While Jackie and I (almost) never eat lunch, our theater-going habits in London mean that we get no supper until 10:30 or 11:00 p.m. So at three or four o'clock an afternoon snack is in order, but it has to be one that won't fill us up and make us logy during the show - or spoil our appetite for post-theater dinner. And it needs to be in a pleasant environment: comfortable and preferably quiet.
London is full of places where you can sit down and have a little savory something at any time of day, but too many of them are outlets of national chains: EAT., Prêt à Manger, Café Rouge, Léon and lots more come to mind. These are certainly a step up from the international burger chains, but our most delicious and relaxing afternoon mouthfuls have been at all-day restaurants that belong to smaller London-only groups with but a few locations each. We were surprised to realize that: We'd have thought that one-site independent restaurants would be the ones we visited again and again, but our favorite group members offer such appealing menus and such pleasant surroundings that it is a rare trip to London that doesn't include a stop at one or two of them. These are three at which we most recently put up our tourism-weary feet (I avoid the option of afternoon tea, which WILL spoil your dinner).
Brindisa has three centrally located restaurants and a new one out in East London (this latter specializes in rice dishes - paella and its kin). We most often visit Casa Brindisa right near the flock of museums in South Kensington; we'll share a platter of hams and/or salamis (the company is an importer of Spanish goods and its products are impeccable), maybe have a slice of potato-onion omelette (tortilla) or some croquettes or fried pimientos de Padrón (small thin-fleshed green peppers, sometimes hot, sometimes not) and drink a glass or two of wine. The place is rarely crowded at 3 or 4 p.m. (meal times are another story); we generally wind up spending around £30 ($48) - more if we opt for high-end ham - which is not half bad for an hour's pleasure.
The stylish Canteen group , whose catchphrase is "Great British Food," has just opened a fifth restaurant in a very tourist-friendly location right near Covent Garden. More often, though, we find ourselves at the one in the Royal Festival Hall. There are plenty of snack options: sausage sandwiches; potted ham with relish; super-duper Scotch eggs; deviled kidneys on toast (don't make faces: try them); and a whole slew of breakfast dishes. Wines are classified on the list as Good, Great and Brilliant - i.e. they're arranged by price range - and have been particularly well selected. A typical snack for two costs us in the area of £20 to £25 ($32-40).
The Counter at The Delaunay , also quite near Covent Garden, is an adjunct to the grand restaurant operated by Rex Restaurant Associates (The Wolesley, the new Brasserie Zédel - which also has potential as a snack place, though we haven't yet put it to the test - and the forthcoming Colbert on Sloane Square). This is less comfy than the other two - you order at the counter, though your food is delivered to your table, the chairs aren't as welcoming, and there is a take-out side to the place that can be distracting - but the food is so good, the décor so pretty and the staff so friendly that it has become a favorite. There are hot dogs and other sausages; soups; sandwiches; a hot dish or two; and desserts. Yes, there are good desserts at Brindisa and Canteen too, but it is these that make us want something sweet: Viennese and French style cakes and pastries, plus excellent versions of English classics such as Battenberg. Last time, preceding my Black Forest cake, I had a chicken schnitzel sandwich, which has the potential to be hard to eat and too dry. This was so cannily designed that it was neither. I long for another. We spent £27 ($43) there last time, dessert and all.
There are other options, to be sure - such as Dean Street Townhouse and the brand new Green Man and French Horn, which has a limited but tempting all-day snack menu - but of late those three have filled most of our between-meal snacking needs.