Cheaper Eats, London Style
A friend recently told me he was going to be visiting London and where could he get some cheap eats? I swallowed hard when I read his message, realizing this is one area I've seriously overlooked. However, in my defence, London just isn't cheap and short of eating at the stalls in Camden Market (which is totally fine by me, but not something I would choose to do), you are going to spend more money than you want to if you're on a budget. Unlike New York, I've been pressed to find what I'll call the sweet spot of dining experiences - a place that has terrific, interesting food at moderate prices. For those of you familiar with New York that would include everything from Gray's Papaya hot dogs to Momofuku ramen. London has good high end food and even the food that isn't what I'd consider high end ends up costing more than I'd like. Over the past month I've been meeting friends for dinner at your run-of-the-mill restaurants and for a first course and main without any alcohol it's averaged about £30 for one person. Not a lot of bang for your buck, admittedly. So here I'm going to note some of my cheaper ideas of where you can find great food without it costing you the world.The flavors of Southeast Asia always make me happy. On the gloomiest London day I am buoyed by the fresh, spicy nature of the cuisine. Fortunately, one of my favorite Vietnamese joints is right by my husband's office in Holborn. Banh Mi Bay has fantastic pho if you're in need of something nourishing, but my personal favorite is their fresh noodle salad with chargrilled garlic beef. They often have a queue (a line to you and me) out the door at lunchtime - their banh mi, Vietnamese style baguette sandwiches, are worth the wait and people know it!Just down the road from Banh Mi Bay is another cheap eats favorite and what I think is the best pizza in London. Again you'll know you're in the right spot because of the line snaking out the door at lunchtime because Malletti has a delicious selection of pastas and pizzas every day. Apparently they also have a SOHO location which is probably more convenient if you're visiting the city for fun. There are no frills here, just good, crispy rectangular slices of pizza goodness. Perfect for grabbing on your way to SOHO square for a bit of sunbathing, perhaps?Last October I wrote about the burgeoning street food scene exploding in London. For the ultimate in cheap eats and bang for you buck, especially when the sun is shining, I'd check out KERB. Petra Barran, the founder of this food truck revolution has been named one of the most influential Londoners two years running and I think it's because she's tapped into exactly what I wrote about above - there is a real lack of good quality, delicious food at decent prices. Partly, this is because London real estate is hugely expensive. Could you imagine the costs involved in starting up your own little place in a neighborhood with foot traffic in central London? Let me just tell you....NO! Anyway, she's skirted that problem by creating a community of chefs with a devoted following who will brave the miserable climate for a good meal. Check out their website for latest location, days and vendors.Now, if you know London you're going to think my next pick is completely off base, but bear with me. Odette's in Primrose Hill offers a fabulous three course lunch on weekdays for just £15. Chef Bryn Williams is on my greatest hits list because of his cookbook which I used over and over again when I cooked up at the shooting estate in North Yorkshire. He's from Wales and the food reflects his love of British seasonal produce with some pretty snazzy techniques thrown in to kick it up a notch. Combine all of this with a terrace looking out onto Regent's Park High Street and you have a perfect afternoon ahead of you.Much in the same vein, Pollen Street Social headed up by the venerable chef Jason Atherton in the heart of the West End, has a terrific three course lunch for under £30. Now, I know I'm perhaps stepping over the line into the expensive side of things, but if you're looking for a treat this really is it. The service here is impeccable (they brought me a little stool to place my handbag on - and believe me it's not a Louis Vuitton) and the food was outstanding. I've been meaning to get back here for dinner, but the prices have kept me coming back for lunch, which I think gives you the opportunity to see what Atherton's up to without paying a fortune. Again, the focus is on British produce and it's done so beautifully you'll wonder how the Brits ever got their disastrous culinary reputation.The next two are owned by the same people and are located next door to one another on the outskirts of Notting Hill. Lucky 7 serves burgers and a decent brunch in an American diner setting and Crazy Homies makes respectable Mexican food and strong margaritas. Neither one is the best at what they do, but there is something very reassuring to me about them. They're close to home, deliver a decent approximation of the food I'm craving and best of all, are terrific scenes (Crazy Homies, in particular).The markets of London are really some of the best places to see the foodie world in action and hence the food on offer around them is usually fantastic. Check out my blogs on Brixton Market, Broadway Market, Maltby Street Market and Borough Market. In addition Goldborne Road near Portobello Road is worth checking out on a Saturday and Columbia Road Flower Market in East London has a terrific scene on Sunday mornings.In Time Out London's 50 best restaurants issue this year, Yalla Yalla, which serves Lebanese street food, got a nod. It's centrally located, it's authentic, it's inexpensive - what more can you ask for. It's where I run to when I'm running low on the Middle Eastern flavors that I crave after a long absence from Jordan.Admittedly, I am a little West London-centric. For that I apologize and also realize that much of what's exciting with food at the moment is happening across town in East London. I hereby resolve to head East and check things out, but stick with me just a little longer. Otto (also in Notting Hill, I'm afraid) has a cornmeal pizza that is divine. They offer pizza by the slice in their pleasant room, along with lots of interesting salads. It sounds disgusting, but please try the BBQ pork pizza with coleslaw. So good.Finally, I've written up several other places over the past year which I think would qualify as cheaper eats and I highly recommend all of them: Bone Daddies, Pitt Cue & Co.,Tonkotsu, Meat Liquor. I'm actually pretty pleased with my list after all. London is never going to lend itself to the old-school "London on $5 a day" but you can eat pretty darn well if you take the time to look around.