Eating belowground is not a new idea. Germany and Austria are famous for their gemütlich wine cellars, and nothing typifies New York’s Greenwich Village like its basement bars and restaurants. But perhaps only in London has eating in the crypts of ancient churches gained wide appeal.
Mostly self-service and in some cases open only for lunch, London’s crypt cafés are a good option for sightseers with heavy feet and light purses. And children tend to be impressed by the subterranean surroundings.
The church of St. Mary-le-Bow (Cheapside, The City), designed by Christopher Wren in 1673, was built on the site of a much older structure. The Norman crypt has the bow-shaped arches that give the church its name, and it’s there you’ll find the Place Below, a self-service vegetarian restaurant teeming not with ghosts, but with office workers on their lunch break. The short menu includes a changing selection of quiches, soups, salads, sandwiches, and delicious English desserts such as apple-gooseberry crumble. Avoid the crush of City clockers and get a £2 discount on main dishes by lunching before noon or after 1:30.
Church: Mon.-Thurs. 6:30-5:45, Fri. 6:30-4.
Café: 7.30-2.30; closed weekends.
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After exploring the vast upper reaches of St. Paul’s Cathedral (Ludgate Hill, The City), descend to the crypt for a bite near the mortal remains of Lord Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and the great Wren himself. In addition to the Crypt Café, there is the more formal Refectory Restaurant. But don’t expect dusky stone vaulting; these are bright neoclassical spaces.
Cathedral: Mon.-Sat. 8:30-4.
Café: Mon-Sat. 9-5, Sun. 10-5.
The Gothic crypt below the 18th-century church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, on Trafalgar Square, is a hive of activity. There’s a bookshop, a contemporary art space, the London Brass-Rubbing Centre (where for about £5 you can make your own impressions from replica tomb brasses), and a box office for the many classical concerts given in the main church. In addition, the atmospheric Café in the Crypt (pictured) serves cafeteria-style food and hosts occasional jazz nights. The long-ish hours and central location are a boon to tourists.
Church: daily 8-8.
Café: Mon.-Wed. 10-8, Thurs-Sat. 10-11, Sun. 12-8.
Located just south of Westminster Abbey, the church of St. John’s, Smith Square is sometimes called “Queen Anne’s footstool” on account of its four pointy towers (imagine an overturned footstool). Beneath the squat brick arches of its crypt, the Footstool restaurant serves varied, simply prepared snacks and meals for lunch and pre- and post-concert dinners (like St. Martin-in-the-Fields, the church is a major classical music venue).
Church: Weekdays 10-5.
Café: Mon.-Fri. 11:30-2:45; concert evenings after 5:30 (6 on Saturday).
The imposing Beaux-Arts structure that is Westminster Central Hall (Storey’s Gate, Westminster) was until recently Methodist HQ in Britain. The modern, cafeteria-style Wesley Café, located in the basement, may not have the historic charm of its Anglican brethren, but it’s a good budget choice for those visiting Westminster Abbey, which is almost directly across the street.
Photo: Café in the Crypt, St. Martin-in-the-Fields.