London’s scenic walkway along the Thames, stretching from Westminster Bridge to Blackfriars, has always seemed a bit of dead spot for hospitality. Not to mention the hoards of gawping tourists to contend with.
In truth, South Bank is an area not many Londoners truly know, instead it’s where they take out of town visitors to delight in unparalleled views of Big Ben before fleeing back to eat in east London, drink in the West End and party further south.
But beyond the markets and chain restaurants, floating yodas and London Eye queues, there’s a thriving foodie scene and a plethora or great bars, including one of the world’s very best cocktail destinations. In truth it’s an area many Londoners should return to.
Whether you’ve lived in London a day or for 20 years, walking along the South Bank at dawn should be a mandatory experience. In most other area guides we recommend gourmet cafes and luxurious brunches, but, weather permitting, the best thing to do here is grab a coffee and flaky pastry from Le Pain Quotidien at Southbank Centre and talk a slow stroll to the east. From stoic Big Ben to the Savoy’s river façade and a striking St Paul’s looming over the city, the views are some of London’s most iconic and best enjoyed with warm coffee and not a soul to disturb you.
Many of South Bank’s best lunch destinations also double up as promising dinner locations but with the exception of balmy summer nights (because we have so many) we’ve always loved Gabriel’s Wharf during the daytime. This sweet little village in the middle of London is jostling with independent shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. Try The Wharf for some fresh Mediterranean seafood, some thin-crust pizza at the Gourmet Pizza Co or Parisian-style crepes at the house of Crepes Café.
The real winner, however, for a South Bank lunch is Green Room. This unique collaboration between the National Theatre and local social enterprise Coin Street Community Builders features props and scenery recycled from National Theatre shows, surrounded by a sustainable garden designed and maintained by the Bankside Open Spaces Trust with volunteers from the theatre and local area. The menu is fresh classics with the likes of crushed avocado and grilled vegetables dominating, alongside the obligatory Green Room burger.
Whether you’re after post-lunch drinks, evening tipples or rich nightcaps, South Bank is surprisingly well looked after when it comes to mixed drinks. Of course the main attraction is Dandelyan, inside the Mondrian Hotel which currently holds the rank of #3 from the World’s 50 Best Bars. So yes, it’s very, very good in here. Drinks are themed on modern botany and if you’re adventurous then it’s a paradise for exploration. However, for those simply looking for a great tasting drink, there is no finer place around.
Set back from the water is Marks Bar within the Old Vic, and another of the areas leading cocktail spots. Marks Bars are famous throughout the city and usually attached to a Hix restaurant, but this one is unique in that it stands alone, serving beautiful drinks inside the illustrious theatre. If you’re going to a play you’ll have access all night (till 2am) but if not it’s open to all after the performances finish.
OXO Tower’s bar is another of the area’s best cocktail destinations. The beautiful bar serves aromatic and complex twists on classic cocktails as well as unique inventions. For more stunning views of the Thames accompanied by tasty drinks be sure to take a seat at the bar in Skylon within the Royal Festival Hall. Lastly, but certainly not least, is Gillray’s Bar in the Marriott Hotel County Hall which has a multitude of gins and mixed cocktails to keep you hydrated all night long.
The London Dungeons isn’t exactly where you might think of going for a relaxing pint, yet currently it is playing host to the Tavern where you can experience the Victorian pub in all its squalor. Enjoy a tipple of bootleg beer or cocktail served up by the boastful East End Landlady and henpecked Landlord, as they compete to berate each other to anyone who’ll listen.
South Bank is the heart of cultural London, boasting theatres, galleries and free festivals year-long. Southbank Centre is a great place to dip your cultural toe in the water with constant photographic exhibitions and even a poetry library (with regular readings). There’s the Imperial War Museum for history buffs and of course the much-loved skate parks where the most talented come to display their skills.
It’s not just the small skating area beside the Thames either that South Bank plays home to. Within the House of Vans you’ll find free skate sessions and even free cinema screenings, exhibitions and concerts – all located within the old Victorian arches beneath Waterloo Station.
South Bank – the Organisation
It’s a little-known fact that many London areas have a whole team of people whose very job is to unite the area and improve its standing by working with all the great businesses, from theatres to cocktail bars. South Bank London are a great source of information about what’s happening in the area and should be your first port of call for update information and inspiration.
The two most famed South Bank dining destinations have always been OXO Tower and Skylon, both with unique sweeping views and modern, British menus which are regularly updated. At OXO Tower mouth-watering mains can include chateaubriand, hand-dived Scottish scallops, Dover sole fillets and Crown Prince pumpkin and Isle of Wight Blue cheese tarts. Over at Skylon you have the option of a chef’s tasting menu or mains such as wild halibut, fallow deer or roasted partridge.
Sea Containers has now joined the all-star line-up, opening in the Mondrian Hotel, which is inspired by the golden age of transatlantic travel and fuses modern British and American cuisine.
With venues such as Marks Bar and Dandelyan open till 2am and the Mondrian’s Rumpus Room about the relaunch, South Bank has plenty of action beyond that after dinner espresso.