Discover the full range of great restaurants, hotels, pubs and bars with the RestaurantsinCoventGarden-dot-net website. Covent Garden is one of London’s most popular areas and it has literally dozens of places to eat. The range of cuisine on offer in London WC2 is simply enormous. Let us guide you through the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of dining.
Where Is Covent Garden?
The area known as Covent Garden occupies the space between High Holborn and Shaftesbury Avenue to the north and the Strand in the south. It is bounded by Leicester Square in the west and Kingsway in the east. Some of London’s best restaurants can be found there and you can experience almost all of the world’s great cuisines without leaving London WC2.
The centre of the area is a square or “Piazza” in the centre of what was the old market. This was the scene of London’s biggest wholesale fruit and vegetable market, until it was relocated to Nine Elms at Vauxhall in 1974. It is now known as New Covent Garden Market.
The fruit and vegetable market was forced to leave the area when it became impossible for ever-larger transport vehicles to gain access. It had been operating continuously since 1654, when traders set up stalls against the walls of the Bedford House garden. The Duke of Bedford was granted a market charter by King Charles II in 1670.
What Restaurants Are There?
The choice of places to eat in Covent Garden is immense. You can experience food from just about every part of the globe. This includes cuisine from Belgium, Italy, France, Spain, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the USA and Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Korea, China and Thailand – even Great Britain.
You can eat burgers, ribs and fajitas; pizza, pasta and risotto; Traditional and Modern British, French and the wider European; Pan Asian, which includes Chinese, Japanese and Thai food; frites and moules, plus one of London’s best British fish and chip restaurants can be found right in the heart of the area. As are three of London’s most famous and longest-established restaurants:
- Rules – has been serving traditional English food in Maiden Lane since 1798. London’s oldest restaurant started life as an oyster bar, but are now famous for serving great British cuisine, with the emphasis on game and roast meats. Oysters are still very much part of the menu and now sit next to the likes of London Peculiar soup (pea and ham hock) and roast quail salad on the starters’ menu. Rules has its own farm in the Pennines, from which it sources produce and game. Among Rules’ celebrated customers are Graham Greene, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Betjamin, Henry Irving and Evelyn Waugh. Rules is one of the very best restaurants London has to offer. Rules Restaurant, 35 Maiden Lane, London WC2E 7LB: 020 7836 5314
- J Sheekey – the renowned fish and seafood restaurant in St Martin’s Court, with an Oyster Bar adjacent to the formal restaurant. A sister to the nearby Ivy (see below), it offers fresh and divinely cooked fish and seafood at fairly high prices. A good excuse to spoil yourself. Their fish pie is famous, but the menu offers far better fresh alternatives and the dover sole comes highly recommended. J Sheekey, 28-32 St Martin’s Court, London WC2N 4AL: 020 7240 2565
- The Ivy – where many major celebrities come to eat British food and be snapped as they leave their West Street dining rooms. I have personally seen Sir Michael Caine, Sir Richard Attenborough and Dame Judi Dench either leaving or arriving. It first opened in 1917 and the paneled dining rooms reflect its Edwardian beginnings. The Ivy, 1-5 West Street, London WC2H 9NQ: 020 7836 4751
At the bottom end of the pile are quite a few tourist cafés where food is prepared elsewhere or in advance and reheated to order. We will guide you away from such establishments, where the only ambiance comes via the ping of a microwave. The prices are usually high and the value for money is low or non-existent.
Two Historic Landmarks
The Royal Opera House was built as the Theatre Royal by Edward Shepherd in 1732. Although it presented ballet and opera from its earliest days, to begin with it was used as a general theatre. The current building is the third on the site and dates from 1858. Its facade and interior were designed by Edward Barry, though most of what we see today was rebuilt during an extensive rebuilding project that added on shops and offices, incorporating the Floral Hall of the old market and destroying the 18th century facade of Russell Street.
The Royal Opera moved there in 1945 and the Royal Ballet a year later. To many the Royal Opera House is known simply as “Covent Garden”.
To be found at the western end of the Square, St Paul’s Church, also known as the “actor’s church” was built in 1631 to a design by Indigo Jones. How much of the original church is open to doubt as several fires have taken their toll over its long history and most of what we see today are 18th and 19th century renovations.
Covent Garden Hotels
There are a number of hotels in the area. The two best appointed hotels are:
- Covent Garden Hotel: A 58-room five-star boutique hotel in a former hospital and dispensary very near the Seven Dials junction. The style is old-style with antiques, bric-a-brac and gorgeous fabrics everywhere you look. Their Brasserie Max is the stylish house bar and restaurant. Covent Garden Hotel, 10 Monmouth Street, London WC2H 9HB:
- The Waldorf Hilton Hotel was built in 1905 by William Waldorf Astor, the First Viscount Astor. Now a five star hotel and part of the Hilton Group. Waldorf Hilton Hotel, Aldwych, London WC2B 4DD: 020 7836 2400
As you’ll see from the map, you can take the London Underground to any one of five stops to gain access to the sights and sounds of the area. These are Holborn (Piccadilly and Central Lines), Leicester Square (Piccadilly and Northern Lines), Piccadilly Circus (Bakerloo and Piccadilly Lines), Charing Cross (Bakerloo and Northern Lines), and Covent Garden (Piccadilly Line only) itself. Because Covent Garden station has only lift access to the street and can get very busy, we recommend you use one of the larger stations and walk.
You can easily walk there from anywhere in central London, including Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus and Trafalgar Square. There are numerous buses that pass by, but none that venture into its narrow streets.
To get there from Heathrow Airport, take the Piccadilly Line from your Heathrow terminal to Leicester Square, Covent Garden or Holborn tube stations.
Check out the Transport for London (TFL) website for more London travel options.
Here is a short video of the decor at Rules’ Restaurant:
There are great fish and chip shops, and there are ones so terrible you wonder how on earth they survive. There doesn’t seem to be very much in between. Although to be found in the centre of one of London’s tourist hot spots, The Rock & Sole Plaice is one of the good guys. A shop on this site has been serving up freshly battered and fried fish and chips since 1871. Of course, the area has changed plenty since then, and so have the owners. Generally standards have been kept up.
Nowadays the clientele is a mix of visitors looking for the authentic London fish and chip experience and local office workers. Neither come away disappointed. There are the standard dishes you’d expect in an eating house like this. Fried fresh fish, usually cod, haddock and the like, served with chips and perhaps mushy peas for something around £15 a head, if you’re eating in. Sausages, saveloys, pies and fishcakes – all bought in – come with chips for around a fiver a pop.
Don’t expect anything post-modern like mussels or poached salmon. Calamari – betraying the current owners’ Mediterranean roots – is the most exotic item on the menu. They stick to the basics and generally do it well. It’s got to be said that portions of fish aren’t huge, though the chips are chunky and usually crisp and well worth trying on their own. The Rock & Sole Plaice fry in vegetable oil, so veggies needn’t be wondering if there’s the tang of lard about.
We’ve been on a Sunday in the past to find that our fish was possibly frozen – but that was our fault for arriving at a busy restaurant on a day the fish markets are closed. There are a few tables on the ground floor and more downstairs, but to make sure of eating in, avoid busy times. It’s not really a place to come from a special meal out – it’s a fish and chip place with a high turnover, so lingering is frowned on – but if you’re passing and there’s space, give it a go.
The tables outside are where you see most of the action and, over the years, we’ve witnessed a fair slice of London life. This has ranged from a knife-fight many years ago, through several examples of real-life street theatre, to the sight of a famous pop singer running down the road, chased by female fans who were after more than an autograph.
Here’s a very interesting video, shot in the Piazza at Covent Garden in central London that tells of the darker days of one of London’s most polar neighbourhoods. Back in the day when the restaurants and cafés in the area were very different to what they are now, the area was home to some of London’s lowest dives and bordellos. The reputed scene of Sweeney Todd’s crimes was just around the corner in Fleet Street.
Although the Demon Barber of Fleet Street was a fictional character, he was based on real life events. Mrs Lovett’s Pie Shop was based on a popular type of dining establishment that flourished in the area in the 18th and early 19th Centuries. London hawkers have been selling savoury pies for centuries>
The popularity of the pie in London developed from its portable shape and because the cold pastry crust protected its contents from dirt. Popular ingredients included eels and pastry, assorted fish and oysters. Beef and lamb came later and was regarded as a premium product.
The origins of the pie and mash shops that still linger today – though not in Covent Garden – was the next stage from street hawkers. Pie shops flourished from the mid-1800s onwards. Many were fronts for prostitution rings. Girls and women would be kept upstairs, ready to provide comfort to the straying traveller, after his pie.
The area was notorious for prostitution and sex tourism. There was even an annual handbook published that listed the ladies of the night. Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies appeared from 1757 to 1795. Published in Covent Garden, it sold for 2/6 (12.5p in today’s currency). It is said to have sold between 5,000 and 12,000 copies every year.
Here’s a brief extract from the 1777 edition:
The wanton prelude to a farther bliss;
Such as might kindle frozen appetite,
And fire e’en wasted nature with delight.
She is really a fine girl, with a lovely
fair complexion, a most engaging be-
haviour and affable disposition. She
has a most consummate skill in reviving
the dead; for as she loves nothing but
active life, she is happy when she can
restore it: and her tongue has a double
charm, both when speaking and when
silent; for the tip of it, _properly applied_,
can talk eloquently to the heart, whilst
no sound pervades the ear and send such
feelings to the central spot, that imme-
diately demands the more noble weapon
to _close_ the _melting scene_.
There’s more on the subject of debauchery in Covent Garden on the video. Please watch it and see what you think:
Billed as a “Bombay café”, Dishoom have two branches in London. Here and just off Shoreditch High Street in East London. The continuation of a tradition that has all but died out in Bombay – or Mumbai, as it’s now known. You have to say the place is swish and stylish. The sort of thing an upmarket film designer would imagine for one of these Irani Cafés, as they are also known in India. Expect Bollywood movie posters, framed “Rules of the Café”, Raj-style rotating fans, family portraits, stained glass mirrors and bentwood furniture. You can also expect the place to be packed.
Dishoon has become very popular. This makes the ground floor main dining area prone to noisy conversation, and the basement add-on not much better. It starts at breakfast time (from 8am) with a Full Bombay Breakfast, or variations on the Anglo-Indian breakfast theme that might include porridge, Bun Maska and chai. We’ve heard talk of sausages rolled in nan bread, but that was just too exotic for us.
Lunch and dinner offer more familiar fare. Small Plates include veggie and lamb samosas, yummy chilli cheese toast that could have been more spicy for our taste, and okra fries. Salad plates incorporate some unusual combinations, like paneer and mango, prawn and pomelo (a pale citrus fruit). Grills are on offer and very tasty they are, too. We love the spicy smb chops, mahi (fish) tikka, and gunpowder potatoes, which are skin-on crushed potatoes tossed with butter and herbs.
You should definitely try the house black dahl, which is simmered for over 24 hours to increase the flavours. Biryani of vegetables is tasty, if a little bland for anyone interested in a bit of spice. Under the heading “Ruby Murray”, you’ll find a couple of dishes your Uncle Pete might go for: chicken ruby or mattar paneer. The Bombay snacks wouldn’t be complete without pau bhaji, which we can heartily recommend. The Chef’s Special for this branch is patra nu macchi, which is fish wrapped up in tasty patra leaves. Delicious, and served with house slaw, rice and a drink. At £18.50, some might say it needs to be. In Shoreditch, the house specials are all to do with lamb.
There are puddings, including kulfi and a very tasty memsahib’s mess, an Indian take on the eton favourite, but our advice would be to fill up on the savouries. All in all, Dishoom offers a great dining experience, even if the chilli heat has been toned down for western tastes.
The small chain of Hawksmoor restaurants bill themselves as “A British steakhouse and cocktail bar” and this just about sets the tone for what is to come. There’s some confusion about the former use of the impressively large basement. Time Out London says it used to be a fruit warehouse, whereas the owners say it was the former Watney-Combe-Read brewery. Both may well be true.
These days you’ll be hard-pressed to find many bananas here, or indeed many hops or barley. Meat is the main component of what Hawksmoor is about. Starters start and £8.50 and travel all the way up to £17.50 for half a native lobster. Other delights (which come in pretty sizeable portions, so be warned) include bone marrow with onions, potted beef and bacon (served in Yorkshire puddings), prawns on toast, Tamworth baby ribs, and potted mackerel.
The king of the main courses is the massive 850g chatubriand, best served with anchovy hollandaise, triple cooked chips, mash, and the succulent bone marrow gravy. (Other steaks are available). Other accompaniments include beef dripping fries, a very cheesy macaroni cheese and, if you’re in the mood, half a grilled lobster.
They know how to cook steaks and meat really is the name of the game at Hawksmoor. It’s not the place to bring yor vegetarian maiden aunt, or a posse of Buddhist monks. Never mind the fact that you’d probably end up several hundred pounds down. Posses in general are not a good idea here, especially if you are the one paying the bill at the end.
Wimps and non-steak eaters can have lemon sole or some concoction of grilled vegetables that no one ever buys. Now for the puddings. Gooseberry pie, sticky toffee pudding and raspberry eton mess are the pick of the puss, most of them around £7 each. One of them (the chocolate and caramel tart) costs 50p more which they donate to Action Against Hunger, which seems to be taking the piss somewhat. It’s easy to spend £100 a head at Hawksmoor and 50p out of that to hungry children only highlights the gluttony. Still the food is very good.
Cocktails are featured, though the licence states you’ve got to be eating to indulge. The wine list is immense, you can get a decent ale, plus loads of lager, and Sunday Lunch is fast becoming an institution at Hawksmoor, Seven Dials. If you enjoy eating meat, drinking and have a large disposable income, you’ll love it.