London isn't a difficult place to find good vegetarian food, but veggie holidaymakers still want to find places that really cater to their needs. Here are a few suggestions...
I became vegetarian in the late 1980s, so I have dark memories of the kind of horrors that many restaurants used to think was acceptable veggie fare. Nowadays, things are much easier – most vegetarians will find something attractive to eat in your average Italian, Chinese or Indian restaurant, in most pizza joints or in Middle Eastern cafés.
But like any other travellers, holidaying vegetarians will want to treat themselves to something a bit special, and London's spectacular array of places to eat includes great completely veggie options to suit all budgets.
Cheap and cheerful
Possibly the best place for the itinerant vegetarian to fill up on tasty food at minimal prices is Indian Veg Bhelpoori House (020 7833 1167), tucked away on Chapel Market in Islington (straight out of Angel tube, across the main road at the lights, turn left onto Chapel Market and simply carry on until you find Indian Veg on your left hand side). Here, you can fill up on a choice of three or four vegetable curries and dhals, rice cooked in several styles, chapattis and a range of accompaniments, ranging from pakora to weird pink and yellow rice puffs. And, unless you lash out on beers or creamy lassi milkshakes, the bill will come in at well under a fiver. Most dishes are suitable for vegans as well.
If you're exploring central London, a good, reasonably-priced and reliable lunch destination is Food For Thought on Neal Street in Covent Garden (020 7836 9072). Generous helpings of vegetarian staples such as bakes, pies and casseroles, along with salads and satisfying puddings, will keep even the hungriest sightseer going for the afternoon. There are often vegan options, although these vary day-to-day. Lunches are also available to take away, for those who don't want to brave the cramped sitting areas downstairs.
London is also home to some wonderful fully vegetarian Indian restaurants, with very reasonable prices. Kastoori, in Tooting (020 8767 7027; www.kastoorirestaurant.com), is a well-known and popular destination. Opened by a Gujarati family who had come to the UK when Asians were expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin, the restaurant features Indian food with the occasional African twist. My favourite, though, is Shahee Bhelpoori (020 8679 6275; www.shaheebhelpoori.com), an unassuming little restaurant on the main road immediately next to Norbury train station. For over twenty years it's been serving wonderful South Indian style food, including dosas (huge, wafer-thin crisp pancakes with various fillings) and thalis (bit metal trays bearing at least half a dozen small bowls of different rice, curries and condiments, along with bread – usually puffy, oily pooris). Also definitely worth trying are the vada, plump spongy dhal-flour dumplings served with cool, delicate coconut chutney. It's still fairly easy to eat and drink until you can barely move at Shahee, and still pay less than £15 per head. Both Kastoori and Shahee Bhelpoori have an excellent range of vegan options amongst the savoury dishes, but many of the desserts are traditional Indian milk-based sweets, and they don't have soya milk for tea and coffee.
At the more affordable end of a big night out in vegetarian London is Mildred's, a veggie institution on Lexington Street in Soho (020 7494 1634; www.mildreds.co.uk; £80-£10 for main courses, wine list at £15-£25 per bottle, including vegan choices). It offers a varied menu of stylishly-presented pies, stir-fries, casseroles and other dishes in the fairly large but often very busy downstairs restaurant – and, be warned, they don't take reservations at dinner time, so arrive early or expect to wait. If you have a large (and reasonably unshockable) group or an event to host, the private dining room upstairs is grandly Victorian in style – but don't get too close to the collection of vintage photos on the wall unless you'll be happy with the discover that they are a collection on nineteenth-century pornography!
Rather more unusual is Itadaki-Zen (139 King's Cross Road; 020 7278 3573; www.itadakizen.com), an organic, vegan Japanese restaurant whose “goal is to reach a state in which the restaurant can self-produce its own vegetables following farming methods which are themselves sustainable for the wider ecosystem. Our cuisine favours the use of organic ingredients and tries to employ only seasonable grown vegetables.” The menu includes familiar names like sushi and miso soup, as well as more unusual dishes such as fried sweet potato noodles.
If you're really pushing the boat out, Manna (020 7722 8028; www.mannav.com), one of London's first ever vegetarian restaurants, is well worth the trip out to Primrose Hill, but you won't see much change from £50 a head for a three-course meal with drinks. But it does offer top-class veggie cuisine, beautifully presented, with sample mains including, “organic fennel and pumpkin seed sausages on a bed of roasted garlic and spring mash with green onions and carrots, purple sprouting broccoli, on a red wine, leek and thyme jus topped with our onion rings” or “enchilada casserole: cashew cheese, black beans and rich mole sauce, layered between tortillas served with green rice, carrot salsa and guacamole.” There is also a dessert menu to drool over, featuring the likes of chocolate and green tea mousse.
Where to stay
Oddly, given the increasing number of vegetarian and vegan B&Bs and small hotels around the UK, there are no fully-vegetarian places to stay in London. But a number of outfits do 'get it,' in terms of understanding what vegetarianism is and what vegetarians want. Examples include B&B London Organic, an organic bed and breakfast in Ealing, and the Gloucester Place Hotel in the central Marble Arch area, which unusually for budget hotels offers vegetarian and vegan breakfasts.