So you're in London (or back in London). Maybe you've heard horror stories about English food. Maybe you're wondering if you can find a truly good meal here. And the truth is, you could eat very badly -- if you chose to. You could scarf down a pre-packaged triangle sandwich from a shop, pop into a tourist pub and get some disgustingly greasy fish and chips, or step into a mediocre chain restaurant (Garfunkel's, TGIFridays, McDonald's, Burger King) and get mediocre -- well -- everything.
Or you could experience the London that brings together every great culture -- and every great ingredient -- to create some of the world's best food -- the London that, as The Telegraph rightly notes, is now one of the world's top food destinations. And if you give the matter a little thought, you can do so for not much more than that mediocre burger and fries at Garfunkel's.
Eating with the Stars
If you don't live in New York City, San Francisco, or Chicago, you probably won't have the chance to eat at a restaurant that has earned Michelin stars. But here in London, you'll find more than 50 of them, serving everything from offal to French cuisine to Chinese. If you check out pre- and post-theatre seatings, or make lunch your big meal of the day, you'll find incredible bargains, especially considering that this is some of the best eating on earth.
At Gordon Ramsey's Maze, you can book a four-course tasting menu with a bellini for just £25. On my recent visit to the restaurant, located in converted townhomes just off leafy Grosvenor Square and the American Embassy, I began with a tall cool Bombay Collins in the comfortable bar, furnished with funky chairs and footstools in plum and orange and blue. After I was seated at my table, my first course was a deep and intensely green chilled watercress soup with a spoonful of miso-cured salmon and a dollop of lemon yogurt, the perfect antidote for a hot London day. The highlight of the meal was the pork belly, served with the fat carmelized and crunchy. It was accompanied by sweet razor clams and peas, and the gentle heat of some wasabi, a banquet of crunchy, creamy, spicy goodness. The surprise? A simple but beautiful special suggested by my server: ruffles of thinly shaven goat cheese and pinot noir jelly on oat cakes.
I had another amazing -- and surprisingly reasonable -- world-class meal at Joel Robuchon's two-star L'Atelier, where the special for pre- or post-theatre seatings start at £29. I went upscale, opting for the three-course meal accompanied by wine pairings -- still a great value, although no longer in the bargain range. At L'Atelier -- as in its sister restaurant in Las Vegas -- diners sit around the central kitchen and watch meals being prepared. I had a chance to converse with the servers about the food and wine -- and I loved seeing how courses were prepped and cooked. I began with a French 75, perfectly prepared -- not too tart, not too much bubbly, and refreshing after a long day of walking and sight-seeing. Although all the food -- including more pork belly -- was presented beautifully and tasted delicious, my favorite was my first course, scallops served in a lemongrass reduction with leeks, and accompanied by a Macobeo, a dry, fruity, and refreshing white wine. It was a gorgeous meal, maybe the best £50 I've spent all year--and you could have an amazing evening there for much less.
Eat with the Locals
My best mate in London, Tim, has been eating for years at the Cinnamon Club, an upscale Indian fusion restaurant in Westminster, and we finally went for an early meal there recently with our significant others -- including my Jeanie, who was on record saying she doesn't like Indian food. The Cinnamon Club occupies the historic old Westminster Library, a glorious space surrounded by balconies and books. Their pre- and post-theatre special is a cheery £22 for two courses and £24 for three. All of us -- including Jeanie -- said it was a glorious meal: intense flavors, beautiful presentation, and the service (while not up to the Olympian standards of Maze or L-Atelier) was friendly and knowledgeable. All our mains (a crusted hake in a coconut ginger sauce, grilled chicken breast in sesame tamarind sauce, and a Tandoori lamb chop) were wonderful. Smaller portions, perfectly spiced -- a great introduction to good Indian food for Jeanie, and a reasonably-priced special date for all of us.
You can find solid cooking at a lot of London pubs, but my favorite is The Grenadier. It's almost impossible to find -- part of the joy of eating there is just arriving -- and while Madonna and Prince William have been seen here, it's not an upscale gastropub. It's solid, reliable English food, reasonably priced, in a historic pub hidden away in the meandering back streets of Wilton Mews (near the Hyde Park Corner underground station). The Grenadier was built in 1720 as an officer's mess, and I eat there on almost every visit to London. The dining room is small, so it's not a bad idea to call for reservations, and as everywhere else, if you come earlier you'll probably have a better dining experience. My son favors the cod and chips, and I'm generally drawn to the pies, with their savory sauces -- either the chicken mushroom or the steak and ale -- but I've had great bangers (sausages) in red wine sauce, and if you're on a pork belly kick (as I apparently am of late), they serve a creditable version in a red wine sauce. And everything tastes better with a fresh-pulled English ale or two.
Eat with the Tourists -- But the Right Ones!
Many of the places to which tourists flock are primarily about convenience--Here I am, what's to eat? But some of my favorite dining experiences in London can be found in some of my favorite attractions. The restaurant at St. Paul's Cathedral is located in the crypt, and surrounded by carvings and statuary and ancient arches you can enjoy freshly-sourced English ingredients for lunch or afternoon tea. Start with a Pimm's lemonade, and try the pork belly in a pea and mint puree, or the rich foie gras lambburger as a main, or grab something ready-made, go out on the front steps, and watch bankers and barristers walk by.
The restaurant at the Tate Modern, just across the Thames from St. Paul's, is another favorite for lunch, tea (Friday through Sunday), or dinner (Friday and Saturday only). It's a little loud and the service isn't its strongest suit, but the expansive view of St. Paul's, the river, and the City from the sixth floor of the museum is worth the trek, and the food completes the experience. On a recent visit, I had a perfect gin and tonic (the Bloody Marys are also quite good), a pâté starter with tart red lingonberry jam that cut the creaminess just enough, and tasty sea trout in an orange butter sauce. The Tate Modern is also is a wonder -- too much to see -- so the restaurant makes for a nice place to collapse.
If you're looking for something inexpensive and yummy in a hurry, Pret a Manger (pronounced "pret-ah-mahn-zhay") may be your best choice. (You may have seen Pret a Manger in NYC, where they are also ubiquitous, but the London menus are much more interesting.) You can get in, get freshly-made salad, a traditional triangle sandwich with some creative options (try the mature cheddar and pickle, egg salad, or chicken, mango, and watercress), wraps, or baguettes (like the roast beef and horseradish or brie, tomato & basil) in a hurry, get out, and settle down on the steps of a nearby museum or church to chow down. It's not haute cuisine -- but it is fast, filling, and better food than most pop-in places will offer.
If you want relatively cheap but still tasty sit-down food, try Wagamama. (You may also know this chain from locations in the States, but again, the menus are different, and, I think, more interesting, in the UK.) I love Wagamama so much I set a scene at the Boston location in my new novel, The Prodigal, and often have my last meal on British soil at the Wagamama in Heathrow Terminal 5 (named by Esquire as one of the top ten airport restaurants on the planet). I generally start with the duck gyoza -- deep-fried dumplings -- in spicy cherry hoisin sauce as a starter, but from there your noodle and rice possibilities are endless -- and almost all good. I prefer the old standards, yaki soba or teriyaki salmon soba, but have had good ramens (try the chili beef) and curries as well. The citrus frozen yoghurt makes a nice finish to a spicy meal.
So there you have it -- no mushy sandwiches, no musty curries, no greasy fish and chips. With a little planning, your London dining can and should be at least the equal of your shopping, museum, or business highlights.