To the first-timer London town seems like an endless parade of cheesy franchises and greasy spoons, but once you lift the veil of this wonderful city you will find some excellent eating out experiences. Eating out in London can be expensive and disappointing but if you steer clear of the Pizza Huts, steak joints and overpriced curry houses, you can find good food at reasonable prices. My list is by no means exhaustive, it is simply what I’ve learned, as a newcomer who has visited all the major sites and locations and found myself hungry and disappointed.
The first mistake people make is to eat near Leicester Sq or Piccadilly Circus or wrongly think that there’ll be a plethora of good eateries at the famous sites. You’ll soon discover that there is nothing of the sort but there is an exception to this rule. It seems that big name patisseries love to open stores at major tourist sites, so if you’re hankering for a pastry or an over-priced macaron, then you’ll be fine. If you find yourself hungry in London for something more, I recommend you stave off the hunger with an ice cream or a packet of crisps while you wander further afield for something decent.
If you find yourself keeping Lord Nelson company at Trafalger Sq, grab yourself a hot dog from the street van – they are amazing. As you munch away, you can either mosey over to China Town or Soho or follow The Strand down into the Fleet St area. China Town is always a good pick, because they’re the same all over the world and if you follow my instructions on how to pick a good Chinese restaurant, you’ll be laughing, or even better just go straight to Wan Chai Corner on Gerrard St, W1D 5PD.
I actually haven’t eaten a lot in Leicester Sq but I have been to The Bear and Staff at 10-12 Bear Street, WC2H 7AS. There you’ll find just ordinary pub food and beers but the atmosphere is great and the music’s always good. It feels exciting there and it has a little bit of history to it.
Greek St is a good place to start when you’re in Soho or the West End. Lots of pubs and generally cool places to eat and hang out. I’ve had dinner at The Coach & Horses, 29 Greek Street, W1D 5DH and it was really nice. We went upstairs to eat because it was busy, where people busting out into the street with drinks in their hands. Here’s the trick with pubs, if you want to get out of the noise, go upstairs – it’s usually quiet there, especially around 6-7pm when tourists are eating. The rest of London hasn’t even got home from work yet, so you’re safe for a while from the townies. The Coach & Horses also has a lovely little secret tea room in their upstairs dining room with proper china and doilies and all that jazz.
Greek St is also good because it is there that you will find my favourite cake shop in London, Maison Bertaux at 28 Greek Street, W1D 5DQ.
Monmouth St in Soho is good for cafes, home to the famous Monmouth Coffee house the near by Neil’s Yard and various other trendy places. It’s pricey and you might have to line up, and in my opinion, it’s generally not worth it. Find yourself a Costa and don’t feel bad about it, they probably do one of the better franchise coffees in London. Only go to Nero if you’re desperate, and only go to Starbucks if you’re looking for a slow, painful death-by-coffee.
If you find yourself down the end of Fleet Street, don’t despair, you’re near a classic pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. I was taken to this place on a London walking tour otherwise I would never have found it. It is so cosy and worth seeking out if you’re in the area. Apparently all the literary luminaries of London have put away a few pints in that unlikely little pub. The food tastes homemade and the ceilings are low and the walls are crooked. You’ll find this gem at 145 Fleet Street, EC4A 2BU. Another classic is also not too far away. The Savoy hotel is home to the famous Savoy Grill, now helmed by Gordon Ramsay, and it is also home to The America Bar which is steeped in glamorous history. I recommend this place for a special night out because the quality is excellent and the price is fair and better yet, you don’t feel as out of place there as you might expect. I would book though.
You won’t find anything on Oxford St or Regent St, but if you make a few turns off at any point, you’re likely to find a restaurant or pub nearby. The trick there is to get off the main drag. In fact, that’s pretty good advice for anywhere in London really. Get off the main roads and you’re likely to stumble across some sort of food institution or another. For example Ottolenghi’s cafes are located in the strangest places. And there are squillions of pubs around most corners and while most of them are completely forgettable, they will at least provide you with a beer and meal for under £15.
Marble Arch is home to some good Lebanese cuisine if you’re looking. I haven’t been myself, but Mum and Dad head into that part of town for a good felafel.
If you’re near Tower Bridge or The Tower of London– the pretty blue and white one – then go over to the south side of the bridge – heading away from the Sq Mile and go down. By the water you’ll find all kinds of restaurants that will give you a decent meal. They’re not the greatest by any account, but you will feel looked after and you will understand the food there. The area is called Butlers Wharf or Shad Thames, SE1 2YE and it is a big long river front with restaurants like La Pont de la Tour and the Chop House. These places aren’t cheap though.
If you’re feeling adventurous and a bit like a curry, then go into Brick Lane. It is seedy but lots of fun. The restaurants have hawkers trying to entice you into their shop by calling out their offers and making wild promises. Walk down the road a little and browse menus, listen to what they’re offering and when you find a place you like, make them an offer. You’ll at least get them to throw in 2 free bottles of wine for a party of 4. Don’t be shy – it’s all part of the fun. There are some a really good curry houses here, but use your head to find ones that look authentic, full of families and kids.
If you’d like to go out of your way for some vegetarian Indian cuisine…you cannot go home without visiting Diwana Bhel Poori House, 121-123 Drummond Street, NW1 2HL. On that whole street actually you’ll find a collection of really nice, but very modest vegetarian curry houses. It’s not fancy food but it’s cheap, fresh and delicious. The dosa there are the best in town.