tap and a limited number of walk-ins for drinks only. Those gagging for a bite of their grill can book. Around the corner, the De Beauvoir Arms (debeauvoirarms.com) on Southgate Road has room for both food and drinks while back in Angel, Bellanger (bellanger.co.uk) has tables free outside; the Prix Fixe menu (two courses at £10.95) and Menu Formule (three with a glass of wine, £19.75) are both available all day, and hard to beat.
Over in King’s Cross, try Coal Drop’s Yard, bustling with new outdoor openings. A wise first stop would be El Pastor’s Plaza Pastor (tacoselpastor.co.uk); the tacos here are little wraps of art. Come for Mexican everything, mezcal and live music too. Not far away, Rotunda (rotundabarandrestaurant.co.uk) has a glorious position, with a large garden sat right on the waterfront; one for cocktails and watching the canal boats, though their Sunday roast is decent too. Nearby at the Granary Square Brasserie (granarysquarebrasserie.com), the new “jungle paradise” terrace is taking bookings but is welcoming walk-ins too; under the heated umbrellas, the space is overflowing with flowers and other tropical touches, and there’ll be DJ sets and carnival-inspired entertainment to go with the easy-going, modern British menu.
If a play from the jungle book isn’t your bag, swap it for a wizard slice of Oz life. Queen’s Park Australian cafe Milk Beach (milkbeach.com) is built for all-day dining, and tucked away among white-washed mews houses, feels something like a secret. There’s a little Italian influence on the menu too; the cobbled terrace only adds to the charm. For something a little rowdier, head up to Wembley where the Boxpark (boxpark.co.uk), like its sister sites in Shoreditch and Croydon, is strictly for those wandering in.
Dishoom is operating a walk-ins only policy at its two sites going al fresco, Carnaby and Shoreditch (dishoom.com). Granted, a Dishoom table has never been easy to land and always used to come with a queue – so heading this way should feel much like the old days. For more chance of simply sauntering in, try Andrew Clarke’s deceptively simple, rather pure, seasonal cooking at the Tramshed Project (tramshedproject.com). It’s sprawled onto the black-paint and brown-brick of the nevertheless pretty Garden Walk and, with about 50 seats going, is one of Shoreditch’s most commodious choices.
Further out but with a similar pedigree is the terrific Bright (brightrestaurant.co.uk) by London Fields, which is one of those spots you’ll go once and vow to return to repeatedly for its fresh, anglo-European plates and astonishing wine list. A handful of seats can be booked but most are being kept free. Head further east to the canal and Crate Brewery (cratebrewery.com) is walk-ins only; beers by the water, pizza on the side? A fantasy come true. Just downstream is another dreamboat, Barge East (bargeeast.com), which is strictly first-come, first served, and there’s more no-booking beers to be had at Trinity Riverside (trinitybuoywharf.com), which opens for its first service this Friday on Trinity Buoy Wharf (by Poplar).
Don’t forget to have fun, either. While Roof East (roofeast.com) strongly advise booking, there’s usually room for walk-ins too; there’s food and drink throughout, but you’re really coming for the games, which include crazy golf, lawn bowls and baseball in the batting cages. Make good on your promise to give Netflix a break.
Little pockets offering places to bounce between have popped up across south London. Take Nine Elms: Islington’s acclaimed Irish bar Homeboy (homeboybar.com) has just opened its second site there with a frankly enormous terrace, endless cocktails and a cracking bar menu. Around the corner is Robin Gill’s Darby’s (darbys-london.com), which always keeps a handful of tables back for spontaneous types after oysters and pies. Chance your luck at the pleasing, flower-laden terrace of Brunswick House (brunswickhouse.london) up the road, too.
Meanwhile, Brixton is buzzing with outdoor terraces, none too far from each other. In Brixton Market, Sarap Baon (saraplondon.com) is walk-ins only – granted, the space for them is small, but this is Filipino cooking with real heart, and a nice revival of Budgie Montoya’s pandemic-scuppered Sarap. Its market neighbour Rudie’s (rudieslondon.com) is also keeping tables back; a plate of their fiercely marinated chicken is one of London’s must-have meals. Brixton is also the one for a pub garden: The Sun of Camberwell (suncamberwell.com), Duke of Edinburgh (dukeofedinburghpub.com), Hope and Anchor (hopeandanchorbrixton.co.uk) all have cracking gardens – granted, likely crowded, but chance your luck – while local favourite the Junction (thejunction.london) has put out tables, too. Still, if you’re really after a beer garden, London’s biggest is found at Mercato Metropolitano in Elephant and Castle (mercatometropolitano.com), which seats 500 over its 15,000 square feet, all kept for walk-ins only.
Keeping it casual? Theo’s Pizzeria (theospizzeria.com) in Camberwell are doing walk-ins only for parties fewer than five in need of a sourdough pizza, jug of beer and heated garden setting. Meanwhile, 40 Maltby Street (40maltbystreet.com) in Bermondsey recommends customers come wrapped up with an umbrella for a glass of wine and bar snacks in their outside space, operating on a first come, first served basis.
Otherwise, take a walk along the South Bank. D&D restaurants are promising space for those without bookings at all of their sites with outdoor space, and two happen to be here: in Battersea, try Italian Fiume (fiume-restaurant.co.uk), while overlooking Tower Bridge, there’s another in Cantina del Ponte (cantinadelponte.co.uk). Between the two is Sea Containers (seacontainerslondon.com) and the Limin’ Beach Club (limin.co.uk), which opened for the first time this week. One of its three beaches is walk-in only: all offer cocktails in coconuts and Carribean-inspired street food. Otherwise, if all else fails, try Borough Market: there are occasional seats being held throughout, including at Flor (florlondon.com), and a fair few last-minute bookings still at sensible times.
While West London is quiet on big-name places, it does mean it’s one of the last parts of town where hidden gems still legitimately exist. Without the flocking crowds to compete with, the chance of a casual seat is more likely. Of the well-known names sticking to walk-ins, try Sumi on Westbourne Grove (sushisumi.com), which launched in lockdown and offers sushi from the skilled hand of Michelin-starred master Endo Kazutoshi. Notting Hill neighbour Farm Girl Cafe (thefarmgirl.co.uk) also has a no-reservations policy in place for its small but very cute courtyard, as does the ever-popular Granger & Co (grangerandco.com), which has built its name on easy, Antipodean comfort food that occasionally feels faintly healthy.
Head due south to swap the Gold Coast for the west coast and stop by Hally’s (hallyslondon.com), which offers Parson’s Green a slice of Californian living; the sort of place to swing by for coffee, bagels and bowls of salad. Its next-door neighbour, Koji, is staying closed until May (though delivery is available), so Hally’s has doubled its space for seats in the sun or, as this month seems to have it, snow.
Further west, White City is worth exploring for those with no particular place to go. Similarly to the Chelsea site, Bluebird (bluebirdcafe.co.uk) in Shepherd’s Bush have compiled their greatest hits for the terrace menu – the Bluebird burger, their seabass, the much-loved Chicken Milanese – while Prairie Fire (prairiefirebbq.com) is the place for barbecue and beer. For more smoky vibes, try Cue Point (cue-point.co.uk) on Chiswick Pavilion has plenty of seats for its Afghan-inspired cooking. Not in the mood to hang around? They’ve just launched London’s first drive-through barbecue.
A little closer to town but no less fun is Sloane Square’s classic French bistro, Colbert (colbertchelsea.com), which has launched its pop-up bar Pétanque in the Square for drinks and snacks and, of course, a sandpit for those who fancy playing boules.
There are far more outdoor seats this year than last, meaning nabbing one held for walk-ins shouldn’t be too much trouble. In other words, break free from booking FOMO: there’s a whole city ready and waiting.