Walk in the footsteps of these literary greats by dining at the favorite restaurants of England’s famous authors.
If any international city could lay claim to having the richest literary history, it would surely be London. World-famous wordsmiths have called the English capital home for centuries, from Shakespeare and Dickens to Woolf and Orwell. But while there are many literary-inspired pub tours on offer in London, this guide spotlights the best dining spots with a tie to the city’s literary past.
Located in London’s literary heartland, this fashionable venue is named after the lead character of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. Kensington-born Woolf lived in the district for many years and helped found the Bloomsbury Set: a coterie of local artists, intellectuals, and fellow writers, including E.M. Forster. She would have been as delighted as Londoners still lunch in this weather-proof canopied terrace, decorated with floral installations covering the entire back wall, making it one of the capital’s most Instagrammable restaurants. On the menu are classic British and European dishes executed with elegant simplicity, while the “Mindful Moments” Afternoon Tea is a popular option for anyone fancying a lighter feed.
The Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe
Although famously born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare spent most of his working life in London, where he would forge his reputation as one of the greatest writers in the English language. The Globe is a faithful reconstruction of the 16th-century theatre where his plays were first performed, close to its original Bankside location. Part of the complex is a contemporary take on an Elizabethan tavern–The Swan–which overlooks the Thames and nearby St. Paul’s Cathedral. But the venue is far from the mediocre tourist trap it could’ve been, instead attracting gourmands from all over the city with its classic British cuisine, including meat and game from across the UK: roast Scottish partridge and Welsh lamb being particular standouts. And then there are its specialty Shakespearian-themed afternoon teas, the current “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” offering served on bespoke crockery decoratively inspired by the well-loved romantic comedy.
WHERE: Covent Garden
London’s oldest restaurant, Rules (established in 1798), had Georgian writers lauding its “porter, pies, and oysters” and remarking on the “rakes, dandies, and superior intelligences who comprise its clientele.” In the ensuing two centuries, the dining institution has attracted a string of literary greats through the same doors, including Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells, and Kingsley Amis, while in 1971, John Betjeman, Poet Laureate, extolled it as “unique and irreplaceable and part of literary and theatrical London.” The venue has also been immortalized in the textual world in novels by Evelyn Waugh, John le Carré, and Graham Greene, whose heroine Sarah falls in love over a war-rationed meal in The End of the Affair. Not much has changed at Rules, which has retained its traditional paneled interior and muted-lighting ambiance, while the same hearty pies and puddings still populate the menu, augmented by game and beef from the restaurant’s own Teesdale estate.
Another venerable restaurant institution–one of London’s five oldest–Scott’s has been serving superior seafood dinners to the city’s great and good since first opening as an oyster warehouse in 1851. Soon establishing itself as one of the more glamorous venues in town, its decor was later described as “luxurious to the safe side of vulgarity” by novelist Kingsley Amis, reviewing for The Illustrated London News. Its biggest literary claim to fame, however, is that it was here where restaurant regular Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond spy novel series, first overheard a requested “shaken, not stirred” Martini, which became one of Bond’s most-quoted catchphrases, while Scott’s became the character’s preferred London dining spot. Food-wise, its humble oyster warehouse origins mean that seafood remains its raison d’etre, covering all menu bases from meal-opening caviar and oysters to daily-changing fish-of-the-day mains and an indulgent lobster thermidor.
Originally a series of four Georgian townhouses, Kettner’s restaurant was opened in 1867 by the private chef of Napoleon III, Auguste Kettner. Eventually, Kettner’s became infamous as the rendezvous of choice for colorful society celebrities of the time, not least playwright Oscar Wilde, who mentioned the restaurant as his Soho venue of choice at his 1895 indecency trial. Other distinguished patrons include King Edward VII and the world’s best-selling novelist of all time, Agatha Christie. Today its décor still harks back to its Victorian and Edwardian heyday, replete with heritage mirrors, floral plasterwork, and a mosaic-tiled floor. It is now known as “The Clarence Tavern at Kettner’s” and purveys seasonal British cuisine with a Mediterranean accent, accompanied by an extensive wine list focused on vineyards with conscientious farming practices. It’s also highly popular with pre- and post-theatre diners from around the West End, so booking ahead is well advised.
China Tang at The Dorchester
Down into the subterranean regions of the prestigious Dorchester hotel on Park Lane lies the twinkling Art Deco showcase of China Tang, modeled on interbellum-era Shanghai, where ornate dark paneling is offset throughout by quirky objets d’arts. The flamboyant restaurant is a longtime favorite of controversial author Salman Rushdie, while the backdrop of The Dorchester has seen literature luminaries like Ernest Hemingway and his novelist wife Martha Gellhorn walking its marbled floors in the 1940s, while Ian Fleming played bridge there with his socialite lover in the 50s. China Tang’s cuisine is high-end Cantonese, encompassing traditional dim sum, classics like succulent Char Siu pork, and its centerpiece Peking Duck: bronzed, lacquered, and carved ceremoniously at your table. There is also the option of a Cantonese Afternoon Tea if you’d prefer to keep the bill more manageable, with the excellent dim sum also recommended for that purpose.
Set within the former site of the notorious Gay Hussar restaurant on Greek Street–once a hotbed of 20th-century left-wing politics and machinations–Noble Rot is actually the name of an artsy gastronomic magazine that rejuvenated and reopened the venue in 2020. T.S. Eliot, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, was a regular there in the early 50s before it began attracting a long line of socialist politicians, journalists, and literary agents. Today the 17th-century building’s impressive period features remain preserved, and The Guardian newspaper’s political cartoonist has painted triptychs for its oak-paneled walls celebrating the restaurant’s louche past when said politicians schemed with Fleet Street writers to get their message out. The menu of classic Anglo-French food is complemented by a superlative ‘shrine to the vine’ wine list, and part of every bill goes to the nearby charity House of St Barnabas, whose building Dickens used as a model for Dr.Manette’s London lodgings in A Tale of Two Cities.
Palm Court at The Langham
One of the largest and most illustrious of London’s grand hotels, The Langham’s procession of high-profile guests ranges from the political in Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle to the literary in Mark Twain and Noel Coward. However, it was the hotel’s restaurant that cemented itself into English literature history by hosting a dinner in 1889 for two rising authors–Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde–and American publisher J.M. Stoddart, who wanted them to write a new story each for his Philadelphia-based literary magazine Lippincott’s. By the end of the meal, Doyle had agreed to write The Sign of Four, which would establish the everlasting fame of its detective character Sherlock Holmes, while Wilde would pen his masterpiece The Picture of Dorian Gray. Today you can relive this historic meeting with a full fine-dining blowout or a lighter afternoon tea of finger sandwiches and champagne at Palm Court at The Langham.
The Sea, The Sea
People might think this venue off Sloane Square is named after Iris Murdoch’s Booker-prize-winning novel but, as its owner confirms, it’s actually French poet Paul Valéry’s Le Cimetière Marin after which Murdoch named her book (specifically the line “La mer, la mer, toujours recommencėe”). And seafood is what the place duly specializes in: it’s actually a contemporary fishmonger and deli by day, transforming into a chic champagne and seafood bar from lunch through the evening. The menus change daily, according to the latest catch from UK waters, emphasizing small plates and shellfish platters, using only sustainably-sourced fish. And all washed down with strictly low-intervention wines and craft beers from artisan producers. For an added literary touch, the full eponymous poem is framed on the wall if you’d like to practice your French, while in the lavatories, Murdoch’s novel sits in a special box marked “in case of emergency.”
Oscar Wilde Bar at Hotel Café Royal
When French wine merchant Daniel Thévenon and his wife, Celestine, opened their ‘Café Royal’ on London’s Regent Street in 1865, they could not have foreseen how the capital’s literati would so enthusiastically latch onto the place, led by Oscar, who made its Grill Room his daily salon and hangout. A succession of visiting literary notables followed over the following decades, from D.H Lawrence and Virginia Woolf to Wilde’s compatriots W.B. Yeats and George Bernard Shaw. Known casually at the time as the Oscar Wilde Bar, the name is now official, and to this day, you can sit in the same intimate space and enjoy a special afternoon tea amid the restored Grade II-listed splendor, awash with gold leaf ornamentation, mirrored walls, and extravagant ceiling murals. A live pianist adds a final tinkling touch of class to the proceedings.