I know that the UK doesn’t have a great reputation when it comes to food but there are plenty of amazing places to eat in London. I actually really love British food but you do need to know where to go. For the record, I live in East London and previously lived near Portobello market so my recommendations are based on what I know.
I don’t have an English breakfast every morning but it is such a joy when hungover or meeting friends for a “fry up.” Good places are E.pellici and Cafe 338 in Bethnal Green and Mike’s cafe in Portobello but, generally speaking, you can get a good English breakfast in most places. It’s possible to have a high-end breakfast with fancy sausages and sourdough bread but there’s something really great about going to a “greasy spoon” where you’ll be rubbing shoulders with “the salt of the Earth.” Expect to have your meal amongst builders, drivers and locals with your cholesterol levels shooting through the roof.
Fish and chips
Good old fish and chips. This is cod or haddock that has been deep fat fried in batter and is eaten with tartar sauce. It comes with chips which need to be doused in salt and vinegar and wrapped in a newspaper. It also comes with mushy peas which is a staple which is minty lemony crushed pea side-dish. A shop that sells fish and chips is commonly known as “a chippie” and the best ones are definitely by the seaside. However, for London, you can click here for Time Out’s recommendation for the best fish and chips.
What can be more British than a good pie? This is a pastry dish with a variety of fillings such as chicken and leek, steak and ale, steak and kidney, the list is endless. It’s often served with some “mash” (mashed potato) with some gravy. Heavy but divine. Click here for some suggestions of places to go.
Of note, we also have Shepherd’s pie (made with lamb), Cottage pie (made with beef) and fish pie which all have a mashed potato topping rather than a pastry. These are all recommended but be careful you don’t burn your mouth on the first bite.
These look like giant empanadas and originate from Cornwall, South West England, where miners used to have them for lunch. They could eat it by holding the edges with their grubby hands whilst eating the main part. Usually, they’re filled with steak, potato and swede but you can pretty much have anything in them.
Sunday lunch is a real British pleasure. It’s a few slices of roast meat such as chicken, lamb, beef or pork served with “trimmings” (roast potatoes, vegetables and gravy). So good. It used to be something that was eaten at home with the whole family every Sunday and I remember treating an elderly lady with advanced dementia who was still able to cook a decent Sunday roast out of motor memory. Nowadays, it’s more of a special event amongst friends and most pubs will do it on a Sunday. I’ve had my eye on Blacklock for a while so if anyone wants to go, let me know! Bookings for good Sunday roasts are essential.
Being Japanese, I love a good afternoon tea. It is quintessentially British but I don’t think many of my British friends have really had them. Essentially, it’s tea with scones, sandwiches and cake and such a joy to eat. The classic is Fortnum and Mason (FYI, they do great gifts so I recommend popping in there to get tea and biscuits for your friends and family at home) but there are loads of places that do it. If you ever end up in Harrogate in Yorkshire (a few hours outside of London), you need to go to Betty’s tearoom. If you want an afternoon tea experience in London, I recommend that you book early to avoid disappointment.
Sausages and mash
I have to say that I don’t see the humble sausages and mash (also known as “bangers and mash”) that often at restaurants nowadays but it is really British. Exactly as it says on the tin, it’s sausages and mashed potato with gravy. It reminds me of when I was at university when my housemates and I would cook mashed potato and gravy after we got home after a night out as a way to mop up the alcohol. Gravy and mash is such a heavenly combination. Click here to check out where to get your sausages and mash hit!
Borough Market is over 100 years old and you can feel the history. It has everything under the sun but I love Bread Ahead for their exceptional but expensive doughnuts. There are loads of street stalls selling ingredients, drinks and meals as well as some excellent restaurants but it’s also just lovely to walk around too. Of note, it’s quite close to the Shard and the Old Operating Theatre.
Brixton Village is great. It’s a collection of restaurants that are under a roof. It’s quite far from the conference venue but if you are in south London, it’s worth a visit. Brixton is really well known for its music scene but also its Afro-Caribbean roots. It’s the few places in London where you will casually see tilapia on sale.
Broadway market is close to where I live and a foodie treasure. It’s only open on a Sunday but has great stalls and amazing food. I recommend the pub the Cat and Mutton as well as the cocktail bar Off-Broadway.
I’ve been going to a bouldering gym in Bermondsey recently and we always head to Maltby Street market afterwards to replenish our calories. It’s a short road but has such great stalls with great food. It’s quite international so might not have the British vibe if you’re looking for it but it’s where a lot of locals go!
Victoria Park Sunday Market got me through lockdown. It’s an open-air market with stalls selling ingredients and vans selling food. My friends and I would meet there for some outdoor socialising whilst eating some pretty decent grub. We still pop down there on a Sunday every now and again and it never disappoints.
Let’s be honest, London is expensive and the cost of living is increasing as we speak so let’s talk about where to eat for a cheap bite to eat. Interestingly, it’s the non-British food which is much cheaper. If you end up in West London, I love Fez Mangal which admittedly is Turkish but I couldn’t miss it out. China Town also has a lot of cheap restaurants and Hoxton in east London has a lot of Vietnamese restaurants (I go to Cay Tre). All the markets above usually have dishes for a fiver (that’s £5) and is usually fairly filling.
My favourite fast-food chain is Leon which is run by Allegra McEvedy and does wholesome healthy food on the cheap (which is even better with an NHS discount). Their garlic aioli chicken is a total staple in my life.
Flat Iron does pretty decent steaks and there’s always a queue.
The Beigel Bake on Brick Lane (East London) is iconic and I go there once a week because I pass it on my way to work. They do the best salt beef bagel (with pickles and mustard) and they are also famous for the smoked salmon with cream cheese. There’s always a huge queue but the bagels make it worth it. It’s open late at night as well so is a great place to pick up something to eat on the way home.
Let’s also not forget the supermarkets. There is a hierarchy of supermarkets in the UK and, generally speaking, I would only be happy to eat the lunch options from Marks and Spencers (also known as M&S) and Waitrose. I appreciate that this might sound quite snobbish but, when it comes to food and also recommending where to eat to guests, I’m ok with that.
Vegan and vegetarian
Vegan and vegetarian options are getting much better in your mainstream restaurants but two places are specifically well-known for excellent vegan or vegetarian meals.
Admittedly, Bubala is Israeli but it’s known for its deliciousness. I’ve not been there myself but it’s very high on my list
Mildred’s is now an institution and they have several restaurants across London. 100% delicious 100% vegan. It generally doesn’t take bookings so you may be required to queue.
*ADDENDUM* – I just came across this recent youtube video that showcases the best places to eat vegan British food
Where to drink
The UK is well-known for its pubs (short for public house) which is where we get together for a pint. Unfortunately, the standard pub has become less popular amongst younger generations but they still form a real hub of social activity in British culture. When you enter, you first walk up to the bar to order your drink or “your round” (see later) and then look for your seat – no tipping of staff. Only if you’re planning to eat would you sit down first so that you have a table number to tell the barman (you’ll find the number on the side of the table). Also, it’s ok to take your drink outside as long as you stand directly outside the pub and you’ll see clusters of people drinking on the pavement outside on a sunny day. If you are with a large group, it’s worth calling the pub to reserve a table because it can get quite busy.
Just because it’s such an integral part of British culture, here is a list of pub lingo to sound like a true local. (FYI, pubs are sometimes referred to as the ‘local’ because they are often chosen for their proximity to your work or home – “I’ll see you at the local“).
A pint – This is 473ml and a standard unit of beer/lager/cider. You can order a half-pint which is obviously half this volume.
Old-man pubs – these are the old-school traditional pubs where old men still gather. The bartender will know your name and the floor is probably a very garish patterned carpet that smells ever so slightly of stale beer. You know you’re in an old-man pub because everyone turns round to stare at you when you walk in because they’ve not seen you before! These are few and far between in London now but you might still come across one!
Gastropubs – These are pubs which are now known for their food rather than their drinks. These are more popular now and the best ones are booked months in advance.
Pub crawl – This is a truly British thing and I can only apologise to my European colleagues who have to host British tourists and are probably familiar with this. A pub crawl is when you visit several pubs (usually down the same street or area) and have a pint at each one. The intention is to get very drunk by the end. At university, my entire medical school would spend a day doing the circle line pub crawl (circle line is the yellow tube/metro line that used to be a loop) where we would jump off at each station and have half a pint. As you can imagine, this was total carnage and 100% fun. I would probably die if I tried to do it now.
A round – The Brits order their drinks in rounds so that only one person has to go to the bar to buy the group drinks. “What do you want to drink? It’s my round.” Often, someone will offer to help them carry the drinks but this essentially means that the person who is buying the round has company whilst they queue. There are no social rules on how often you have to buy rounds but if you don’t ever offer, people will notice and you risk social exclusion!
Last orders – about half an hour before the pub closes, the staff will ring the bell to signify last orders. This should prompt everyone to order their last round of drinks before the end of the night.
Most iconic pubs in London
You can’t really go wrong with a pub so I wouldn’t stress too much about going to the best one. However, there are some places that are worth mentioning. (FYI My friends are I refuse to go to the Weatherspoons which is a chain because of the owner’s very pro-Brexit views).
If you love public health, you will love the story behind the John Snow pub in Soho, central London. John Snow was a local doctor who connected the cholera outbreak with the water delivered by the Broad Street pump. He noticed that the cholera deaths were clustered around the pump but yet the local brewery staff did not contract the water-borne disease because they had their own water supply. His public health measure was to take the handle off the water pump which single-handedly stopped the outbreak. The current pump there is a replica and you will need to look for the pink kerbstone which marks the spot of the original.
If you love British music, you will need to go to The Dublin Castle in Camden. It is a legendary music venue that champions new music and is often a place where big British acts start off; the likes of Madness, Blur, Coldplay and Amy Winehouse kickstarted their careers here. Useless piece of information: four pubs were built in Camden in the 19th century for workers building the local railways – Edinboro, Dublin, Pembroke and Windsor – where people from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England respectively drank with their own countrymen. The idea was that by separating the workers, they were less likely to get involved with fights after a few pints leading to fewer injuries and time off. Only the Edinboro and Dublin Castle remain today.
I don’t know how to describe the Churchill Arms in Kensington apart from the fact that it is pure British eccentricity. There are flowers cascading from the walls and it really stands out on the street. I love walking past it because it brings real joy to my heart.
The Palm Tree in Mile End is a hidden gem. If you go on a Saturday night, there is an open mic for old crooners; you enter a time warp where I wouldn’t be surprised if the Kray twins (infamous East London gangsters who were active in the late 1950s to 60s) turned up. I’ve only been there once but it was one of my best nights in London but I’ve also heard that it’s not so atmospheric on the other nights. If you like Frank Sinatra, this might be the place for you.
As you can see, London has a corner for every soul. It’s more multi-cultural than the rest of the UK and over 250 languages are spoken here. It’s busy, it’s bustling and it’s the best city in the world – I’m so excited that WONCA Is finally making its way here! Feel free to leave comments with your favourite places to eat and drink.