|This guide uses the following price ranges for a typical meal for one, including soft drink:|
Smoking is banned in all UK pubs and restaurants.
It is a huge task for a visitor to find the ‘right place’ to eat in London – with the ‘right atmosphere’, at the ‘right price’ – largely because, as in any big city, there are literally thousands of venues from which to choose, ranging from fast food joints, pubs, and mainstream chains all the way up to some of the most exclusive restaurants in the world which attract the kind of clientele that don’t need to ask the price. Sorting the good from the bad isn’t easy, but London has something to accommodate all budgets and tastes. Following is a rough guide to what you might get, should you fancy eating out:
- Up to £10 – you can get a good English pub or cafeteria breakfast with a rack of bacon, beans in tomato sauce, egg, sausage, orange juice and coffee or tea. Most pubs stop this offer at 11:00, but there are literally hundreds of backstreet cafes (collquially known as “greasy spoons”) which will serve this sort of food all day.
- £7 – will buy you a couple of sandwiches and a soft drink, some takeaway fish and chips, or a fast food meal. There are also a number of mostly Chinese restaurants which serve an all you can eat buffet for around this price. These are dotted about the West End and it is well worth asking a member of public or a shopkeeper where the nearest one is. These restaurants make much of their revenue on drinks although these are usually still moderately priced. The food whilst not being of the finest standard is usually very tasty and the range of dishes available is excellent. There are literally thousands of so called takeaways in London and a cheap alternative to a restaurant meal. Check with your hotel management if they allow food deliveries before ordering in. Most takeaways will offer some form of seating, but not all do.
- £10-15 – will get you a good pub meal and drink or a good Chinese/Indian/Italian/Thai/Vietnamese buffet. Be aware that many pubs have a buy-one-get-one-free offer, and you can either order two main dishes for yourself or bring a friend.
- £15 – some more expensive French, Mediterranean and international restaurants do cheaper two or three course lunch and dinner menus
- £25 – offers you a lot more choice. You can have a good meal, half a bottle of wine and change for the tube home. There are plenty of modest restaurants that cater for this bracket.
- £50 (to almost any amount!) – with more money to spend you can pick some of the city’s finer restaurants. It may be a famous chef (like Michel Roux, Jr or Gordon Ramsay) or simply a place that prides itself on using the finest ingredients. Worth the splurge to impress a special someone. Note that these establishments often need to be booked well in advance, and most will enforce a dress code of some sort, like Rules of Covent Garden, the oldest restaurant still extant.
Prices inevitably become inflated at venues closest to major tourist attractions – beware the so-called tourist traps. The worst tourist trap food is, in the opinion of many Londoners, is served at the various steak houses (Angus Steak House, Aberdeen Steak House etc – they are all dotted around the West End and near to the main train stations). Londoners wouldn’t dream of eating here – you shouldn’t either! Notorious areas for inflated menu prices trading on travellers’ lack of knowledge are the streets around the British Museum, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. Even the major fast food chains charge a premium in their West End outlets – so watch out.
Pubs within the touristy areas of London are usually a generic and basic choice for food although there are some brilliant ‘gastro-pubs’ hidden away – use the internet or a good guide (such as Time Out or Londonist) to find them. In general avoid all pubs that have graphic-designed and printed menus – it’s people’s experiences in these kind of places that give Britain a bad name for food! Look around you – see any locals tucking in? No? – then you shouldn’t either. The other rule to follow when avoiding poor food is the same as in any other part of Europe – is the menu available in multiple languages? If yes then start running!!
In the suburbs, the cost of eating out is reduced drastically. Particularly in large ethnic communities, there is a competitive market which stands to benefit the consumer. In East London for example, the vast number of chicken shops means that a deal for 2 pieces of chicken, chips (fries) and a drink shouldn’t cost you more than £3. Another good (and cheap) lunch option is a chicken or lamb doner kebab (gyro) at many outlets throughout the city, though meat quality is often poor.
For more authentic Cockney food, try pie and mash, which originates from the working-class in the East End. Usually minced beef and cold water pastry pie served with mashed potato, mushy peas and ‘liquour’ gravy, it tastes a lot better then it sounds. Some of the best pie houses are M. Manze in Peckham or F. Cookein Hackney Broadway Market. Water Souchet and London Particular (green-pea and ham) are classic Cockney soups, though hard to find on menus. For those game, jellied eels, pickled-cockles and whelks are all traditional London seafood. For cheap, quality fish and chips frequented by many black cab drivers, try Super Fish near Waterloo station.
Tipping may also be different than what you’re used to. All meals include the 20% VAT tax and some places include a service fee (10-12%). The general rule is to leave a tip for table service, unless there’s already a service charge added or unless the service has been notably poor. The amount tipped is generally in the region of 10%, but if there’s a figure between 10 and 15% which would leave the bill at a conveniently round total, many would consider it polite to tip this amount. Tipping for counter service, or any other form of service, is unusual – but some choose to do so if a tips container is provided.
Many Londoners, especially in the evenings, eat out in their local neighborhood or a nearby restaurant hub, rather than eating in central London. The reasons are simple; the the quality of the food will be better, the quality of the service is better, and the cost is significantly lower. Generally in zones 2-6 you will get a much more pleasant, better value, and less crowded eating experience than you will find in the West End. The suburbs are home to many independent restaurants that keep standards high in order to attach repeat custom. Even the chain restaurants tend to be better outside zone 1 serving identical menus to their West End outlets but without tourist premiums being added to the prices.
Restaurant streets are best visited in the evenings as many places are closed or very quiet during the day.
European / British Cuisine
- Upper Street – Head to Highbury & Islington (Victoria line) or Angel (Northern line). Dozens of excellent restaurants, popular with young professionals.
- Stoke Newington Church Street – rather out of the way but has a fantastic range of independent restaurants and cafes. Stoke Newington Rail Station or the 73 bus.
- Charlotte Street in Fitzrovia has a wide range of chain and independent restaurants covering all cuisines. It is particularly popular with workers in the media industry, especially during weekday lunchtimes. Goodge Street Tube
- Clapham Junction is not just a train station (lots of quick trains from Victoria and Waterloo) – but also home to many good restaurants and bars, in three clusters, all within 10 minutes walk of the station: Northcote Road / Battersea Rise, Lavender Hill, and St Johns Hill
- Lordship Lane in the southern suburbs – head to East Dulwich station – a good selection of European restaurants and a few award winning gastropubs
- Kings Street extends on to Chiswick High Road from Hammersmith Tube Station and is one long road of a choice of restaurants at very reasonable prices, some bargain mentions are the Thai restaurants offering 2 course lunch for £7. Nearby Shepherds bush is about a 15min walk and is alive with bars and pubs in the evening.
- South End, Croydon Croydon is derided by most Londoners as the end of the earth, however this suburban gem of a road has at least 30 decent restaurants, including three Argentinians, a Peruvian, a fish restaurant, and a couple of fancy modern European brassieres. Sadly chain restaurants are moving in (Zizzi’s, Pizza Express) but most of the places are still independent. Get a quick train to East Croydon station from Victoria or London Bridge (or South Croydon station, slower but nearer).
East Asian, South Asian, Middle-Eastern, Caribbean, and other
As one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, you can find restaurants serving food cuisine from nearly every country, some of it as good as, if not better than in the countries of origin. Indian food in London is especially famous and there is hardly a district without at least one notable Indian restaurant.
If you are looking for other particular regional foods these tend to be clustered in certain areas and some examples are:
- Brick Lane in the East End is famous for Bangladeshi curries. Aldgate East or Shoreditch High Street tube stations.
- Brixton for African/Caribbean. Brixton tube.
- Drummond Street (just behind Euston railway station in the London/Camden district) has a fine mix of Indian / vegetarian restaurants – a short walk from Euston railway station.
- Chinatown just off Leicester Square for Chinese.
- Golders Green for Jewish fare.
- Kingsland Road for good cheap Vietnamese.
- Finsbury Park and nearby areas for Greek and Turkish.
- Tooting, East Ham, Wembley and Southall for authentic & cheap Indian eateries including authentic South Indian restaurants serving hot pongal, dosas, idlis and other South Indian “tiffin” items.
- New Malden in south west London (zone 4) for Korean food.
Other nationalities are equally represented and randomly dotted all over London.
Like other capitals in the world, London has the usual array of fast food outlets. Sandwich shops are the most popular places to buy lunch, and there are a lot of places to choose from including Eat and Pret a Manger. Some Italian-style sandwich shops have a very good reputation and you can identify them easily by looking at the long queues at lunchtime. If all else fails, Central London has lots of mini-supermarkets operated by the big British supermarket chains (e.g. Sainsbury’s, Tesco) where you can pick up a pre-packed sandwich.
Fast food with an Asian flair is easy to find throughout the city, with lots of Busaba Eathai, Wagamama, and Yo! Sushi locations throughout the city. Nando’s has spicy peri peri style grilled chicken.
London has plenty of vegetarian-only restaurants many of them championing organic foodstuffs, and a quick search in Google will produce plenty of ideas, so you never have to see a piece of cooked meat all week.
If you are dining with carnivorous friends most restaurants will cater for vegetarians and will have at least a couple of dishes on the menu. Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants are generally fruitful, as they have plenty of traditional dishes (good Indian/Bangladeshi options can be found in the Brick Lane area of Spitalfields or further afeild in East Ham, Tooting Broadway and Southall. These also tend to be very cheap eats with authentically prepared dishes with a true local ambience). There are also many vegetarian Thai buffet places where you can eat fake meat in tooth-achingly sweet sauces for under £5. These can be found on Greek and Old Compton Sts in Soho and Islington High Street.
Due to the mix of cultures and religions, many London restaurants cater well for religious dietary requirements. The most common signs are for Halal and Kosher meat, from burger joints to nice restaurants. There are lots of Halal restaurants and shops all over London including Whitechapel Rd and Brick Lane in the East End, Bayswater, Edgware Rd and Paddington and in many parts of north London. There are plenty of Kosher restaurants in Golders Green, Edgware and Stamford Hill along with some central delis such as on Charing Cross Road. There is also Hare Khrisna vegan restaurant just off Charing X in Soho Square.
Convenience stores and supermarkets
Convenience stores such as Tesco Metro, Sainsbury Central/Local, Budgens, Costcutter, SPAR, Cooperative as well as privately-run ‘corner shops’ sell pre-made sandwiches, snacks, alcohol, cigarettes, drinks etc. Most are open from 05:00-23:00 (5 AM-11 PM) although some such as Tesco Metro or convenience stores located at petrol stations may open 24 hours although they will stop selling alcohol after 23:00 (11 PM). Be aware that Whistlestop convenience stores (located in or around train stations) are notoriously overpriced and should be avoided. If using a petrol-station convenience store late at night (i.e. after 23:00/11 PM) the store will be locked and you should order and pay through the external service window.
Full-size superstores such as Tesco, Asda and Morrisons are rare in the city centre and usually require a 15-20 min tube ride to reach them. One of the closest is the ASDA store close to Crossharbour DLR Station on the Lewisham line – about 15-minute ride from Bank Station or at the end of the 135 24-hour bus line. There is also a Tesco in the Surrey Quays shopping mall which is next to Canada Water station on the Jubilee line – again about 10-15 minutes from the centre of town. If you plan on buying lots of groceries it’s worth the trip as prices are much lower than in any downtown supermarkets.
Types of Cuisines
As a truly cosmopolitan city, most of the world’s cuisines cuisines can be found in London. Food available varies from British institutions like fish and chips to classic cuisines like Italian or Chinese, all the way to fare from countries like Mongolia or Ethiopia.
Some areas of London have become identified with certain cuisines, and most major fares have a specific place where there are heavy concentrations of that cuisine:
For centuries, pie and mash was the epitome of London fare. Though most of London’s pie shops have sadly been lost, a few remain. These are mostly found in the outer reaches of London, and include M Manze in Peckham and Sutton (the oldest in London), Cockneys Pie and Mash in Ladbroke Grove, and Arments in Walworth, which also serves that strange London delicacy, the jellied eel.
For tourists looking for a full taste of the best that British cuisine has to offer, Heston Blumenthal’s ‘Dinner’ in Knightsbridge is a must-visit destination. Blumenthal is perhaps Britain’s most celebrated chef, and this second restaurant of his will show you why.
Chinese and East Asian
The major centre for Chinese cooking in London can be found in Chinatown, an area behind Leicester Square. Although smaller than the Chinatowns in other major cities, there are still around fifty restaurants on Chinatown’s main street (Gerrard Street), with many more on the streets around the area.
All budgets and dining preferences are catered to, from cheap pre-theatre buffet restaurants like the multiple Mr Wu’s to extravagant feasts. Particular highlights include Chinatown’s famed dim sum and the dish that gives Crispy Duck restaurant its name, all washed down with a glass of bubble tea from Candy Café.
Outside of Chinatown, Michelin-starred Chinese can be found at Hakkasan in Mayfair, fantastic Thai can be found at Heron on Edgware Road, and a Vietnamtown-of-sorts is located on Kingsland Road close to Hoxton Overground Station.
Find Korean restaurants in St Giles near Tottenham Court Road Station. Japanese restaurants can be a great budget option for the West End.
Indian,Pakistani and Western Asian
Those looking for a curry in the capital have to make a trip to Brick Lane, which has been ubiquitous with Indian food since a large Bengali population settled there in the mid-20th Century. Whereas the top half of Brick Lane is famed for its two bagel shops, the rest is nearly all curry restaurants. Though the standard is nearly universally low. A much tastier option is Tayyabs, in Whitechapel, a bustling restaurant with great value dishes. Worth the sometimes lengthy wait. Or the nearby Lahore.
For those looking for a slightly more fine dining take on the food of the subcontinent, Dishoom (just off Covent Garden) is well worth a visit. There are also very highly rated (but expensive!) options such as Gymkhana and Benares.
Burgers and American Food
Upmarket and gourmet fast food has been a food trend in London for a few years, with many restaurants specializing in burgers, hot dogs and another American staples.
Although London food fans differ widely when it comes to choosing their favorites, two to try are Kentish Town’s Dirty Burger and any of The Diner chain. The former can be found in what is essentially a shack in a car park, but their burgers are some of the capital’s best. For a wider variety of stateside fare, The Diner (in Camden, Bloomsbury, Camden or at Spitalfields Market) is a popular choice, offering well made blue plate classics inspired by US diner food.
Pizza and Italian
Though London’s Little Italy (in Clerkenwell) is fairly small, the city caters well to those looking for Italian.
Visitors are advised to choose the smaller trattorias if they are looking for the best pizzas and pasta in the city. The quality of these is generally high, but Goodge Street’s Mondellos is a particular favorite for those looking for authentic and reasonably priced Italian food. For high dining Italian, the one Michellin-starred Locanda Locatelli in Marylebone and River Cafe in Hammersmith are notable.