London may be a notoriously difficult city to find good food, but don’t despair foodies: an insider’s guide to the best eats in town.
Ah, the good ole English drinking tea, riding the tube and gaining their incredible wit from the awful weather. An English friend of mine once said to me, “You need to always be prepared to experience four seasons in one day.” As an island, the climate is far from tropical, bringing immediate showers, gray skies and fast moving clouds that can capture your gaze. London transportation, weather conditions and the best spots for teas are only part of the traveling experience in London, but finding the truly best places to eat around town is how to really understand the city and the English.
It can be hard for any traveler to find the right places to eat, and this is perhaps no more true than in London, a city that it’s fair to say, does not have the best culinary reputation. Before heading somewhere, I usually end up spending weeks researching, asking friends and skimming food websites to find out where the best places are to eat. For me to really experience a destination, I need to be immersed in the foods, flavors, spices, markets and restaurants of the locals.
This is why I ate my way through London for three months and acquired my own list of favorites. With the free museums, spending extra on a good meal seemed reasonable and proved not to be so difficult. The food of London is defined by some traditional English dishes: bubble and squeak; black pudding; fish and chips; bangers and mash; and salted beef beigels. Yet, if you understand the diversity of London, then you also know that there is a lot more to enjoy on a food tour of London.
Pubs are a must when in London. Beer is a way of life for the English. To be social is to “have a chat” with friends at the local pub. The Junction Tavern is perfect for those willing to go off the beaten path to experience how well the English really enjoy their pub life. This Kentish Town pub with its dimmed lights, excellent service and seasonal menu will welcome you in immediately. The locals will likely be sitting at the front small tables drinking pints of beer. The Junction Tavern consists of a few local dishes; the bubble and squeak with the pork chops is an excellent combination of sweet and savory. The marinated olives are a perfect starter with wine or beer as you decide on your entrée. The heated outdoor beer garden and service make the tavern suitable for both casual and formal moods. During lunch, this tavern is a popular destination for business men and women, yet for 8 pounds, it’s still an affordable option.
Carluccio’s is a chain Italian restaurant that carries elegance, ambiance and fresh Italian food. The Carluccio’s in Covent Garden appears upscale, but in actuality, the restaurant has a casual, down-to-earth feel. The small gourmet shop next door features Carluccio’s finest products — ideal for stocking up for dessert for later. The menu includes pasta, paninis, salads and an assortment of desserts. A good brunch can be challenging in London. I like to keep my brunch American style, choosing to avoid the traditionally British beans on toast. Carluccio’s offers the option of eggs with pancetta that can fill you up to seize the day. Pair the eggs with a large cappuccino before heading out to Soho square and The National Portrait Gallery.
Be warned java lovers, most coffee in London is of the bitter, instant kind. But for those that enjoy spending their time in coffee shops, sipping quality brews, and people watching, Monmouth is the place for you. There are numerous locations throughout the city and each is unique in its own way. Pastries, Americanos and old-school charm make me long for this café on each rainy day that passes in London. The Covent Garden shop can easily be missed without looking carefully, but this doesn’t seem to deter crowds. If it’s packed, they will ask that you share a table, but take this as an opportunity to learn more about London: Sit with a local and strike up a conversation while enjoying your cup of coffee.
For the food lover, Borough Market on Saturday’s is a must-visit. London’s oldest food market, breads, fruits, wines, cheese, chocolate and more abound in this massive depository of food. It’s not much of a stretch to say that you could eat all three meals of the day here. Don’t miss the homemade grilled cheese stand and the pork sandwich from the restaurant stall of Roast. Roast’s adjacent restaurant is also glorious within the busy bustling of the best organic, local and fresh food of London. If you’re lucky enough to go on a sunny day, join the locals by grabbing a variety of food and taking a seat by the church courtyard.
For curry, beigels and surprisingly scrumptious pizza, I recommend going to Brick Lane “Banglatown,” home of London’s Bangladeshi community. I’m still amazed that people who travel to London often miss out on the East End experience. If you’re a New Yorker like me, then finding good pizza in London is of utmost importance. Soho and the theater district can fool you into believing that no one in London knows how to make a gourmet pizza. However, the East End has a spot to meet your pizza cravings. While I missed being able to grab a slice on the go (and sandwiches from Marks and Spencer don’t replace a slice), Story Deli soothes my New York City cravings. Usually packed with trendy art students, this unassuming shop’s thin crispy dough is topped with fresh, daily offerings. The menu is listed on the chalkboard, the seating is communal and the service is fast. Beers, coffee and of course tea are also available.
For hot curry, head to Sweet and Spicy, a hole in the wall on Brick Lane that gives you amazing value for your money. Don’t be intimidated by the grungy appearance, the food inside is what really makes this joint worth it. The vegetable curries are fantastic combinations of spice, and the locals inside welcome you even if you’re still learning how to count your change (this I learned from personal experience). Afterward, cool off by going into one of the many Bengali sweet shops next door. The Brick Lane Beigel Bakery is an old tradition for brick lane. The salted beef bagel sandwich with mustard is a delicious combination of salty thick beef on a dry bagel. Open 24 hours, you’ll find a mix of locals, hipster kids and art students fumbling in for a fix at all hours of the day. There are multiple beigel shops competing on the end of Brick Lane. Try them all and determine which is your favorite.
Going to London can mean leaving with a full belly. Eat your way through London and learn the neighborhoods, communities and people. Try something new, try something traditional, eat on the go and eat sitting down. The foodies in London all end up finding someplace to call home, and you will too.