Thursday, May 04, 2006

Affordable Food in London

Eating out in London reminds me of playing Monopoly. At first you are careful with your money, you have a sense of what $100 means. As the game progresses, as you acquire property, houses and hotels, the Monopoly money somehow loses its value. Prices are relative. You stop caring. You stop counting. That is what happens when you eat out a lot in London.

Many, many years ago, as a student in this town, I could eat a very filling, if not very good tasting meal at my local Hot Pot for 25 pence. Recently, my husband took our son out for lunch at our local Gourmet Burger Kitchen. I asked Jeff what it cost. He responded that it was pretty reasonable at £22. At an exchange rate of $1.75/€1.00, that is a $38.50 hamburger lunch. Only after playing London Restaurant Monopoly for a number of years could you begin to believe that paying $38.50 for two hamburgers was a good deal.

Faced with such a hostile environment to finding good, affordable food, here are some of the things I recommend to help lower the cost of eating in London:

Check out the website, Toptable, which is the closest thing we’ve got to with deals at lots of restaurants that can represent as much as a 50% discount. I’ve used this service several times. It works, the restaurants always have your reservation and the offers are “as advertised”. Today, for example, I found an interesting “2 for 1” offer from Noura, a very good Lebanese restaurant with several locations in London. Make the booking through Toptable and two of you can eat for the price of one £29 set menu.

Go for lunch or pre-theatre. Most serious restaurants that would bankrupt you at dinner have a prix-fix lunch or pre-theatre offer that is much more reasonable. For example, the famed Gordon Ramsey restaurant at Claridges Hotel, has a £30 a head lunch time menu which everyone raves about. Dinner would probably set you back about £90 a head. These offers are available at premier restaurants all over town and the best way to find out about them is to call or if you worry about appearing cheap, which you shouldn’t, you can check the website.

Look for “Beat the Clock” deals. How it works is that during a set time, usually early in the evening, your meal costs whatever time it was when you ordered it. Pioneered by the quite good chain, Belgo Restaurants and Bierodrome, you can get a great bowl of mussels and perfect French fries for £6 if you place the order at 6:00 PM. The barbeque chain, Bodeans, also offers “Beat the Clock”. I predict other will follow.

Go to places where you can BYO. I know of 3 good Persian restaurants where you can bring your own booze and really keep the costs down. My favourite is Mohsen on Warwick Road in W14 but currently closed for renovations. Also good is Patogh at 8 Crawford Place near the Edgeware Road tube and Alounak at 10 Russell Gardens near the Olympia Exhibition Centre.

Wagamama, Wagamama, Wagamama. I know I keep banging on about this high tech chain of noodle bars (24 locations in London) but it really does represent the best value in town. Where do you think I went on my birthday last week with my family? Yup. Wagamama. We had a wonderful time. No one worried about the cost.

Have breakfast at a traditional London “caff”. Once described as linoleum temples to social isolation, you can eat a fabulous and fabulously cheap breakfast in these places. Take 2 Lipitor and enjoy a first class British fry-up. Perfect for hangovers. The website Classic Cafes has an excellent list of London’s top ten.

Eat sandwiches. Pret a Manger and Marks and Spencer, with outlets throughout London, have the best.

Time Out’s Cheap Eats in LondonBuy the book or visit the website for hundreds of listings of cheap places to eat. Not as good as it should be ( not enough surprises, new finds or good indexing such as lists of BYOs or restaurants with lunch/pre-theatre deals) but still the best we’ve got.

And finally, the other thing I keep banging on about, when in London, rent an apartment and get out from under the tyranny of London restaurant prices. The take out/take away options are great and if you like to cook, you can buy the most luxurious and expensive ingredients and still spend a whole lot less than £22 for a hamburger.


  1. No good cheap (relatively speaking) Indian restaurants in London? After a breakfast "fry-up," I thought Indian food was the native cuisine for most Londoners.

  2. That is a very good point. Indian restaurants have been a staple of low(er) cost eating in London for as long as I can remember.

    My personal problem with saving money at my local Indian is that I always drink too much beer (blame it on the spicy food) and the beer is always worse than expected.

    With that said, the Masala Zone, with several locations in London including Oxford Street, Earl's Court and Islington has a good reputation for serving up cheap, fast and delicious Indian food. For an authentic experience, try any of the restaurants on Brick Lane. Just be careful with the beer.

  3. Speaking of beer, that would be an interesting -- and fun to research -- survey: best London "pubs" for food and refreshment. Knowing there are thousands, it would always be good to read about the ones closest to major tourist sites that offer the true taste of London.

  4. Great idea. Watch this space.