It is a huge task for a visitor to find the "right place" to eat in London - with the "right atmosphere", at the "right price" - largely because, as in any big city, there are literally thousands of venues from which to choose, ranging from fast food joints, pubs, and mainstream chains all the way up to some of the most exclusive restaurants in the world which attract the kind of clientele that don't need to ask the price. Sorting the good from the bad isn't easy, but London has something to accommodate all budgets and tastes. Following is a rough guide to what you might get, should you fancy eating out:
Prices inevitably become inflated at venues closest to major tourist attractions - beware the so-called tourist traps. The worst tourist trap food, in the opinion of many Londoners, is served at the various steak houses (Angus Steak House, Aberdeen Steak House etc. - they are all dotted around the West End and near the main train stations). Londoners wouldn't dream of eating here - you shouldn't either! Notorious areas for inflated menu prices trading on travellers' gullibility and lack of knowledge are the streets around the British Museum, Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. Even the major fast food chains charge a premium in their West End outlets - so watch out.
Pubs in the touristy areas of London are usually a poor choice for food although there are some brilliant "gastro-pubs" hidden away - use the internet or a good guide (such as Time Out or Datemojo) to find them. In general avoid all pubs that have graphic-designed and printed menus - it's peoples experiences in these kind of places that gives Britain a bad name for food! Look around you - see any locals tucking in? No? - then you shouldn't either. The other rule to follow when avoiding poor food is the same as in any other part of Europe - is the menu available in multiple languages? If yes then start running!
In the suburbs, the cost of eating out is reduced drastically. Particularly in large ethnic communities, there is a competitive market which stands to benefit the consumer. In East London for example, the vast number of chicken shops means that a deal for 2 pieces of chicken, chips (fries) and a drink shouldn't cost you more than £3 especially on Brick Lane. Another good (and cheap) lunch option is a chicken or lamb doner (gyro) at many outlets throughout the city, though meat quality is often poor.
For more authentic Cockney food, try pie and mash, which originates from the working-class in the East End. Usually minced beef and cold water pastry pie served with mashed potato, mushy peas and "liquour" gravy, it tastes a lot better than it sounds. Some of the best pie houses are M. Manze in Peckham or F. Cooke in Hackney Broadway Market. Water Souchet and London Particular (green-pea and ham) are classic Cockney soups, though hard to find on menus. For those game, jellied eels, pickled-cockles and whelks are all traditional London seafood.
Central London's Borough Market offers wholesale produce as well as individual stalls that sell small bites and drinks for a casual and cheap meal. Kappacasein Dairy has a popular stand in the market famous for their grilled cheese which has earned the praise of Giada De Laurentiis and Ruth Reichl.
Tipping may also be different than what you're used to. All meals include the 20% VAT tax and some places include a service fee (10-12%). The general rule is to leave a tip for table service, unless there's already a service charge added or unless the service has been notably poor. The amount tipped is generally in the region of 10%, but if there's a figure between 10 - 15% which would leave the bill at a conveniently round total, many would consider it polite to tip this amount. Tipping for counter service, or any other form of service, is unusual - but some choose to do so if a tips container is provided.
While central London is full of restaurants and cafes it is useful for the visitor to be aware that there are some areas where the majority of diners are Londoners, rather than tourists, and in general you will get a much more pleasant, better value, and less crowded eating experience than you will find in the West End. These places are best visited in the evenings.
Upper Street Head to Highbury & Islington (Victoria line) or Angel (Northern line). Dozens of excellent restaurants, popular with young professionals.
Drummond Street in the Euston area has a fine mix of Indian restaurants - a short walk from Euston railway station.(Tube:Euston)
Clapham Junction is not just a train station - but also home to many good restaurants and bars, in particular on Lavender Hill and Battersea Rise.(Overground:Clapham Junction)
Lordship Lane in the southern suburbs - head to East Dulwich station - a good selection of European restaurants and a few award winning gastropubs.
High Street Croydon Croydon is derided by most Londoners, however this suburban gem of a road has at least 30 decent restaurants, including three Argentinians, a South African curryhouse, a couple of fancy modern European brassieres, and just about every other type of cuisine you can think of. Sadly chain restaurants are moving in (Zizzi's, Pizza Express) but most of the places are still independent. Get a quick train to East Croydon station from Victoria or London Bridge.(Overground: East Croydon)
Wardour Street, in Soho, is full of nice cafes and restaurants. (Tube:Piccadilly Circus)
As one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, you can find restaurants serving food cuisine from nearly every country, some of it as good as, if not better than in the countries of origin.
Indian food in London is especially famous and there is hardly a district without at least one notable Indian restaurant.
If you are looking for other particular regional foods these tend to be clustered in certain areas and some examples are:
Other nationalities are equally represented and randomly dotted all over London. It is usually wisest to eat in restaurants on main thoroughfares rather than on quiet backstreets.
Like other capitals in the world, London has the usual array of fast food outlets. Sandwich shops are the most popular places to buy lunch, and there are a lot of places to choose from including Eat and Pret a Manger. Some Italian-style sandwich shops have a very good reputation and you can identify them easily by looking at the long queues at lunchtime. If all else fails, Central London has lots of mini-supermarkets operated by the big British supermarket chains (e.g., Sainsbury's, Tesco) where you can pick up a pre-packed sandwich.
Fast food with an Asian flair is easy to find throughout the city, with lots of Busaba Eathai, Wagamama, and Yo! Sushi locations throughout the city. Nando's, a popular pseudo-Portuguese restaurant chain, has spicy peri-peri style grilled chicken. For burgers, GBK (Gourmet Burger Kitchen) has been joined by other franchises such as Byron and Haché.
London has plenty of vegetarian and vegan restaurants many of them championing organic foodstuffs, and a quick search in Google will produce plenty of ideas, so you never have to see a piece of cooked meat all week.
If you are dining with carnivorous friends most restaurants will cater for vegetarians and will have at least a couple of dishes on the menu. Indian/Bangladeshi restaurants are generally fruitful, as they have plenty of traditional dishes (good Indian/Bangladeshi options can be found in the Brick Lane area of Spitalfields or further afield in East Ham, Tooting Broadway and Southall. These also tend to be very cheap eats with authentically prepared dishes with a true local ambience). There are also many vegetarian Thai buffet places where you can eat fake meat in tooth-achingly sweet sauces for under £5. These can be found on Greek and Old Compton Sts in Soho and Islington High Street.
Due to the mix of cultures and religions, many London restaurants cater well for religious dietary requirements. The most common signs are for Halal and Kosher meat, from burger joints to nice restaurants. There are lots of Halal restaurants and shops all over London including Whitechapel Rd and Brick Lane in the East End, Bayswater, Edgware Rd and Paddington and in many parts of north London. There are plenty of Kosher restaurants in Golders Green, Edgware and Stamford Hill along with some central delis such as on Charing Cross Road.
Convenience stores such as Tesco Metro, Sainsbury Central/Local, Budgens, Costcutter, SPAR, Somerfield as well as privately-run "corner shops" sell pre-made sandwiches, snacks, alcohol, cigarettes, drinks etc. Most are open from 05:00-23:00 although some such as Tesco Metro or convenience stores located at petrol stations may open 24 hours (although they will stop selling alcohol after 23:00). Be aware that Whistlestop convenience stores (located in or around train stations) are notoriously overpriced and should be avoided.
If using a petrol-station convenience store late at night (i.e. after 23:00) the store will be locked and you should order and pay through the external service window.
Although Tesco and Sainsbury's run smaller stores in central London, full-size superstores (including Morrisons and ASDA) are rare in the city centre and usually require a 15-20 minute Tube ride to reach them. The closest stores to central London are:
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