It’s been exciting to watch London’s food scene blossom over the past 15 years. Most welcome, however, has been the renaissance of British cuisine and it’s this I urge you to seek out during your visit. It could involve a simple plate of sausage and mash and a pint of real ale in a gastropub, local oysters and a glass of English sparkling wine at one of the historic fish restaurants, or feasting at a world-renowned establishment such as St John, famous for dishes like roast bone marrow with parsley salad.
Locals are sometimes a bit sniffy about the gastropub trend, preferring at the moment to get excited about could-be-anywhere French brasseries and tapas bars, but my guests always say that visits to gastropubs are their most memorable London meals. Those, and the Indian restaurants. As you will see, pretty much every area has at least one rather anglicised curry house, but London has many excellent restaurants and cafés specialising in everything from Keralan and Gujarati vegetarian cooking to smoky Punjabi kebabs and the courtly cuisine of Lucknow. It is also renowned for its own style of Indian fine dining.
I’m a great supporter of independent restaurants, cafés and pubs, but do think it’s a good idea for London visitors to have a few reliable chains under their belt, particularly when staying outside the city centre. I’ve included some of the best in the top 100.
London (indeed, Britain) is not awash with great cheap and mid-market eateries in the way of New York or Sydney: you can’t wander in somewhere that looks nice and expect to have a good, inexpensive meal. Budget-conscious food lovers need to beware of three pitfalls: mediocre and rather poor places that cost far more than they should; seemingly cheap places that serve low-quality fare; and high-quality cafés and bakeries that are very nice but charge posh-restaurant prices.
The standard of street food in London is highly variable, too. In general the best is found at local farmers’ markets (www.lfm.org.uk lists several, though not all), Borough Market and, on weekday lunchtimes, at Exmouth Market (which is a street, rather than a market!). If you are hungry and really do have just a few pounds in your pocket, the best value filler-uppers in town are Rasa’s Indian takeaway lunchboxes (a complete meal for £2.95 if you order vegetarian) and traditional pasties from the West Cornwall Pasty Company (on the King’s Road, in Covent Garden, and the major railway termini).
You'll have a better experience if you bear the following points in mind
- Always check your bill before paying to see whether service has been included in the total. It is as normal for the bill to state ‘optional 12.5% service charge included’ as it is to say ‘service not included’, in which case you will be expected to add something to cover it. Around 10% is common if you are paying in cash, though many staff would hope for 12.5% or more, especially if you are paying by card. When paying by card, make sure you don’t pay service twice if electronically prompted to add a gratuity by the card reader.
- Some waiting staff still tend to ask if you would like ‘still or sparkling water’ for the table. If you don’t want to purchase bottled water, for whatever reason, simply say ‘tap water will be fine, thank you’. However there are some restaurants that do not serve ‘tap’ and make a flat charge (around £1.50, say) for filtered water.
- You can often dine more cheaply in premium-priced restaurants by eating early (usually before 7pm) and choosing from their ‘pre-theatre’ menu. These are sometimes not as lavishly garnished as the same dishes on the main menu, but suit many people very well. Die-hard foodies, however, often find the limited choice of dishes frustrating. Visiting at lunch and choosing the set menu has similar advantages and disadvantages.
- Children and babies are widely welcomed in London restaurants but if you plan to visit an upmarket place in the evening it is worth checking with them first to gauge exactly how welcome the little ones are. You may feel more comfortable and have a better time booking a table for lunch instead.