Brunch is one of my favourite meals, and brunching one of my favourite pastimes. Yes, I embrace ‘to brunch’ as a verb. If I had my way, I would brunch and afternoon tea my way through the day, every day.
I’ve been brunching a lot over the past few weeks (and it’s been a real treat), so I thought I’d share some of my best new brunch finds, plus some older favourites that still hold their own. If you want to get straight to those, scroll further down. Before that, let’s establish what we’re talking about…
What is Brunch?!
It might sound like a silly question, but I only realised recently that there are different definitions of brunch, including the food on offer, the way it’s served, and the timings.
Brunch is, at its widest and most commonly agreed definition, the meal that collapses breakfast and lunch into one indulgent, filling (if you’ve chosen well), flavoursome experience. I love it because, a bit like afternoon tea, it breaks the traditional meal rules i.e. three courses, savoury-heavy, end with sweet etc. With brunch, anything goes: you can upend the sweet-savoury balance and have a dessert for mains, US-style, with pancakes, waffles, and French toast; or go for a savoury-sweet mix, throwing in some eggs and hash browns; you can go heavy or light, with dishes ranging from cooked and hot to raw and cold dishes. It is the meal where different cultural influences will sit together quite comfortably on the same plate: you can eat American pancakes with Mexican-style Huevos Rancheros, Middle Eastern Shakshuka and (or) Antipodean avocado on toast (which is becoming quite staid but still hanging on to most menus). Brunch is a food playground, and that’s why I love it. It owns the reckless abandon with which I think we should eat all our meals.
Brunch in London
Although some think that brunch should only be enjoyed between the traditional hours of breakfast and lunch, from around 9am-2pm, in fact most brunch places in London offer it until around 4pm, some until even later. I personally believe that you can have brunch any time of day; I have had it for dinner and loved it. As proof that I’m not alone, the Clinton St Bakery in New York serves their famous pancakes all day. Pancakes for dinner? One of my favourites.
Some associate brunch with an all-you-can-eat buffets, like you would get in some parts of the US and Dubai, both global brunch hotspots. However, in London brunch is typically a la carte, or occasionally a fixed menu; typically the menu will overlap with their standard breakfast menu, plus some heartier special dishes which they only serve for brunch.
Standard brunch offerings will include avocados on toast (becoming quite staid but still hanging on), eggs in every conceivable form, the now ubiquitous shakshuka (Middle Eastern eggs in a rich tomato sauce), and more. Lots of places do brunch, but only a few do it well, and unfortunately many are overpriced and serve average food.
Brunch is very popular in London, and the best known places (some deservedly so, others not so much – social media and hype has a lot to be responsible for) get extremely busy at the weekend. Many places also don’t take reservations for brunch, so you could be waiting for a significant amount of time for a table. If you’re a solo diner, just ask the staff (rather than wait in the queue) if you can be accommodated somewhere, like a seat at the bar. If not, obviously wait in line like everybody else.
It’s also worth noting that many places will offer some, sometimes most, of their brunch menu during the week as well, although they may call it their breakfast menu. It’s worth checking on their website beforehand or calling/asking the staff, because if you can fit it in, it’s often better to come during the week when it’s much quieter – and often you’ll be able to make a reservation as well.
A London brunch round-up – my current top five
This is by no means an exhaustive list (I haven’t been to brunch at every place in London, obviously), but some of these places have really impressed me so if you’re looking for a good bet, then these would be a good place to start. Everybody has different favourite dishes – I love sweet brunches, so if I find good pancakes, French toast etc, then I’m a fan, but I also love a creative menu which stands out from the other million brunch spots, and delivers.
If you have any more to add, then please let me know!
1) Roka, Mayfair (£) (rating: 9.5/10)
Roka, 30 North Audley Street, London W1K 6ZF
This must be my favourite new brunch discovery. Every Saturday during November the Mayfair branch of this upscale robatayaki (Japanese grill) restaurant chain served up a pop-up brunch. The short menu offered classic brunch dishes with a twist – and a new version of pancakes! I went twice because I loved it so much. For a full review and more photos, see here.
What made the brunch experience even better was the exceptional service throughout: I definitely recommend sitting at the bar, where you have a ringside seat at the open kitchen where the chefs are flexing their acrobatic culinary skills at the robata. Apparently they will be bringing this back in the New Year, and I can’t wait until they do because like Arnie, I’ll be back.
2) The Good Egg (£) (rating: 9/10)
Kingly Court, W1B 5PW
93 Church Street, London N16 0AS
This Stokey institution opened its doors in Kingly Court (just off Carnaby Street) at the beginning of December. I went for the soft launch and enjoyed an excellent brunch in a restaurant which is a lot larger and more grown up than its North London sibling. Happily, though, it has the same relaxed and welcoming vibe, and most importantly offers the same excellent food. One of my favourite dishes was the brilliant cornbread French toast (see photo above) with pumpkin curd, poached cranberries, sour cream and pecan brittle. For more on this and the other dishes I’ve tried at The Good Egg, read the full review here (warning: lots of delicious food beckons).
3) NAC (North Audley Canteen) (£) (rating: 8/10)
41 North Audley Street, London W1K 6ZP
Go for: Dulce de Leche pancakes, the Chocolate Cookies and Soft Serve
Although I probably wouldn’t place this in my ultimate top five brunch list (I’m still working on that), NAC is a recent discovery for me and deserves a mention as I enjoyed my recent experiences there.
This cute little French-style canteen is almost always fully booked at the weekend for brunch (they only serve brunch at the weekend, but offer selected items from the brunch menu during the week), so it’s essential to make a reservation. Service is pleasant, and the atmosphere is relaxed but a bit chichi because it’s Mayfair. The dulce de leche pancakes are a signature dish (weekend brunch menu only), and for £10 they’re on the pricey side for pancakes, but that’s until you see the size: four hefty pancakes doused in dulce de leche.
These were nice but extremely sweet! I couldn’t finish mine, and thankfully they’ll pack leftovers for you because I enjoyed mine the following day at home with some fruit on the side. If you have a killer sweet tooth, go hungry and these will be perfect. Or, go for a savoury main (which are on the pricey side, think £13 for poached eggs and avocado on toast) and split these with somebody afterwards.
Alternatively, try one of their most popular signature dishes, the crushed chocolate cookies and Frosties soft serve (£8 – and also served during the week), which apparently has foreign visitors lining up to try it. The manager also said the staff have been offered bribes to get a table so visitors can eat this (it doesn’t work, these are staff with moral fibre).
I don’t think it’s worth that level of hype, but they definitely are great and worth a try: the cookies are deliciously rich and buttery, and are served warm with this very tasty soft serve on top. I devoured all of mine, and thoroughly enjoyed having a real dessert for brunch.
I would pass on the honeyed French toast, though: it looked interesting, but was dry on the inside, the glaze made the brioche bun stick to the plate, and it was a tiny portion for £10. Definitely go for the pancakes instead.
4) Sunday (rating: 9.5/10)
169 Hemingford Road, London N1 1DA
Go for: the pancakes. The banana bread. The coffee. Pretty much anything on the menu.
I haven’t been back here for brunch recently, but it’s too good to not include in this list. It’s still one of my top choices for brunch, except at the weekend when I have to wait for about an hour for a table. Read the full review here.
5) Bake St (£) (rating: 8/10)
58 Evering Road, London N16 7SR
Go for: the French toast, the burgers – and those salted caramel chocolate brownies…
Bake Street is a little under the radar at the moment, but I feel that this will change soon. Any place which serves burgers and pancakes for brunch has got to be a hotspot sooner or later.
Run by a brother-sister duo who used to work at Monty’s Deli and is a full-time cake baker respectively, Bake Street shines in its baked goods, and in the care and attention with which it delivers its menu. It offers a weekday brunch and a slightly extended weekend brunch, which includes some of the best French toast I’ve had this side of the Atlantic.
It was custardy, sweet, soft in the middle, and buried under a mound of delicious fruits and nuts, which change seasonally. Mine was a rosewater flavoured French toast (which I don’t actually like but in this case it didn’t matter so much as part of the dish as a whole) and came with miso caramel banana, apricot compote, and pistachio gelato from Pocogelatoleigh (YESSSSSSS). I think they are currently doing tahini and chocolate French toast, which I plan on trying very soon…
I’ll be writing up a full post soon once I’ve been back and tried more of the menu (it has to be done…), but it’s definitely worth a visit.
Also tried and tested…
The Friends of Ours (£) (rating: 7/10)
61 Pitfield Street, London N1 6BU
I really wanted to like this place. I like that it’s independent, I like the thoughtful menu, I like the friendly service, and that the whole place seems like a local neighbourhood cafe but with good food. But it didn’t quite happen for me.
I ate with a friend, and we enjoyed our hot drinks – a vegan chai latte made with fresh spices, oat milk, and agave, and a winter warmer hot chocolate with spices and beetroot (I liked it) – and the food was good but not great. Between us, we ordered the hot oak smoked salmon on a savoury hotcake with pickled beetroot, horseradish, pistachio and poached eggs, and the corn fritters, avocado, harissa, and halloumi, followed by the ricotta hotcakes with poached apple, maple creme fraiche, salted caramel and walnut crumble.
Although the dishes had different elements which worked together quite well – the horseradish really brought the salmon to life in my dish, and the beetroot was nicely pickled and fresh – for me a couple of the components weren’t well done, and that just affected the whole dish. Both the savoury hotcake in the salmon dish and the ricotta hotcake were quite hard, and not soft and fluffy as I really hoped they would be.
Overall, some elements of all the dishes were great – the maple creme fraiche, the perfectly poached eggs, the horseradish – but it wasn’t consistent enough for the dishes to be great.
However, the service was friendly and prompt, and the atmosphere relaxed and laid back. The place is small so on a busy day you can expect a wait – we were seated after a very short wait on a snowy Sunday.
Balthazar (£) (rating: 6/10)
4-6 Russell Street, London WC2B 5HZ
Sadly, this was a disappointment. Unexciting, overpriced dishes – think £14 for a measly portion of eggs royale or an omelette. The upside was the good service, and the ambience, with a pleasant amicable buzz of people chatting away. I would stick to Balthazar’s excellent bakery here and pass on the brunch altogether.