Yes, it is possible to eat great food at reasonable prices right in the vibrant beating heart of London’s West End
I’ve worked in Soho for the last five years so am always on the look out for a fun but reasonably priced lunchtime or early evening refuel. I’m not sure I’ll be thanked for sharing these secrets too widely, but if you promise to keep this tasty insight to yourself, I’ll risk it.
Currently top of the office's lunchtime list is Yalla Yalla (www.yalla-yalla.co.uk) - Arabic for hurry up! It is an intimate place tucked away down a dingy alley off Brewer Street but inside is a culinary ray of sunshine, all the way from Lebanon. Beirut street food is on offer, with everything freshly prepared by the Lebanese owner Jad Youssef and smilingly served by Polish co-owner Agnieska Ilsa.
Start with the sweet and tender Sawda djej (sautéed chicken liver with garlic and pomegranate molasses) at £3.50, or Soujoc (homemade spicy Lebanese sausages with tomato, parsley and lemon juice) for £4. Then move on to Chicken Shawarma (grilled thin slices of marinated chicken, grilled tomato, pickles, sumac onion salad and vermicelli rice) for £6.50, or Lahém meshoué (charcoal grilled marinated lamb skewers, grilled tomato, sumac onion salad and vermicelli basmati rice) at £8.00. But everything is worth diving into, including the Lebanese beer.
Yalla Yalla, 1 Green’s Court, W1F 0HA, 020 7287 7663, firstname.lastname@example.org
Randall & Aubin
If your budget can stretch a bit further, stroll just around the corner from Yalla Yalla into Brewer Street, and check out Randall & Aubin (www.randallandaubin.com), a little piece of Paris in central London since 1911. No booking, no formal tables, and probably a queue – but worth the wait, and just enjoy the informality.
There’s always a great buzz here at this socially schizophrenic place. By day it has a calm ambience that is the perfect setting for crab cakes with lime mayonnaise, watercress and radish salad (£7.85) or grilled goats cheese en croûte with mango & pear chutney (£9.50), or perhaps the perfectly cooked spit roasted chicken with stuffing, bread sauce and the most perfect pommes frites this side of the Channel (£11.50).
But come the evening the music will be pumping and you’ll probably be chatting with the folks sharing your counter, as the charming and relentlessly energetic staff serve up a succulent roast (£9.50 to £12), traditional fish & chips with mushy peas and tartar sauce (£12.50), or maybe half a dozen oysters (from £8.50) with a glass of something suitably chilled.
Randall & Aubin, 16 Brewer Street, W1, 020 7287 4447, email@example.com
Back on the budget trail, wander across Shaftesbury Avenue and down another unprepossessing alley to find C&R in Rupert Court, on the fringes of Chinatown. This is more functional café than lingering restaurant, and the service can be a little hit-and-miss. But the authentic Malaysian food is different, delicious and great value. And it is one of the few places around that doesn’t add a service charge to the bill.
My favourite is the nasi lemak, Malaysia’s national dish of coconut rice, served with fried anchovies, peanuts, hard-boiled egg, sliced cucumber and hot chili sauce. I’m told they also do a mean laksa, but then everything at C&R encouragingly seems to disappear faster than a Penang rickshaw.
C & R, 3 Rupert Court, W1D 6DY, 020 7434 1128
Head back over Shaftesbury Avenue into Wardour Street for loads more eating options to suit most budgets.
Go early lunchtime or evening to beat the inevitable queues outside mid-range Busaba Eathai (www.busaba.com). This is a communal dining experience offering quality Thai fast food in a buzzy atmosphere. The menu is split into salads, soup noodles, wok noodles, stir-fries, grills and curries, and some excellent side dishes. One of the main dishes, costing £6 to £9, is perfect for a quick between-meetings escape from the office, but if you can linger over stir-fried chicken butternut squash, with coconut rice, spring rolls and a cold Chang beer that will set you back £16 in total, excluding service charge.
Busaba Eathai, 106-110 Wardour Street, W1F 0TR, 020 7255 8686, firstname.lastname@example.org
Fancy Indian on a Spanish theme? Not chicken madras with paella and poppadoms, but Indian tapas - at Imli (www.imli.co.uk/contact.html), where they encourage sharing a few dishes amongst friends. Fresh, tasty and well presented, but the total cost can surprise unless you exercise some fiscal fortitude, or go for the current lunch special (two tapas and a glass of wine for £9.95).
Imli, 167-169 Wardour Street, W1F 8WR, 020 7287 4243, email@example.com
Tucked away just off Wardour Street in St. Anne’s Court, is Papaya. Only a daytime takeway, this offers uncomplicated Thai food at bargain basement prices. Join the inevitable but fast-moving queue, grab some chopsticks just inside the entrance and decide between large boxed portions of chicken pad thai or aromatic curries on a bed of sticky rice, with lime and sprinkled peanut options, all for the grand total of £3.90. No seating other than one small bench inside and another outside, but on a dry day stroll over to nearby Soho Square and sink your chopsticks into a little bit of Thailand.
Papaya, 14 St Anne’s Court, W1F 0BD, 020 7734 8994
Of course you don’t have to travel around the world in Soho to find decent value nosh. If you just want an old-fashioned sandwich, soup or salad the choices are almost limitless, and at £3 to £5 you can just soak up the Soho village atmosphere, inside or al fresco with a bowl of soup or a simple sandwich.
If houmous floats your culinary boat, and whichever spelling of it you favour, check out Hummus Bros (www.hbros.co.uk) – give (chick) peas a chance! – which claims to be the only place in the UK with this as its specialist subject. A small portion of hummus and fresh warm pitta bread is £2.80 – trade up to regular size and add a filling of fava beans, mushrooms, guacamole, chicken or chunky beef for £5.80.
Hummus Bros, 88 Wardour Street, W1F 0TJ, 020 7734 1311, firstname.lastname@example.org
Where to stay
Sadly, Soho Hotel, just off Wardour Street and very close to all these good value eateries. Part of the funky Firmdale Hotels group, they are currently offering a Sunday Siesta deal – stay in a Superior Double Room for £230, including entry to the Sunday Film Club at their own Screening Room and a glass of bubbly each in the cool Refuel Bar, with a full English breakfast on Monday morning before work or hitting the sightseeing trail.