The beginnings of a Polish food scene emerged in London after World War II, with many restaurants providing places for exiles and émigrés to sip vodka and eat plates of homestyle pierogi. In one such restaurant, which still exists today (and is on this list), plans to overthrow communism in Poland were made. Today, the United Kingdom’s Polish stands at 15.7%, making Poles the largest group of foreign citizens in the United Kingdom—but the number of Polish restaurants in the country does not reflect this. That number is growing, but slowly and steadily.
As a British food writer of Polish descent, I spend a good deal of time seeking out the best Polish food in London, particularly if I’m craving Polish food between travels to Poland, where I connect with my family and seek inspiration for my recipes. Polish cuisine has always reflected seasonality and featured vegetables and grains, but “Contemporary Polish” indicates fare that is more creative and stylized, without losing out on flavor. For instance, at a food festival in Kraków, I tasted some sweet, lightly-fried pierogi with strawberries, drizzled with honey and topped with pistachios. I was so taken with them that they inspired a recipe of my forthcoming cookbook, Wild Honey and Rye: Modern Polish Recipes. In Camden Market's Pierogi Company, I stumbled across a similarly creative pierogi, with fresh spinach, feta, and garlic.
The 2016 decision to Brexit beamed a spotlight on Polish migrants in the United Kingdom, and resulted in a sharp increase in hate crimes against the community. But for people of any number of nationalities, to talk politics over a plate of food, sharing opinions along with our favorite dishes and drinks, is a show of solidarity and a way of life. The Poles, resilient by nature, are no different.
I came to London for university, 20 years ago, and my favorite Polish restaurants in London have never been busier or more popular. They have stayed humble, too, by keeping prices affordable (though you may have to make reservations). Some of these establishments serve modernized Polish cuisine, while others lure crowds with trusty traditional fare, whether it’s the post-work crowd looking to unwind with a cold beer and plate of Polish charcuterie, or Instagrammers styling colorful salads and fermented foods alongside warm-to-the-touch sourdough rye. Here's my lowdown on where to go to get your Polish food fix.
Daquise is definitely the best place to start when seeking out good, homemade Polish food in London. It’s a stone’s throw from the Victoria and Albert Museum and adjacent to the South Kensington tube station. Established in 1947, regular visitors included Edward Raczynski, the exiled President of Poland, who, according to the restaurant, “planned many campaigns to overthrow the Communist regime from [their] tables.” Daquise was taken over and given a refit in 2009 by the Gessler family, restaurateurs from Poland who have gained international fame. Some say it lost some of its old-style charm—I used to love meeting my British-Polish friends at Daquise for pączki (Polish doughnuts) during my university years. But these days, I appreciate the bare walls and crisp white tablecloths. The service, as always, is outstanding and attentive. Food critic Robin Ashenden said of Daquise, “The new menu contains some of the best [food] I’ve eaten in 30 years of dining out in London.”
Must-try dishes: dumplings (pierogi), which your waiter serves you at the table, straight from a hot pan, and pancakes stuffed with cheese (nalesniki z serem) for dessert.
Batic promises a “culinary tour of the Baltics, Poland, Russia and Hungary,” and does not disappoint. This was the second Eastern European restaurant I visited when I moved to London, and it’s a place I’ve enjoyed visited many times since. There was a time that you could have almost walked past and missed it, but the signage has been improved. In fact, Baltic was refurbished quite extensively after a fire in the kitchen in 2012 forced them to close. The restaurant is fitted with a long, handsome bar, and serves over 70 varieties of vodka, including their own house-infused blends, and freshly-muddled cocktails, like my favorite: the Polish apple martini, made with Wyborowa vodka, Zubrowka bison grass vodka, and Polish honey liqueur stirred with clear apple juice. If you make it past the bar to the main dining area with exposed brick walls, you’ll be rewarded with views of a beautiful trussed ceiling, complete with wooden beams, skylights, and suspended droplets of Polish amber.
Must-try dishes: the barszcz (clear beetroot soup), Polish charcuterie, and steak tartare. The dumplings (both Polish pierogi and Siberian pelmeni) are all freshly made, with fillings both classic (potato and cheese) and adventurous (foie gras). The meat courses are all very hearty—I love the roast duck leg with figs, apples and red cabbage. Try the bigos, or Hunter’s Stew, arguably Poland’s national dish, made with pork, venison, beef, and mushrooms. You’ll also see a nod to Georgian food, with dishes, such as Georgian lamb stew with okra, tomatoes and pomegranate, livening things up. There are always a wonderful selection of Baltic-inspired desserts, such as racuchy, apple fritters served with cinnamon ice cream, or sernik, a baked cheesecake.
Formerly the historic Ognisko Polskie, a bygone members-only club founded in 1939 to, in their words, “maintain the cohesion of the free Polish community in the United Kingdom during the Second World War,” this restaurant is now open to all. The food at Ognisko, meaning hearth or fire, matches the elegant, high-ceilinged Victorian townhouse it occupies. According to the Tatler Restaurant Guide, “Ognisko gives Polish food a good name, and many a naysayer has come away raving about the confit goose leg or venison with sour cherries.” My family and I have enjoyed sumptuous Sunday lunches at Ognisko during the summer months, taking advantage of its charming outdoor terrace. When visiting, ask to see its famous first-floor ballroom. You will be able to almost picture the celebrations the room has hosted.
Must-try dishes: The menu changes weekly, though you can always expect to appetizer soups (try the ogórkowa, or sour cucumber soup, if available) or kopytka (similar to Italian gnocchi) or placki (potato pancakes with sautéed chicken livers and dried cherries). Don't skip desserts—rich and dense classic baked cheesecakes flecked with vanilla, spiced plums, and sorbets with vodka.
Mamuśka, a canteen-style kitchen and bar in Elephant and Castle, is vibrant, relaxed, and offers a variety of traditional Polish dishes at prices which won’t break a traveller’s budget, as everything on the menu is under £10, and there’s always a special of the day. The outdoor seating area is a welcome feature, especially if you're in a big group. Polish cuisine first-timers are welcome, as the staff is always willing to help navigate the menu or recommend the best cold beer pairings.
Must-try dishes: Go straight in for the big plates—the pierogi, pork cutlets, cabbage rolls, and potato pancakes; they are very reminiscent of Polish home cooking. They also have a wonderful selection of homemade cakes and desserts—try their szarlotka, a cross between an apple pie and a sponge cake, served with ice cream.
One of my favorite places to stop for a Polish coffee and a slice of cheesecake is Sowa Restaurant in the established Polish hot-spot of Ealing (often called Na Ealingu) in North London. Sowa is actually an established patisserie chain in Poland, but they’ve made their way over to London. Sowa means owl, which is why you’ll see owls painted onto their cups and plates. Sowa offers a large selection of freshly-baked pastries, including apricot or cherry crumble cakes and fresh cream tortes. Interconnected, there is a larger restaurant, serving beautiful and very much modernized Polish food, such as Kashubian salmon gravlax with fillet of smoked eel or veal loin Wellington with puree potato.
Must-Try Foods: If it's on the menu, try the slow-cooked beef cheeks with potato dumplings fried with butter and dill. It’s a plate of food you won’t forget.
If you happen to be London-bound very soon, this year’s Days of Poland Festival will take place once again in Potters Field Park, by historic London Tower Bridge on the south bank of the River Thames on the afternoon of Sunday 30th April 2017.
Established in 2014, Days of Poland is the biggest Polish cultural festival to take place in the United Kingdom. With one of the best views in London, across the River Thames from The Tower of London, the festival brings together Polish folk dancing groups, contemporary Polish musicians, and, of course, plenty of opportunities to enjoy the tastes of Polish food and drink.
To read more of our guide to London, head here.