London's Islington has a huge range of places to eat and drink to suit all tastes and budgets. Here are a few of my favourites, whether it's for a celebratory dinner, cocktails or just coffee and cake
Just a short distance from central London, the area of Islington may not be that well known to visitors, but it's home to an amazing selection of bars and restaurants. Centred around Upper Street, which stretches north of Angel Tube station, there is something to suit all tastes, budgets and occasions. So if you're visiting London, why not get away from the usual tourist areas and try out one of these, or come and see what other delights you can uncover.
For a special occasion...
If you're out to impress but on a budget, try Le Mercury (140A Upper Street, London N1 1QY; 020 7354 4088; www.lemercury.co.uk). Set over three floors, it's perfect for a romantic dinner, with a cosy open fire and candlelight. They serve classic French bistro dishes – from moules marinière to slow roasted pork belly and crème brûlée. And it has the bonus of being much less expensive than you'd think. Starters all cost £3.95, mains £7.95 and desserts £2.95, with a choice of about eight of each on the menu at a time. It's also very close to the Almeida Theatre so you could combine dinner with a performance.
Nestled among the antique shops and stalls along Camden Passage is 40-year-old Islington veteran, Frederick's (Camden Passage, London N1 8EG; 020 7359 2888; www.fredericks.co.uk). It has an old-style classy atmosphere, with attentive service and a spacious, bright dining room with a vaulted glass roof. There's also a pretty walled garden tucked away, where you can eat in the summer. Their food is described as 'modern European' with dishes like pan-fried duck and rabbit and herb gnocchi. Mains range from £14-£24 but they also do a good value set lunch or pre-theatre menu (£17 for three courses). There's also a huge wine list (200 at last count), and they run monthly wine tasting evenings.
For everyday eating...
It's hard to walk past Ottolenghi (287 Upper Street, London N1 2TZ; 020 7288 1454; www.ottolenghi.co.uk) without being tempted in by the delicious cakes and meringues piled up in the windows. Owned by chef Yotam Ottolenghi – developing celebrity status with his cookbooks and Guardian newspaper column – it's part of a small chain with four London branches. The menu changes daily but the focus is on Mediterranean food with colourful salads and meze plates for sharing – like ricotta-stuffed courgette flowers or grilled aubergine with pomegranate (around £8 each). You can grab a takeaway or eat in at one of the big communal tables. Their weekend brunch is especially popular, so get there early to avoid the queues.
S&M (4-6 Essex Road, London N1 8LN; 020 7359 5361; www.sandmcafe.co.uk) – aka 'Sausage and Mash', rather than anything more racy! – is the place to go for some 'great British grub'. It's a retro-style cafe which featured in the film Quadrophenia, and still feels like stepping into a film set. Take a seat in one of the booths and tuck into classic British dishes like toad in the hole, shepherd's pie and of course sausage and mash. Their tasty sausages are made by a local London company, and you can choose from a range including pork with chorizo and chilli, lamb and mint, or veggie mushroom and tarragon. Prices around £8.50 for sausage, mash and gravy – and leave room for a spotted dick or crumble of the day.
Euphorium Bakery (79 and 202 Upper Street, 26a Chapel Market, London N1; www.euphoriumbakery.com) bake a fantastic loaf, with daily specialities ranging from blue cheese and pesto to raisin and cinnamon. They also do a wide range of cakes, with the carrot cake and apple tart especially recommended. There are three branches around Angel, but my favourite is on Chapel Market, where you can sit outside and watch the hustle and bustle of the market stalls, selling everything from fruit and veg to beds! (open Tuesday-Sunday).
For Saturday nights out...
Public House (54 Islington Park Street, London N1 1PX; 020 7359 6070; www.boutiquepubs.com) is hidden away down a side street off busy Upper Street, so tends to be a bit quieter. Inside the style is shabby chic, with mismatched antique furniture, gilt mirrors and moody lighting. The bar staff are laid back and friendly and they sometimes have a pianist playing. They don't serve big-name branded drinks but instead have some unusual cocktails – try the mulled cider on a cold winter's day – and an interesting wine list which might tempt you to try something different. It's not cheap (cocktails from £7.95), but is a great spot for a date or drinks with the girls.
If you're after more of a big night out then try Keston Lodge (131 Upper Street, London, N1 1QP; 020 7354 9535; www.kestonlodge.com). Doors across the building's front open up onto the street in the summer or you can huddle up in the leather booths in winter. It's a buzzy place with a friendly atmosphere and mixed crowd. The knowledgeable bar staff mix a good range of cocktails, from the classics to some new inventions like their own Keston Spy (blackcurrant and lemon vodkas, cloudy apple juice and bitters). DJs play until late on weekends, with a “no house, no techno, no Girls Aloud” music philosophy!
For lazy Sunday afternoons...
To help you recover from the night before, The Compass (58 Penton Street, London N1 9PZ; 020 7837 3891; http://thecompassn1.co.uk) is tucked away at the end of Chapel Market, so you've got a better chance of finding that elusive Sunday lunch table. It's a light and airy place with a few tables outside and an open kitchen so you can see the chefs at work. They do a great choice of Sunday roasts – importantly all served with Yorkshire puddings! – using high-quality ingredients, and also have a fantastic cheeseboard.
The nearby Angelic (57 Liverpool Road, London N1 0RJ; 020 7278 8433; www.theangelic.co.uk) is a bit more well-known so you'll need to get in early to claim a prime spot on one of the leather sofas. They usually have the Sunday papers so you can settle in for the day. As well as offering another good Sunday roast, they do a range of tapas-style mini plates to pick at. And if you're feeling up to it then they have a few real ales on tap and a extensive wine list, otherwise there are some freshly squeezed juices to help you detox.
For something different...
The Sampler (266 Upper Street, London N1 2UQ; 020 7226 9500; www.thesampler.co.uk) is more a wine shop than a bar but their tasting machines make it a great place to try something new and get you out of a wine rut! You load up a prepaid card and then put it into a machine to get a sample of whichever wine you fancy. There are usually about 30 different wines available to taste at a time, at all price ranges. Tastes vary from about 75p up to £10 for something world-class, and all the wines are for sale if you find something that takes your fancy.
Most conveniently located for the area's bars and restaurants is the Hilton London Islington (53 Upper Street, London N1 0UY). It's a modern building attached to the Business Design exhibition centre, so is popular with conference-goers. You get the usual Hilton facilities with clean modern rooms from £109. It's very well located, being right on Upper Street, though is set back enough to not be too noisy, and only five minutes' walk from the Tube station.
A bit further away but with a bit more character is The Luxury Inn (154-156 Tottenham Road, London N1 4DY). This B&B is about 15 minutes walk to Angel, in a stylish architect-designed building whose high ceilings and skylights give it a bright, open feel. The bedrooms share a lounge and kitchen where you get a self-service breakfast in the morning, and the owner is full of information about the area. Doubles from £75.