The notion that good things come in small packages is nowhere more deliciously exemplified than with dim sum, the bitesize Chinese buns and dumplings traditionally only eaten in the afternoon and accompanied by a pot of tea. The tradition emerged in the 10th century in the port city of Canton (modern-day Guangzhou), where teahouses sprang up catering to travellers in search of a couple of light bites to go with their cup of cha.
There are more than 1,000 dim sum dishes originating from Guangdong province, of which Guangzhou is the capital, though Chinese restaurants in London tend to restrict themselves to a core roster of about 50. A dim sum meal should involve a mix of steamed, fried and baked dishes, which usually come in portions of three or four; ordering around 12 dumplings per hungry person tends to be a good rule of thumb.
Classic dishes to look out for include har gau (steamed, pleated prawn dumplings), siu mai (ground pork dumplings, open at either end), baked pork or venison puffs like mini Cornish pasties and cheung fun, slithery rice-noodle rolls filled with shrimp, beef, roast pork or vegetables, sitting in a puddle of soy sauce.
The phrase “dim sum” in Cantonese roughly translates as “touch the heart” and dim sum devotees are fiercely loyal to their most treasured restaurant. Weekend brunches are especially popular with Chinese families; a late weekday lunch makes a smashing solo treat while some of London’s most famous dim sum practitioners serve the small plates into the evening, too. From Mayfair Michelin stars to Chinatown canteens, traditional teahouses and stylish spots for a cocktail, read on for our guide to London’s 15 best dim sum restaurants.
Royal China Baker Street
Before anyone knew the difference between har gau and siu mai, queues would form every weekend outside the Bayswater branch of this mid-market Chinese chain in the days when queueing was unusual, not ubiquitous. The original Queensway outpost closed during lockdown but the cooking at the Baker Street Royal China has, somehow, always tasted better, even though the dim sum for all five branches is prepared in a central kitchen. Illustrated menus make this a user-friendly place for diners new to dim sum (order spicy chicken feet and you can’t say you weren’t warned), with quality high enough to ensure Cantonese connoisseurs will leave impressed with the likes of fresh-as-a-daisy prawn and chive dumplings or roast pork buns as fluffy as cotton wool. Deep-pocketed diners should check out Royal China Club a few doors up where the dumplings are made from scratch from premium ingredients, though the atmosphere isn’t nearly as joyous as here, where large tables of Chinese families feel straight out of a Hong Kong Sunday.
24-26 Baker Street, W1U 3BZ, royalchinagroup.co.uk
Dim Sum Duck
An insalubrious stretch of grimy King’s Cross Road might not be the most appealing prospect for an appetite-sharpening queue and yet the food quality at this tiny dim sum parlour is so good no one minds the wait for an experience superior to anywhere in Chinatown. Perhaps the only time one might not have to queue is on a midweek mid-afternoon, which is probably the best time for a meal that is the Chinese equivalent of afternoon tea (though dumplings are served here from midday until 10pm). Prawn dumplings come as a quartet of rosy-pink gobstoppers, deep-filled cheung fun slithers around side plates slick with soy sauce, while there are excellent larger plates of bouncy salt and pepper squid and beef ho fun with the properly smoky flavour of a well-used wok. Still hungry? There are custard buns for afters.
24 King’s Cross Road, WC1X 9DS, @dimsumandduck
There had been high-end Chinese restaurants before Hakkasan, but none that had combined the feeling of eating in a nightclub with refined food that would initially seem better suited to more sedate, starred establishments. The Hakkasan formula remains as beguiling as it was when the Hanway Place original opened in 2001, though anyone with an aversion to eating in a basement, no matter how alluringly lit, should head to the ground-floor bar-cum-lounge of the Mayfair follow-up. Expect classic Cantonese dim sum ingredients swapped out for luxury alternatives: har gau filled with langoustine and anointed with Prunier caviar, or never-bettered baked venison puffs judiciously seasoned with black pepper. A separate menu of vegan dim sum (golden squash and lily bulb, sugar snap and edamame) is delicious proof of why 25 years later, Hakkasan remains essential eating.
8 Hanway Place, W1T 1HD and 17 Bruton Street, W1J 6QB, hakkasan.com
This relative newcomer to Islington’s restaurant mile is a tranquil spot of white walls and pan pipes where the dim sum is so good it is served until 9pm. It is also halal, which means no to pork dumplings, but thumbs up to chicken puffs, pan-fried chicken dumplings, and chicken and shiitake mushroom buns. Seafood, though, is the best thing to order, from steamed prawn or prawn and chive dumplings, to crab and chicken siu mai and pistachio green-coloured seabass rolls, while veggie options such as spring onion pancake and carrot and salted egg yolk bun are good shouts too. Don’t ignore the main menu, either: candy-sweet mango golden floss prawns, chewy ho fun and spicy dan dan noodles, or one of the glossy whole ducks shimmering in the window.
301 Upper Street, N1 2TU, hkcuisine.co.uk
The sort of huge, Hong Kong-style canteen that used to be ten-a-penny in Chinatown, Phoenix Palace, halfway between Marylebone and Baker Street tubes, is like a fever dream of Chinese restaurant clichés, with dangly lanterns, Ming-style vases, more red and gold than Trooping the Colour and a wall of Polaroid snaps of celebrity (well, light-entertainment) customers to gawp at in the lobby should you find yourself waiting for a table (booking is recommended). Weekends see the place full of large Chinese families spinning steaming baskets of dim sum around the lazy Susan but whether you’re a table of two or 12 a good time is guaranteed. Expect faultless renditions of the classic dim-sum canon: steamed beef balls and barbecued pork buns, fried prawn croquettes and crispy lobster dumplings, plus chicken claws and octopus patties for something more recherché.
5-9 Glentworth Street, NW1 5PG, phoenixpalace.co.uk
Din Tai Fung
The addition of a Centre Point branch means that queues have subsided at the Covent Garden outpost of an international chain that arrived in London in 2018 with an intriguing backstory. The story goes that Din Tai Fung was founded by Chinese immigrant Yang Bing-yi in Taiwan in 1972 and the brand now extends to a global empire of over 150 restaurants famous for the house speciality of xiao long bao, the Shanghainese soup dumplings that once earned the Hong Kong Din Tai Fung a Michelin star (it makes do with a Bib Gourmand these days). In truth, it helps not to know the hype, as the dumplings are competent rather than compelling, though the sight of a troupe of white-masked chefs beavering away in the glass-walled kitchen with the precision of surgeons to ensure that each stock-filled dumpling arrives at the table with the required 18 pleats is undeniably impressive. The crab and pork dumplings, sweet and savoury, are the best of the lot; if anything, cold plates such as slivers of pork wrapped around crushed garlic are the tastiest things on offer here.
5 Henrietta Street, WC2E 8PS and Unit R04, Centre Point, 11 St Giles Square, WC2H 8AP, dintaifung-uk.com
The only two-Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant outside China is a slightly more accessibly priced option at lunch when in addition to the 15-course “Touch the Heart” tasting menu (£175), dim sum is offered by the individually priced dumpling, from £3 to £16. The results taste closer to what one might expect to find in a cutting-edge restaurant in Shanghai than anywhere else in London, with endless innovation matched to an expert understanding of flavour so that each miniature masterpiece is savoury and refined, subtle and sublime. Highlights are too many to mention, but for sheer smile-inducing joy the rabbit-filled glutinous puffs shaped like carrots should not be missed, while cheung fun reinvented as Isle of Mull seared scallop sandwiched between crisp sheets of honey-glazed Ibérico pork makes all other renditions of the dish feel superfluous. Note that lunch is only served from Wednesday to Saturday, so expect to book well ahead or turn up on the off-chance of a walk-in (they do exist).
70 Wilton Road, SW1V 1DE, awong.co.uk
This Chinatown Cantonese might not stand out from the competition with its evening à la carte of reliably done classics but its afternoon dim sum (served until 4.45pm) is some of the best in the area. Sugar-coated pork buns, sweetly glazed like a Krispy Kreme is an idea that, once tried, is never to be forgotten; other tried-and-trusted hits include stubby columns of prawn and pork siu mai, a trio of crisp savoury meat croquettes, stiff tubes of bean curd rolls stuffed with prawn and pork, plus some spring onion and deep-fried dough cheung fun for a bit of textural contrast. A picture-led menu and tick-box ordering make choosing easy even for the uninitiated. Staff are noticeably friendly for this part of town while, at around £25 for five plates and a pot of tea, Orient is a cheap eat that is also a cheap thrill.
5 Wardour Street, W1D 6PH, orientlondon.com
This 10th-floor hotel restaurant is one of London’s classiest Chinese, with views over the treetops of Kensington Gardens to the Albert Hall and Memorial all the way to the London Eye and Shard in the distance. The daytime nature of dim sum means that the setting is as mesmerising on winter lunchtimes and autumn afternoons as at the height of summer, though the food does a sterling job of competing with the view, though some diners may wish to avert their eyes from the calorie count displayed next to each dish on the menu. The skill of the kitchen means this is a good place to try dim sum that require intricate preparation: poached Beijing dumplings filled with chicken, prawns and dried shiitake, perhaps, though classics such as plump har gau and a superlative rendition of salt and pepper squid are pulled off with equal aplomb. Try and save, space, too, for London’s original Beijing duck, carved tableside and served in two immaculate courses.
Royal Garden Hotel, 2-24 Kensington High Street, W8 4PT, minjiang.co.uk
With its big windows overlooking Gerrard Street, plain white interiors and chefs making dumplings in a show kitchen, there’s an appealing transparency to this straightforwardly named Chinatown restaurant. The house speciality knocked out by the white-masked team of chefs is pork, chicken and crab meat xiao long biao, greedily available by the eight, as well as neatly pleated prawn dumplings — a little too al dente on a recent visit. There was, however, no faulting the rest of the kitchen’s output, from grilled buns filled with minced pork like piggy vol-au-vents and soothingly bland turnip cake to chunky beef cheung fun enlivened with coriander and the standout dish of crystal prawn dumplings, plump pink meat encased in diaphanous wrappers like tissue-wrapped presents. Reasonable prices mean peak-time queues, though perfunctory service ensures a speedy turnover.
15-16 Gerrard Street, W1D 6JE, @dumplingslegend
This under-the-radar luxury Chinese comes from a dynamic duo of Hakkasan alumni: chef Tong Chee Hwee, who won the Hanway Place restaurant its Michelin star, and restaurant director Alan Tang. With an off-piste location just off Trafalgar Square and all mod-cons stretching to a swish bar, jade-green leather upholstery and an anteroom of semi-private tables for secrecy, one should not expect to find Gouqi on any best cheap-eats lists anytime soon. The cooking, however, is superb, with the harmonious balance of textures that marks the finest Chinese cuisine and luxury ingredients to the fore in plates that average around £12 a pop: pork and prawn siu mai with the firm bite of abalone, or mushroom dumplings with the distinctively bosky flavour of morels and crunch of water chestnut. Friendly but well-informed staff are as professional as the prices demand; a cursory glance at the wine list will make you grateful that tea is the best match for dim sum.
25-34 Cockspur Street, SW1Y 5BN, gouqi-restaurants.co.uk
One’s fellow diners at this refined St James’ bank conversion are most likely to be Chinese business people attracted by Imperial Treasure’s on-the-ball service and the group’s considerable fame in China (two Michelin stars in Shanghai and Guangzhou, one in Hong Kong), which somehow has not translated to a similarly exalted reputation with Londoners. Prices upwards of £9 a plate are, admittedly, unlikely to attract a mass audience but are nonetheless worth paying for classic dim sum luxed up with superior ingredients that never veer into ostentation but simply make each bitesize mouthful taste like the best-possible rendition imaginable: bean curd rolls filled with crispy lobster, flaky puff pastry interleaved with wagyu beef and wind-dried pork embedded in the fried turnip cake, for instance. The adjoining cocktail bar is a St James’s secret and, with dim sum service ending at 3pm, the place to indulge in a post-prandial cucumber and yuzu martini.
9 Waterloo Place, SW1Y 4BE, imperialtreasure.com
This beautifully designed Soho restaurant — tea house moderne at street level, sultry dining room down below — launched in 2004 as an all-day dumpling specialist to capitalise on the dim-sum success of stablemate Hakkasan. Yauatcha approaches its 20th anniversary as a more straightforward alternative to its sibling’s Michelin-starred creativity, with sweet and sour pork (fabulous) as likely as char siu cheung fun (ditto). The dim sum, though, remains the star attraction and if prices at the Soho original (there’s another in the City) are around twice what one would pay in nearby Chinatown, the quality is doubled, too, with clever details such as spring onion to cut through the sweet fleshiness of pork and prawn siu mai, or the crunch of cashew nut offsetting the spice of a Szechuan pork wonton. Instead of custard dumplings for pudding, there are jewel-coloured macarons and slices of pretty patisserie.
15-17 Broadwick Street, W1F 0DL and Broadgate Circle, EC2M 2QS, yauatcha.com
A hotel on Shepherd’s Bush Green is the inauspicious setting for the best dim sum restaurant west of Kensington. “Shikumen” is a 19th-century style of domestic Shanghainese architecture, though the restaurant itself is far more urbane than the inspiration behind its name, not least a moodily lit dining room elegantly separated by room dividers like Hakkasan-lite. The short menu emphasises quality over quantity and offers a whistlestop tour through steamed, fried and cheung fun dim sum, with clever twists on the classics: cheung fun filled with crispy grilled eel and seaweed, or pan-fried turnip cakes topped with scrambled egg and spring onion. Peking duck served in two courses (first with pancakes, then with fried rice or braised noodles) is the other house speciality. Prices of around £10 per dim-sum plate reflect the restaurant’s weekend popularity and hotel location but perhaps explain quiet weekday lunches.
Dorsett Hotel, 58 Shepherd’s Bush Green, W12 8QE, shikumen.co.uk
It might be most famous for its nighttime supper-club vibe of DJs, jazz and cabaret but for anyone who would include ‘live music’ on a list of food intolerances, lunch at Park Chinois offers a more sedate way to appreciate one of London’s most consistent (and expensive) Chinese kitchens without distraction. If the duck-shaped gold taps in the loos weren’t enough of an indication that this is not London’s cheapest Chinese, the list of ingredients should be: Atlantic sea scallop and mui choy steamed dumplings; wagyu beef gyoza; Ibérico pork puffs; black truffle and crispy bean-curd cheung fun. Try to think of the bill as including the price of admission to an immersive dining fantasy designed to evoke the glamour of 1930s Shanghai, complete with acres of tasselled velvet upholstery and staff dressed to the nines in white tie (a dress code for diners to consider, too).
17 Berkeley Street, W1J 8EA, parkchinois.com