It has become quite a cliché for a restaurant to describe itself as authentic. Even if it isn’t. In the first part of a mini-series exploring those restaurants that actually are authentic, we suggest 10 places that won’t disappoint. Almost all the restaurants below are recommended or verified by people with heritage in the country of the cuisine that the restaurant serves; if not, then by people who know it very well indeed.
Adulis, Eritrean, Brixton
Sitting on Brixton Road for more than 15 years, you can’t help but feel like you’ve come across a piece of Africa lost in London when visiting Adulis. From traditional low seating to a scattering of African pottery and paintings, the scene is well and truly set for dishes including homemade sour injera bread and many slightly spicy offal-based dishes. If you’re lucky enough to be finishing your meal as it starts to get late, watch the scene (and join in) as tables get moved aside and the dining area turns into an impromptu dancefloor. There’s so much charisma here, you can’t fail to feel the good time vibes.
Delhi Grill, Indian, Islington
Areas including Southall, Wembley and East Ham aren’t short of restaurants showcasing authentic grub from India’s many different regions. More centrally in Islington, Delhi Grill dishes out Punjabi classics in a smart canteen environment that’s more styled than many an Indian, but no lesser for it. Freshly made chapatis are a speciality, while you’ll find many a familiar dish (rogan josh, birianis) alongside simply grilled and intricately spiced fish and a wide selection of vegetarian options.
The Heron, Thai, Edgware Road
Set in the basement of The Heron pub just off Edgware Road, few restaurants in London could be considered less ceremonial. Neither dank or dingy would be inappropriate descriptions, but this really shouldn’t put you off as the food is bright-flavoured and exciting — though you do need to have a reasonably high spice tolerance. Expect hot and sour soups, steamed bread and fried duck tongues from a glossy picture-led menu (which was translated into English on this blog); there definitely won’t be a green curry in sight. Most main dishes are just under £10, and — whether a bonus or not — karaoke is also available.
Hunan, Chinese, Chelsea
We’ve picked out several alternative and authentic Chinese restaurants that buck the Westernised Chinatown trend here, but of all of them, the food at Hunan is among the most authentic. The cuisine of the Hunan province is known for its chilli-heat, so expect plenty of that (along with ingredients such as jellyfish, pig ears, and fermented bamboo shoots) in the selections whipped up by staff at this menu-less restaurant, but also expect to find equally authentic options which are derived from Taiwanese cuisine - itself very integrated with that of Hunan.
Jose, Spanish, Bermondsey
This small Bermondsey Street tapas bar from Jose Pizarro is hardly a secret, and you’re in for a wait if you want a spot at even a remotely popular time. But that just makes it all the more authentic. Whether you get a seat or have to lean against a barrel as you sip on a glass of sherry, the cramped atmosphere is brilliantly Barcelona. Small plates are chosen from the blackboards and change regularly, though impressive cured meats and cheeses are a mainstay.
A definite highlight of the Elephant & Castle shopping centre, this cheap as chips canteen-style caff offers homely, hearty and hefty portions of food like your Polish mother would have made. From pierogi to thick, chunky stews with lots of mash, and breaded escalopes, it’s comfort food at its best, and as well as an authentic eat, we’ve also ranked it as one of our best value restaurants in London. Vodka, you say? Well, of course. Just take your pick from the all-Polish selection.
Mien Tay, Vietnamese, Battersea
It’s not always easy to tell one Kingsland Road Vietnamese from another, but Mien Tay managed to gain enough popularity to branch out to a second venue in Battersea, bringing their authentic, cheap and cheerful dishes to Londoners south of the river. The restaurant deals particularly in dishes from south-west Vietnam, and while hearty phos are present and correct, specialities such as chargrilled honeyed quail, and beef in wild betel leaves are the real highlights. The original restaurant remains resolutely BYO, but the Battersea branch now has a decent and well-priced wine list.
Negril, Jamaican, Brixton
You could be forgiven for thinking that Brixton would be brimming with authentic Caribbean cuisine, but it really isn’t. This restaurant on Brixton Hill is doing its bit, though. Jerk chicken plays a lead role here, with ackee and saltfish, roti wraps, curry goat and ribs also featuring heavily. In terms of sides, you can’t go far wrong with rice and peas or fried plantain. There’s a very basic (undecorated) look going on both inside and out, and service can seem like it’s on Caribbean time, but just go with it. A tenner will get you half a jerk chicken, and most other mains are a fair bit cheaper; it’s BYO, too.
Sacro Cuore, Italian, Kensal Green
Top notch ingredients and a 400 degree oven help to make the pizzas at this Kensal Green sibling of Ealing’s Santa Maria pizzeria among the best in London. And as any Italian will tell you, a pizza is not just a pizza. What’s served here is Neapolitan-style pizzas, which are fluffier than the thinner-based (and more common in the UK) Roman style. Critic Andy Hayler goes into detail on his site about the regulations involved in defining a Neapolitan pizza (a specific flour, only certain cheeses, the oven must be wood-fired...) and Sacro Cuore claim to follow these rules to the letter. Needless to say, you won’t get a Hawaiian here…
Sushi Tetsu, Japanese, Clerkenwell
This husband-and-wife-run sushi bar really does channel the spirit of Tokyo. The size helps (there’s around 6 or 7 spots in the whole restaurant) as does the relatively simple menu of sushi and sashimi which resists the temptation to branch out into noodles, curries, tempura and the likes. One of the set omakase menus is a good way to sample what’s on offer, the word translates as 'entrusting the chef', and you’ll get what he feels is best on the day. Prices (listed on the website) are reasonable given the quality you’re getting, but good sushi never comes too cheap. Be warned that booking can be a bit of a faff.
We’re looking to review and round-up more of London’s most authentic restaurants. So if you have any tip-offs from Afghan to Australian, or Finnish to French, do let us know in the comments below.
This article is part of our Best of London Food and Drink series. Visit the page for more recommendations of where to enjoy the capital's top food and drink, categorised by cuisine, food type and more.