Once the butt of many a culinary joke, London has transformed itself over the last few decades and today is a global dining destination. World-famous chefs can be found at the helm of several top-tier restaurants, but it is the sheer diversity on offer that is head-spinning: from Afghan to Zambian, London delivers an A to Z of world cuisine.
England might have given the world baked beans on toast, mushy peas and chip butties (fried potatoes between slices of buttered white bread), but that’s hardly the whole story. When well prepared – be it a Sunday lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (batter baked until fluffy, eaten with gravy) or a cornet of fish and chips sprinkled with salt and malt vinegar – English food can be excellent. And nothing quite beats a full English breakfast the morning after to soak up the excesses of a big night out.
Modern British food has become a cuisine in its own right, championing traditional (and sometimes underrated) ingredients such as root vegetables, smoked fish, shellfish, game, salt-marsh lamb, sausages, black pudding (a kind of sausage stuffed with oatmeal, spices and blood), offal, secondary cuts of meat and bone marrow.
Many visitors to England comment that for islanders, Brits seem to make surprisingly little of their seafood, with the exception of the ubiquitous – and institutionalised – fish and chips. But modern British restaurants have started to cast their nets wider and many offer local specialities such as Dover sole, Cornish oysters, Scottish scallops, smoked Norfolk eel, Atlantic herring, and mackerel. Top-of-the-line restaurants specialising in seafood abound and fish-and-chips counters trading in battered cod, haddock and plaice are everywhere.
Pie & Mash
From the middle of the 19th century until just after WWII, the staple lunch for many Londoners was a spiced-eel pie (eels were once plentiful in the Thames) served with mashed potatoes and liquor (a parsley sauce). Pies have been largely replaced by sandwiches nowadays, although they remain popular in the East End and can still be found in other parts of London. A popular modern-day filling is beef and mashed potato (curried meat is also good), with eel served smoked or jellied as a side dish.
Wine & Cheese
If English cuisine was once sniggered at, English wine had them rolling in the aisles. However, this too is changing. Locally produced sparkling wine has garnered much international attention and it is now served at state banquets in Buckingham Palace and in first class on British Airways. Even the Champagne house Taittinger has gotten in on the act, acquiring a vineyard in Kent in 2015. Producers to look out for include Wiston Estate, Furleigh Estate, Theale Vineyard, Ridgeview, Bolney Estate and Hambledon.
The cold and wet climate lends itself to particular hardy white-grape varieties, many of which are quite obscure. Alongside Chardonnay you'll see the likes of Bacchus, Madeleine Angevine, Seyval Blanc, Pinot Blanc, Reichensteiner and Müller-Thurgau. Some good Pinot Noir is also being produced.
British cheese doesn't have such an image problem. For a nation that has traditionally held its nose in response to strong flavours, it makes the exception for some particularly pungent blue cheeses. Stilton is the most famous, but look out for Stinking Bishop and the blues from Wensleydale, Derby, Dorset and Shropshire. The king of the crumbly hard cheeses is aged cheddar, but Cheshire, Lancashire and Caerphilly all have their own distinctive varieties.
England does a mean dessert, and establishments serving British cuisine revel in these indulgent treats. Favourites include bread-and-butter pudding, sticky toffee pudding (steamed pudding with dates, topped with a caramel sauce), the alarmingly named spotted dick (steamed suet pudding with currants and raisins), Eton mess (meringue, cream and strawberries mixed into a gooey mass), and seasonal musts such as Christmas pudding (a steamed pudding with candied fruit and brandy) and fruity crumbles (rhubarb, apple etc).
One of the joys of eating out in London is the profusion of choice. For historical reasons Indian cuisine is widely available (curry has been labelled a national dish), but Asian cuisines in general are very popular. You’ll find dozens of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese Japanese and Korean restaurants, as well as elaborate fusion establishments blending flavours from different parts of Asia. Middle Eastern cuisine is also well covered. Continental European cuisines – French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Scandinavian etc – are well represented, with many excellent modern European establishments.
Restaurants serving ethnic cuisines tend to congregate where their home community is based: Eastern European in Shepherd’s Bush, Turkish in Dalston, Korean in New Malden, Bengali in Brick Lane, African Caribbean in Brixton, Vietnamese around Kingsland Rd etc.
While not so long ago the pub was where you went for a drink, with maybe a packet of potato crisps to soak up the alcohol, the birth of the gastropub in the 1990s means that today just about every establishment serves full meals. The quality varies widely, from defrosted-on-the-premises to Michelin-star-worthy.
The Brits have always been big on breakfast – and they even invented one, the Full English. It’s something of a protein overload but there’s nothing quite like it to mop up the excesses of a night on the tiles. A typical plate will include bacon, sausages, baked beans in tomato sauce, eggs (fried or scrambled), mushrooms, tomatoes and toast (maybe with Marmite). You’ll find countless brightly lit, grotty caffs (cafes) – nicknamed ‘greasy spoons’ – serving these monster plates. They’re also a must at gastropubs.
Making a comeback on the breakfast table is porridge (boiled oats in water or milk, served hot), sweet or savoury. Top-end restaurants serving breakfast, such as Balthazar, have played a big part in glamming up what was essentially poor folk’s food. It's great with banana and honey, fruit compote or even plain with some chocolate powder.
Vegetarians & Vegans
London has been one of the best places for vegetarians to dine out since the 1970s, initially due mostly to its many Indian restaurants, which have always catered for people who don’t eat meat for religious reasons. A number of dedicated vegetarian restaurants have since cropped up, offering imaginative, filling and truly delicious meals. Most nonvegetarian places generally offer a couple of veggie dishes, and some top-end places offer full vegetarian degustation menus. Vegans, however, may find it harder outside of Indian or dedicated vegan establishments, although these have been growing in number in recent years.
London’s food renaissance was partly led by a group of telegenic chefs who built culinary empires around their names, made famous by their TV shows. Gordon Ramsay is the most (in)famous of the lot and his London venues are still standard-bearers for top-quality cuisine. Other big names include Jamie Oliver, whose restaurant Fifteen trains disadvantaged young people, and Heston Blumenthal, whose mad-professor-like experiments with food have earned him rave reviews.
Tea is the quintessential English beverage, but until very recently, the quality of coffee in the capital was abysmal. The situation has rapidly turned around and London now has an incredibly vibrant and varied coffee scene, due in large part to the influence of Australians and New Zealanders living in the city, bringing their coffee culture with them.
The large chains are typically mediocre, but now most neighbourhoods have at least a few independent cafes that know how to make a decent white coffee without burning or bubbling the milk. To catch London's new-found coffee obsession in full swing, pitch up during the London Coffee Festival in spring. And if it's just coffee beans you're after, swing by the fantastic Algerian Coffee Stores or Monmouth Coffee Company.
The boom in London’s eating scene has extended to its markets, which come in three broad categories: food stalls that are part of a broader market and appeal to visitors keen to soak up the atmosphere (Old Spitalfields and Camden); specialist food and farmers markets, which sell pricey local and/or organic produce and artisanal products (Borough, Broadway and Marylebone; see www.lfm.org.uk for others); and the many colourful general markets, where the oranges and lemons come from who knows where and the barrow boys and girls speak with perfect Cockney or Caribbean accents (Brixton, Ridley Road, Portobello Road and Berwick Street).
Just like with fashion and music, Londoners like to keep up with the Joneses when it comes to eating. Here are some of the current food obsessions in the capital:
- Food trucks Whether part of a market or just occupying a chain-free corner, food trucks have become a feature of the capital's eating scene. You'll find them all over the place.
- Going regional It's no longer plain old Chinese but Dōngběi or Xīnjiāng; Indian is now Gujarati, Goan or Punjabi.
- Smokehouse The growing fad for flame-seared flavours, glowing charcoals and red coals has hatched a host of restaurants across town.
- Burgers London remains fixated with gourmet meat-and-bun combos (or vegetarian alternatives) from both independents and mushrooming local chains.
- Ramen Still satisfying the slurping masses, the Japanese noodle broth is quickly served, swiftly consumed and perfect for snackers on the move.
- Queuing Whether it's waiting in line for the tastiest street food or at trendy restaurants that maintain wait lists rather than taking bookings, the British propensity for orderly queuing is being tested to its limits in the capital's eateries.
Half-restaurant, half-dinner-party, supper clubs combine the quality of the former with the informality of the latter. Run by average Joes with a penchant for cooking and generally catering for 10 to 20 people, meals are set three- or four-course menus (£20 to £45), attracting an eclectic clientele.
Recommending a supper club can be tricky as it's a transient business. Set up by a supper-club host, Ms Marmite (www.supperclubfangroup.ning.com) is an excellent directory of London supper clubs. The London Foodie (www.thelondonfoodie.co.uk) blog features regular supper-club reviews.
While the usual lacklustre international chain restaurants can be found all over the capital, London also boasts some excellent homegrown chains. They’re good value and made even cheaper by regular voucher offers: check out www.vouchercodes.co.uk and www.myvouchercodes.co.uk for the latest offers.
The following are some of the better offerings; check individual websites for a full list of outlets.
- Busaba Eathai (www.busaba.com) Thai food served without fuss among beautiful, modern Asian decor.
- Franco Manca (www.francomanca.co.uk) Wood-fired sourdough pizza.
- Giraffe (www.giraffe.net) Family-friendly world cuisine.
- Honest Burgers (www.honestburgers.co.uk) Hamburgers made with quality British produce.
- Le Pain Quotidien (www.lepainquotidien.com) Simple, French-style cafes that serve salads, baguettes and cakes.
- Masala Zone (www.masalazone.com) Indian chain that specialises in thalis (a meal made up of several small dishes).
- Nando's (www.nandos.co.uk) Ever-popular for its peri-peri chicken and off-the-scale trademark spicy sauces; order at the till.
- Pret a Manger (www.pret.co.uk) Affordable sandwich chain with a good selection of fillings; they've recently launched dedicated Veggie Pret shops.
- Real Greek (www.therealgreek.com) Beautifully presented mezze and souvlaki, perfect for sharing between friends.
- Tas (www.tasrestaurants.co.uk) Established chain of Turkish restaurants with a roll-call of stews, grills and mezze.
- Wagamama (www.wagamama.com) Japanese noodle place with rapid turnover, ideal for a quick meal.
- Wahaca (www.wahaca.com) Working the Mexican street-food angle in fresh, colourful settings.
- Wasabi (www.wasabi.uk.com) Sushi and bento chain, with fantastic rice sets, noodles, rolls and salads.
Because just eating never seems enough, London has whole festivals dedicated to food and related beverages. They generally have tastings galore and are always good for inspiration.
- London Coffee Festival If you know your robusta from your arabica, this is the place for you.
- Taste of London This festival turns Regent's Park into a haze of Michelin stars, with top chefs competing for your palate's attention.
- BBC Good Food Show Masterclasses, recipes, tastings – these events are very hands-on and very delicious.
Need to Know
As a rule, most restaurants serve lunch between noon and 2.30pm and dinner between 6pm and 11pm. Brasserie-type establishments and chains tend to have continuous service from noon to 11pm.
In London it always pays to make a reservation, but it's absolutely essential at weekends or if you’re in a group of more than four people. Top-end restaurants often run multiple sittings, with allocated time slots (generally two hours); pick a late slot if you don’t want to be rushed.
Most restaurants automatically tack a ‘discretionary’ service charge (usually 12.5%) onto the bill; this should be clearly advertised. If you feel the service wasn’t adequate, you can ask for it to be removed. If there is no service charge on your bill and you would like to tip, 10% is about right.
Haute Cuisine, Low Prices
- Many top-end restaurants offer set lunch menus that are great value. À la carte prices are also sometimes cheaper for lunch than dinner.
- Many West End restaurants offer good-value pre- or post-theatre menus.
- The reliable internet booking service Open Table (www.opentable.co.uk) offers substantial discounts (up to 50% off the food bill) at selected restaurants.
BYO (bring your own) is common among budget establishments; some charge corkage (£1 to £5 per bottle of wine). Wine Pages (www.wine-pages.com) keeps a useful directory of BYO restaurants, with 131 listed for London.