Eating In London For Less
Tea at Claridge's
London has the undeserved reputation of having bad food. As a result, most Americans tend to go to expensive hotel restaurants or those owned by famous chefs in hopes of getting a decent meal. While I love a nice meal at a Gordon Ramsay restaurant, spending $300 on dinner for two is a little outside my budget range. Here are some tips for eating well without going broke.
Ideally, you will have a kitchen available and be able to prepare you own breakfast. I'm a big fan of renting a flat in London, rather than staying in a hotel or B&B. For the same price as a modest B&B, and much less than a hotel, there are scores of flats available for rent by the week. With your own kitchen, you can go to the grocery, a bakery, or outdoor market and stock up on bread, fruit, tea, coffee -- whatever you normally enjoy for breakfast. It's a huge money saver and a relaxing way to start your day.
However, if you prefer to stay in a B&B, be sure to do a little research and read some reviews by travelers who have stayed there. Food at B&Bs ranges from wonderful to hideous, and the hours for breakfast service are normally a little too early for me.
Many hotels offer package deals with breakfast included, so if you stay in a hotel, inquire about whether breakfast is included in the rate. If not, check around the neighborhood for diners or coffee shops. Hotel meals are usually ridiculously expensive, while right around the corner there may be an excellent alternative.
For a "full English breakfast," visit a cafe or "caff." The English breakfast, also known as a "fry up," is truly huge and normally includes eggs, toast, bacon, grilled tomato, mushrooms, baked beans, and often black pudding (also known as blood sausage -- I don't recommend it). There is a good diner in almost every neighborhood in London, and asking someone who lives in the area is generally a good way to find one. My favorite is the Regency Cafe in Pimlico, near the Tate Britain. It's an Art Deco treasure, and the food is good and reasonably priced.
A good bakery or patisserie is also a good breakfast bet. Patisserie Valerie is very good, and has branches all over London. And as with diners, there is normally a good neighborhood bakery that the locals will be able to tell you about. I like the Pompidou on Leicester Square. In addition to pastries, they also have wonderful crepes, and it's a great place for lunch, as well.
If you enjoyed a full breakfast, you may have no desire for lunch, and may want to move on to afternoon tea (see next section). But lunch is the best time to go to a really nice restaurant and save a ton of money.
For instance, if you really want to experience an incredible meal, you can't beat one of the Gordon Ramsay restaurants. Whether you love him or hate him, he knows how to run a great restaurant, and the food is truly amazing. And the lunch menus are very reasonably priced. At the Maze Grill, part of the Maze restaurant on Grosvenor Square, a three-course lunch is 21 pounds. By contrast, dinner at Maze is about 60 pounds, not including drinks or tips. The spread is even wider at Ramsay's signature restaurant, Gordon Ramsay on Royal Hospital Road. Lunch is 45 pounds, while dinner is 90 pounds or even 120 pounds if you splash out on the "Menu Prestige." There are several other Gordon Ramsay restaurants, so check out the website and see if one appeals to you.
If your budget doesn't allow a splurge like that, there are still plenty of great alternatives for lunch. If the weather is nice, go to the grocery store and buy some sandwiches, crisps, and a drink, and head to the park. There are parks all over London, from the famous ones such as Hyde Park, Kensington Park, and Regents Park, to small neighborhood parks. My favorite is St. James's Park, right between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. Sit on the grass, watch the waterfowl on the ponds, and enjoy the people-watching and fresh air.
Other low-cost lunch possibilities are pubs, museum cafes, and church basements. I highly recommend the vegetarian lunch available in the basement of St. Mary le Bow in the City, the Cafe Below. The area around St. Mary le Bow is rich in history, and St. Paul's Cathedral is just down the street. The Cafe in the Crypt of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Trafalgar Square is also a good bet, and is just across the road from the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery.
Another tip is that you can often get a discount for getting your food to go (take away), rather than dining in. So grab a great meal, head to the park, and keep a few pounds in your pocket for other things.
Maze Restaurant on Grosvenor Square
Peacock in Holland Park
St. James's Park
Neighborhood Park in Belgravia
One of the most popular activities of visitors to London is afternoon tea. In reality, few Londoners actually have afternoon tea, except on special occasions such as birthdays. But it's a lovely tradition, and there are many venues, both inexpensive and hideously overpriced, to enjoy the ritual.
The first thing that pops into most people's minds is a romanticized experience of Tea at the Ritz. I've done it twice, and found it very disappointing. For 37 pounds, you get plenty of sandwiches, scones, pastries, and tea, and are seated cheek-by-jowl with all the other tourists who have heard what a wonderful experience this is. I found the food less than wonderful -- stale sandwiches, cold scones, and rushed waiters. And there is rather a conveyor belt feeling to the seating procedure. I highly suggest that you visit the Ritz, because it is a beautiful hotel. But you can walk by the Palm Court, where tea is served, and go into the bar, where you can have a nice cocktail and a more relaxing experience. You might even meet some interesting people in the bar, whereas you will meet no one but other tourists if you have tea.
I much prefer Claridge's. The food is lovely, the ambiance is fantastic (lovely classical music the day my mother and I were there), and it's a little cheaper -- 33 pounds, and 40 pounds if you have a glass of champagne. The service was attentive and pleasant, the hotel itself is gorgeous Art Deco, and there is also a very nice bar if you get there a little early and want to people watch.
Tea is also available in pubs, tea shops, and many other venues, such as department stores. I love to sit by the window on the top floor of Peter Jones department store in Sloane Square, have a cup of tea and a pastry, and gaze out over the rooftops to the Royal Albert Hall, Harrod's, and Kensington. Harrod's also has wonderful tea options, as do some of the nicer pubs, such as the Old Bank of England pub at 194 Fleet Street.
One of the best tea experiences I ever had was at the Chancery Court Hotel in the legal district of London. If you've read my hubs, you know I like a bargain, and this five-star hotel (where rooms are normally about $500 per night) had a special over Easter week a couple of years ago of 99 pounds per night. Even that was a stretch for my budget, so I didn't eat at the hotel at all. Except one afternoon, when I had gotten lost in the King's Cross area, which can be a little scary, walked aimlessly around for what seemed like hours, and then got drenched by an unexpected rain shower. I arrived back at the hotel, cold, exhausted, starving, and bedraggled, and sought refuge in the tea room. I had a cream tea, which consists of tea and scones, jam, and butter. It was the most absolutely delicious meal I had experienced in ages. My waitress was sweet and kind, despite the fact that I must have looked like a bag lady, and I regained my sense of civility and security. It's true that to the British, everything is better after a "cuppa," and I became a true believer that day.
Tea Room at Claridge's (Violinist and Pianist in the Back)
My Lovely Cream Tea at the Renaissance Chancery Court Hotel
The Old Bank of England Pub
Personally, I spend my evenings at my favorite pub, the Fox and Hounds near Sloane Square in Belgravia. When I finally stumble home, I normally just eat some cheese, bread, and fruit, and fall into bed. So, unfortunately, my knowledge of cheap evening dining in London is limited.
However, now and again I have gone out to dinner with friends, and have had some great meals. There are some marvelous (and expensive) restaurants, including the Gordon Ramsay restaurants and some world-class hotel restaurants. But usually when I've gone to these places, my friends were taking me out and it was free for me, so I suppose that doesn't count.
However, there is every kind of ethnic food you can imagine in London, so explore those areas, such as Chinatown, for a reasonably priced meal. Indian food is wonderful in London, and a stroll along Brick Lane will take you to many authentic examples. I spend most of my time around Sloane Square, so my favorite Indian restaurant is the Great India at 79 Lower Sloane Street. Wonderful poppadoms, attentive service, and reasonable prices keep me coming back. The special rice is enough for two to share, and I always get the chicken curry, which is the best I've ever had.
One of the best ways to experience some nice restaurants at a decent price is to join Top Table. There are tons of special offers, including 50% off deals at such wonderful restaurants as the Mango Tree, a truly fantastic Thai restaurant just behind Buckingham Palace. Top Table has extensive reviews and information about restaurants all over London, and the deals can't be beat.
One last tip -- Do not eat fish and chips! Fish and chips is the McDonald's of London. Greasy, tasteless, and always a waste of money. The only good fish and chips I have had is at Sea Fresh near Victoria Station. It was actually quite a nice little restaurant, and I would go back there again.