Food in London can be dreadful, and can be fantastic (generally if money is no object.) However, unlike Paris where you're guaranteed decent food for about £10 a head, in London be prepared to spend double that - and the quality varies so much you can't just walk in and expect to eat well, unless you're from America's 'fly-over states'... Outside London the picture is bleak indeed. It's not that the Brits can't cook: we have a fine array of great chefs and some of the best restaurants in the world (the Fat Duck in Bray outside London vies with El Bulli in Spain for that title, and the deputy chefs from both restaurant have their own establishments now in South East London) it's just that to eat well costs so much. Think £50/$90 a head and then some at a good restaurant, or one that's any way near fashionable. We think the best strategy is simply to survive without injuring your wallet or digestive system. If your visit to London is part of a European tour, save gastronomy for France, where it's cheaper. That said there are a number of perfectly good, cheapish (for Britain) restaurants where we eat regularly - you'll undoubtedly meet us there if you follow our advice.
Few of the expensive restaurants make the grade internationally - for those that do, browse 'The Good Food Guide'or Harden's Guide at your local bookstore (or online see our guidebooks page) - we contribute to their reviews annually, and unlike Zagat they don't give points for attractive waiters. Tourist-orientated restaurants, which include the venerable 'Simpsons on the Strand' are usually dire even by UK standards.

Another thing we deplore about London is the absence of any real cafes - the late lamented Dome chain excepted. There are more coffee bars (Starbucks, Nero, Costa, etc) per square mile than we've seen anywhere, the latest tally was 2000. In fact we found Seattle a coffee desert compared to London. Most operate on the MacDonalds' fast turnaround principle, though increasing competition is forcing them to smarten up their act. The coffee is good but we miss the atmosphere of cafes in Vienna or Paris. A good newcomer that's bucking the trend is Cafe@, which is spreading from its base in the East End (on Brick lane), to the South East (Trendy Bermondsey st - where our offices are) good fairtrade coffee, good vibe, great music. Recommended - it's definitely our favourite.

A final groan: English social life revolves around alcohol to a degree we've not seen anywhere east of Poland. It's difficult if you take alcohol in moderation. The average Brit likes to get drunk, and then roar up and down the street in an aggressive manner, before vomiting and going for a curry. This is not new and was the chief complaint of 18th century visitors like de Sassure - his descriptions of London life ring true even today. Dostoievsky remarked on the Londoners' rowdy consumption of alcohol and a leading Moscow journalist told us: "In Moscow we have a problem with alcohol, it is true, but in London you have a bigger problem with drunkenness."
We avoid the town centre on Friday (5pm-midnight) and Saturday (after 9pm) nights for this reason, and some women we know avoid trains after 23:30 as they can be a bit rowdy (though drunkenness is not confined to the male sex). If there is a football match on then the situation is even worse. Our New York and Parisian friends find this quite off putting, though it must be said that little real violence does occur, anywhere.

To find a restaurant and for general advice we recommend Harden's Guide, which is now online. We went both to school and University with Richard Harden and can vouch for his taste and acumen. They're online here and have a restaurant finder search engine which works by price, locale and cuisine. For the restaurants mentioned below we suggest you use Hardens for a second opinion.
If you need the certainty of being able to book online you can try Toptable but don't expect the reviews to be too objective - they're taking a cut. They do do menus and have frequent offers, though as with other offers, the menu can sometimes be downgraded to fit the price. The Evening Standard newspaper fequently does token-based offers to eat (albeit 'special' -ie 'cheap' menus) at top restaurants. 

If you have attitude about altitude, there are several rooftop dining/drinking haunts with an excellent panorama, from Tower 42 in the City, through the Oxo tower, The Park Lane Hilton or Harvey Nicks .

Good Cheap eats

For cheap eats the axis that runs along the south side of Leicester Square (Irving St and Panton Street) is a magnet: old faithfuls like the Stockpot & the West End Kitchen serve cheap and cheerful food, very similar to what a stereotypical English family would eat at home (Lancashire Hotpot, Shepherd's Pie, Fish and Chips etc) and the competition between these neighbours drives the price down. There's also a Chinese and an Indian buffet, and a branch of the Singaporean veggie chain, Woodlands. Wagamamma ( a decent basic choice if you need a restaurant and rated London's most popular restaurant, though the prices have gone up and the quality between restaurants varies a lot, and it's noisy) have premises in the basement of an Irving St block. However, the area can be a bit busy, and you can do better by venturing further afield. Remember that thie higher the rent the lower the food quality for any given price...

For a value sit-down meal you can't beat the Tas chain (turkish/mediterranean) for price and quality. Their centre of operations is Bankside, but they're spreading into Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell. Their somewhat eclipsed rivals Sofra are just as good, but don't quite match on decor and charm. But they're more prevalent in central London: Covent Garden, St Christopher's place, and Mayfair.

Tai Decent quality vegan and vegetarian food at 10 Greek St in Soho and other central locations. The buffet is £6 (£5 at lunchtimes) and the quality of the food is very acceptable (it's the only vegan place we'd eat at) - all presided over by a taskmistress of a Hong Kong owner. There's another very good value buffet ('Buffet V') at 40 New Oxford st St, between the British Musuem and Holborn tube.

Food for Thought Good cheap veggie restaurant, a hundred yards from Neal's Yard and half the price. Plate of Salad (a light meal) about £3 - decor very 70s. Good service, good food, low prices. 31 Neal St, Covent Garden. An oasis in a place of high-price, low quality eateries.

Diwana Very interesting cheap and tasty southern Indian food, a world away from the curries of the north that form the basic staple of the average British curry house. Excellent lunch buffet with dishes we'd never seen before, canteen-style, cheap and very good service. In Drummond Street, NW1 a block north of Euston station in a street dominated by South Indian culture, and amazing asian sweet shops Website Highly recommended.

Ecco/Icco No nonsense pizza, salad, panini, coffee house at 46 Goodge St, a favourite of the local television and advertising industry and often full of bicycle couriers. Pizzas are £3, and are freshly made before your eyes. Very relaxed - a good supply of newspapers, sit outside in good weather. The only cavil we have is with the cheap aluminium seats. They're expanding over London, and about to slightly change their name due to a clash with another company. Called the Italian Coffee Company or Icco variously. Also at 186 Drury Lane , Covent Garden (Ecco) and 40 Strutton Ground in Victoria near the Cathedral (Ecco)  

Wagamamma trendy canteen-style noodle house, haunt of students and anyone with an eye for a bargain, full meal can be had for £10 (including drink). Fresh, healthy food, with attitude:All over London including: Wigmore St (behind Selfridges), Bond St, Streatham St (near British Museum), Lexington St (between Piccadilly and Oxford Circuses), Camden Lock, the Royal Festival Hall South Bank, Covent Garden (south of the Market) and Leicester Square (Irving St). 

All Bar One & Slug and Lettuce Two chains that serve decent food. All Bar One is targeted at women and has the obligatory sofas, their menu is reasonable - for about £7-8 a head you can eat quite well in all branches - however some won't serve children. The Slug and Lettuce chain is another brand. Both are friendly and offer good service and are seemingly everywhere across town, and the UK. Avoid on Friday nights as get very busy and loud, and on Saturday nights after 2100. At other times they can be very user-friendly and though they don't have smoke-free zones the aircon is efficient. 

Fish and Chips - we're a great fan of this fatty, carb-laden snack. Costs about £3 - add your own salt and vinegar. Less available in the city centre than it should be. Please avoid cod or monkfish as they're being overfished. Far more information than you'll ever need about fish and chips can be found here  .

Cheap Curry: at the Indian YMCA: see below.


French/Algerian Momo, on Heddon St, off Regent St, is the most fashionable, and we think, best. Madonna and other stars hire out the whole restaurant for entertaining friends. Their cafe is excellent for afternoon or early evening snacks and costs 1/4 of the price. Moro at 34 Exmouth Market, just south of King's Cross is also excellent, if a bit far out for most tourists. Cheaper is the Souk, between St Martin's Lane and Charing Cross road, a few metres away from The Mousetrap. 

Sushi-bars: none but the most expensive rivals Kyoto or Vancouver in quality, but they can be a good source of cheap food: Gilu Gulu on St Martin's Lane and Ikkyu on Newport St in Chinatown offer all-you-can eat for around £12, which is a good deal. Ikkyu have a better branch on Tottenham Court Rd, just by Goodge St Station. There's also a good concentration down Brewer Street in Soho (just north of Piccadilly Circus)  

Chinese: much of the chinese cuisine in London is authentically chinese - ie: lowbrow, rather than Hong Kong or San Francisco style, though of course, all markets are catered for. Remember that 'Chinese food' is like 'European Food' and there is a long distance to travel between pickled herring and fettucine. An authentic chinese restaurant will have dual menus and be full of Chinese eating stuff you've never seen before, unless in China itself, and maybe not even there. A case in point is 'My Old Place' in Petticoat Lane (Liverpool St) where we're usually the only westerners, but it's friendly and I can guarantee you'll eat stuff you've never experienced before - for example the shredded chili potato or any of the Szechuan dishes. Beware the tastes here can be extreme.

Chinatown is just South of Soho, off Shaftsbury avenue. Actually the better (southern style) restaurants are in the Queensway district (near Notting Hill), a strange mix of Lebanon and Shanghai. The more ethnic chinese there are in a place, usually the better the food is - the worse the decor, the better the value for money. Having seen the kitchens of a few of these restaurants there really is no difference between the different ends of the market in hygiene.
The best dim sum is to be had at the Royal China in Queensway - right next door to the tube - it's usually full of Chinese businessmen entertaining clients or genteel chinese women eating chicken feet (we've dated some of them) - booking is advised. They also have a branch on Baker Street. Mr Wu (branches all over town, sometimes called Mr Au) Charing Cross Road, Irving St, Queensway does very cheap, very basic, chinese buffets - a moneysaving rather than a culinary experience.
In the City 'My Old Place' 88 Middlesex Street (part of Petticoat lane Market - they also have a branch on Bethnal Green road a mile north of this) is the most authentic chinese we've come across - it's really like eating in Beijing, for better and for worse. Two menus, one for westerners, very much in the minority, and another for the chinese. The food, 'Northeastern cuisine' - ie Sichuan/Beijing is nothing like eating in a traditional westernised place in Chinatown. When they say 'spicey' they really mean it.
If you're in South East London the Penninsula (Southern cuisine) restaurant on the ground floor of the Holiday Inn next to the Millennium Dome site (North Greenwich Tube, then 5 mins walk) is very good indeed, and crowded with Chinese diners on Sundays for Dim Sum 

Persian Cuisine is often over-priced, for example on Edgware Rd but there are bargains to be had: Mahdi on King St, Hammersmith ( a stone's throw from Ravenscourt Park tube) is a favourite, extremely cheap and authentic, full of Iranian families. Fermented buttermilk is the thing to drink and the stews and bread are fantastic. They were prosecuted for the state of their kitchens a few years back but have cleaned up their act since then. We eat there regularly... we've worked in 4* kitchens and have seen things that would make your stomach turn ( in one posh hotel, meat dripping onto the trifle, mould on the sponge and very fermented fruit) and have never been put off eating at Mahdi.

Thai food in London can be expensive, but is usually good. Our favourite, and the best is Esarn Kheaw, (Southern Thai/Royal cuisine) 314 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd's Bush - a bit far out for passing trade - we live 10 miles away and eat there for the food.  The Blue Elephant in Fulham also gets good reviews, but isn't cheap

Vietnamese there's a Viet enclave in Hackney/Shoreditch - just north of Liverpool Street (Shoreditch or Old Street tubes are nearest) - it lies on Kingsland road just south of the Geffreye museum. Unpreposessing surroundings but very good food - The Viet Hoa, Tay Hoa are OK but the best of the bunch is the Song Que Cafe - virtually next door to the Geffreye Museum - we regularly eat there. A much better bet than Brick Lane curries if you're in the area and want to eat ethnic - Shoreditch/Hoxton area is brimming with restaurants brimming with media types so there's a lot of competition. We eat at the Song Que at least once a month and it's one of our favourites, not least because it's extremely cheap (try beef in betel nut, soft shell crab, fresh rolls, any of the soups).  

Indian (sub continental) - Britain's favourite food - official. Indian food in England is very good, if not authentically Indian. Actually it's mostly Bangladeshi, but if you can find Pakistani cuisine it's worth seeking out. The best 'Indian' food comes from up north, in places like Bradford, but there's little else there worthy of attention. Actually some of the best Anglo-Indian restaurants in the world are in London, which has taken the cuisine to heart, refined it and amplified it. In particular the style of 'Balti' cooking, which was invented here, like Chop Suey was in San Francisco. Basically it means tasty, fresh ingredients and seasoning, and should be cooked in a small wok, and brought to your table in it. Served with bread, not rice. It's even been endorsed by no less an august body than the British Medical Association, as an excellent source of minerals (they leach out of the wok into the food....)

However, it's a craze and virtually every Indian Restaurant now does 'Balti'. We suggest you use Hardens to find a good one near you. One tip is London's Indian YMCA, which serves authentic Indian food - for around a fiver - 41 Fitzroy Square W1. No alcohol allowed on the premises. Which brings us to...

Two other points - the British like their curries hotter than the Americans or Europeans, (though much less hot than the natives) so be careful, don't order a vindaloo unless you've had a medical check-up, and finally, the Indian meal is the traditional British way to finish an evening's drinking. Eat your meal before 23:00 or else.

BRICK LANE (Whitechapel or Shoreditch tube, but Liverpool St is also close by) is curry city - called 'Banglatown' to its residents, the south end of this street (ie south of the Truman Brewery) is wall to wall curry houses, each with touts on the street. Best place for (Pakistani) curry is actually the hugely popular Tayaab on Fieldgate Street which is behind the Mosque that's opposite the Whitechapel Art gallery (Whitechapel Tube) expect queues, excellent food, very spicy, and huge portions. Last time I went there five of us ate until we were stuffed for about £25. The 'Dry Meat' is stunning.  

Persian/Afghani/Cypriot inhabit a strip called Green Lanes in Finsbury Park (Manor House tube, then walk north with the park on your left. Persian and Afghani food up here is good, but there are some Turks and Cypriots too (Check Hardens for which is the best). There's another turkish/cypriot enclave at the very top of Kingsland road (vide supra) - the restaurants are OK but many of the cafes are not women-friendly.  

English Cuisine: surprise, surprise, there is no British cuisine - we've imported and refined all the world's cuisines and made them our own. That said some specialties deserve mention: School Puddings - the way to tell a Public Schoolboy (read private if you're from USA or Europe) is by their taste for nursery puddings - bread and butter pudding, sticky toffee pudding, spotted dick (don't ask) suet pudding (contains animal fat), jam roly poly, rice pudding and sago. They're great and we do them better than we do French or Italian desserts. Pies just don't ask what goes in them - you've seen Sweeny Todd.... Actually varieties like Guinness and Beef pie, and Steak and Kidney, if well made are great - often they're not. Recently Cornish Pasty stalls have been set up in stations and other late night haunts - and offer a much better than average quick food option: they're targeted at people with the munchies and you can smell them several hundreds of yards off (this is a ploy in the same way supermarkets pump baking bread smells into their air con units). However they can be salty and full of saturated fats in the pastry.

Generally, the English like their meat blackened and their vegetables boiled until they resemble lab specimens - so be sure to specify your preference.  

Vegetarian - easy to find in London (use the Harden's website - see our guidebook page for details) and even in carnivore dens the vegetables aren't cooked with lumps of meat as they are in France. South Indian cuisine is vegetarian and there' a whole row of restaurants on Drummond St by Euston Station that never have to use a cleaver. The various branches of Cranks (eg Charing Cross, Goodge St) - the best is reputed to be Champor- Champor (they also serve meat) in Weston St, SE1, near Borough Hospital.  

Belgian - used to be something of a cult, restaurants like Belgo made Moules Frites a habit in the 90s - but maybe it's just their range of Strawberry and other flavoured beers (heartily recommended). Their special offers (lunchtime, early evening before 18:30) offer excellent value - otherwise they can work out expensive. The decor is great. An experience. 50 Earlham St, Covent Garden, also in Chalk Farm, Ladbroke Grove, Upper St, Islington. 

Our shortlist of more expensive restaurants is here.

Afternoon tea

Our favourite meal of the day: clotted cream, strawberry jam, Earl Grey Tea and minute cucumber sandwiches, perhaps with a cream cake to finish. Sundays are the best days, though nowadays such is the popularity that you often have to book. Don't even think about strenuous activity, or even dinner, for at least three hours afterwards. There are several great places to harden your arteries in London:

Browns, 32 Albermarle St (tel: 0207 518 4108) is our favourite, very genteel and old-fashioned without whimsy. Gentlemen must wear a shirt, jacket and tie, but it's worth it. Expensive.

The Palm Court at The Ritz, 150 Piccadilly: (tel: 0207 493 8181) lacks the charm of Browns but makes up for it in cachet, an enormous range of teas and food on offer, but the price (£27) is steep). Jacket and tie for men.

Claridge's on Brook Street, (tel: 0207 629 8860) is another favourite, but again the price is steep - between £20 and £25. Dress as for Browns, but a little less picky.

Fortnum & Mason , 181 Piccadilly, (tel: 0207 734 8040) a wide choice of options afternoon tea, high tea and champagne tea. About £14. The least formal attire, but no slackers. 

Eating/Hanging out Areas:

Soho - high rents here mean low value. The average restaurant works Mon-Fri to pay their rent (the land is controlled by a handful of landlords) and only make profit at weekends. Plenty of restaurants and coffee bars (not cafes), but we've had as many bad as good meals here. It's a great area to hang out, great buskers, streetlife and a colourful history - though small fry compared to Paris' rive gauche. The Poets Rimbaud and Verlaine used to hang out here, getting horribly drunk at their favourite bar on Old Compton Street (Number 5) then staggering from pub to pub round the area. -  

St Christopher's Place very pleasant area with a European feel, just north of Oxford Street, with restaurant seating out on the street.

Shepherd's Market - sheltered enclave in Mayfair, just north of Piccadilly - great for a summer's evening. Currently under development so we can't predict what will happen to the area.

Marylebone - villagey feel to this small, wealthy, area between Oxford St and Marylebone St.

The Borough - great for alfresco lunch on a Saturday, at Borough Market. Has 'Maria's Cafe' and the Monmouth Coffee shop - two of the best places for breakfast in London. Maria's has moved into the main market and lost its 'greasy spoon' premises. Monmouth do an 'open table' where you pay £2.50 to eat as much as you can of a top-quality continental brekkie. Nb: VERY busy on Saturdays when the Organic/gourmet market is on. Great place for breakfast other days of the week, or for buying fruit 'n' veg at 4 in the morning. Also a (small) number of decent restaurants on Bermondsey St. London Bridge tube, including Magdalen on Tooley St/Magdalen St - the chef is fresh from the Fat Duck.

Brick Lane - noted for it's curries, and at the north end it's salt beef. Stays up til very late, but can be a bit difficult transport-wise. Liverpol St or Aldgate tubes.  

Hoxteth - ugly but trendy area, once full of curtain and cloth making warehouses, now converted into trendy bars, clubs and restaurants. Transport difficult - Liverpool St or Old st tubes.

Hampstead - another village, but with a million pound price tag. Expect the likes of Sting or Naomi Campbell to complain if you order meat. 

Upper Street This main thoroughfare through Islington is famed for the concentration of restaurants - the New Labour conquest of Parliament was planned at Granita at Number 127, and there are very few shops between the restaurants. We recommend Turkish cuisine - due to competition the price and quality are in opposition. If it weren't for the traffic this would be a great hanging out place, and Islington Green would be a major pull.

Notting Hill Large concentration of restaurants both north and South of the tube station. On Kensington Church Street, which runs south they tend to the fashionably expensive, and clustered around Portobello road and All Saints Road there are many trendy restaurants with a slightly lesser price tag. It's also a centre of the largely overlooked soft drugs trade - around Park Road - made fashionable (again) by Bridget Jones (at number 192). 


Britain's licensing laws can be archaic and ridiculous - but Britons' problems handling alcohol remain. The laws are in the process of revision, but not the mores. Basically there will be a time (often 2300) when the establishment's ability to sell alcohol runs out, Cindarella fashion. Traditionally a bell will be rung and 'last orders' shouted just beforehand. However if you eat, or the pub is actually a club, or has a special licence, you can continue to drink. This is largely held to date from the attempts to get Wartime Munitions workers to work harder - but as early as 1700 there were regulations in force closing alehouses at 2200 in winter and 2300 in summer - to prevent rowdiness. A good guide to opening hours (and an invaluable source of info about public lavatories) is HERE.

Pubs around Smithfield market actually open at 03:00 for the market traders and down the Old Kent Road drinking goes on way into the wee hours. If a pub locks it's doors a 'lock-in' applies and you can go on drinking as the guest of the landlord (it's now a private party) as long as he wants to serve you, but no-one else can enter.

Drink is kept costly in the UK by taxes - a 'round' can cost £20 easily. If you're drinking in groups it's usual for one person to go to the serving counter to buy drinks for all the others, in rotation. If you're a skinflint you try to be the last in the list and hope your name doesn't come up. Paying for drinks individually is deemed bad sportsmanship. This can prove expensive if you drink a small number of small measures, in the company of big boozers.

Beer - although Czech/German bottle beer is popular, traditional British beer should not be looked down on just because it's served at 'room temperature' (actually cellar temperature) and has a name like 'Old Scroat's throat remover'; the tradition of 'real ale' is a good one, given the economic climate and monopolisation of the market by a few companies. Real Ale is an acquired taste, but once acquired is rarely abandoned. Microbreweries often brew something that's a cross between standard and real ale.

Most pubs are owned by brewing companies and won't sell other beers - perhaps a 'guest ale' like old scroat's but generally pub ownership is seen as a business like any other. A Free House, rarer, can sell what it likes. Look out for a sticker for CAMRA the real ale accrediting body. 

See our Nightlife Page for details and pub recommendations.  

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