From fish and chips to Sri Lankan hoppers, London’s food and drink scene is more impressive than ever.
Luckily for today’s visitors, the modern London dining scene makes a mockery of the outdated idea that British food is all stodgy, fried carbs (although we’ll admit there is still a bit of that). With so many different cultures converging on the city, culinary adventures await anybody keen to explore London’s international and traditional offerings. Wash it down with a quintessentially English pint or join the U.S.-inspired craft beer revolution.
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Fish and Chips
Where better to start on your London food journey than with fish and chips? England’s most famous dish is available throughout the city and comes in many shapes and sizes. Best enjoyed out of a hot paper wrap from a typical fish-and-chip shop aka a chipper (and generally takeaway only), the meal should be eaten with a miniature wooden fork for extra authenticity. The fish is usually cod (but haddock, skate, and rock are not uncommon), covered in a crispy deep-fried batter. Chips are thick-cut fried potatoes and sides can include anything from pickles and pickled eggs to mushy peas and curry sauce. Most pubs and many restaurants serve some version of fish and chips, but you’ll find a pretty perfect serving of the dish at Masters Superfish in Waterloo.
While real ale (which is relatively flat and warm) still has its fans, the craft beer revolution has been the heart of London’s beer scene for the last decade. Inspiration from American IPAs and pale ales’ heady hops awakened London’s senses, leading to a mass of new breweries supplying the demand for these eclectic ales. The greatest example of this can be found on the Bermondsey Beer Mile, a long stretch of railway arches in South London housing several independent breweries side by side. Complete the mile and you’ll have an excellent grasp of nouveau London beer (and maybe a terrible headache the next day).
Full English Breakfast
The Full English is another dish that finds its way onto menus everywhere, from posh brunch spots to greasy spoons (aka cheap cafes). Consisting of eggs (usually fried or scrambled), sausages, bacon, fried tomatoes, black pudding, baked beans, mushrooms, and toast, the breakfast is best enjoyed with a classic builder’s tea on the side to cut through the greasy, calorific mass. The antithesis of a healthy berry and granola parfait, this is a breakfast that will make you want to skip lunch. For an indulgent Full English, try any outlet of Hawksmoor or experience it in classic, inexpensive form from either the nostalgic E Pellicci in Bethnal Green or Maria’s Market Café in Borough Market.
Sri Lankan Hoppers
A relatively new craze in London, the Sri Lankan hopper was always destined for great things in the city—who could resist the concept of a rice and coconut pancake filled with curry, relish, and fried eggs? Find them in Hoppers, the hip Soho restaurant that played a large part in exposing the Sri Lankan classic to the masses; just expect long lines at this no-reservations spot.
Typically enjoyed between an early lunch and late dinner, Afternoon Tea is a very British way to spend an afternoon. A true Afternoon Tea consists of cakes, pastries, finger sandwiches sans crusts, and scones with jam and clotted cream displayed on a tiered stand and served with pots of loose-leaf tea. In many establishments, you can expect a tea menu (and the fanciest might even have a tea sommelier) where you can consider the likes of Earl Grey, Assam (the Queen’s favorite teas), Darjeeling, and Ceylon. For pageantry, tradition, and quality, few afternoon teas compare to that of The Ritz.
The 1970s saw a wave of Bangladeshi immigrants arriving in London and setting up restaurants along Brick Lane and the surrounding area; competition clearly (and luckily for London diners) bred success. These days, there’s a mix of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani restaurants, all serving some of the finest curries anywhere outside of Asia. Aside from classics like vindaloo (super-hot), madras, and tandoori meats, the range of sweet, salty, spicy, and sour curries makes it one of London’s best-loved cuisines. Away from Brick Lane, stylish curry restaurants with contemporary leanings can be found in the shape of Gunpowder in Spitalfields, Booma in Stockwell, and Dishoom in various locations from Shoreditch to Kings Cross.
Dim Sum Dumplings
While Soho has lost much of its independent dining scene, next-door Chinatown is much the same as it has always been, aside from the odd new bubble tea shop or Sichuan joint. That means reliably good dim sum can be found throughout the neighborhood in any one of Gerard Street’s litany of restaurants; look out for the ubiquitous all-day dumpling menu. Try Golden Phoenix for its pleasingly Hong Kong-style interiors, Bun House for hip late-night eats, and Din Tai Fung for the Taiwan export’s exquisite pork soup dumplings.
Best enjoyed while outside in the sun, Pimm’s is a gin-based liqueur typically mixed with lemonade and ice, then filled with sliced strawberries, cucumber, and mint (and orange if you’re feeling fancy). Popular at weddings, regattas, Wimbledon, horseracing tracks, and cricket matches, it is the British version of the Aperol Spritz and even more refreshing than water.
Historically London’s most popular spirit, gin has been rejuvenated over the last decade thanks to a range of small-batch distilleries joining the likes of established London brands like Hendricks, Tanqueray, and Sipsmith. The “ginaissance” is very much in vogue and visitors can expect to find full-on gin menus and a variety of tonics. Try Mr. Fogg’s Gin Parlour for a faux-Victorian, gin-based drinking experience or Princess Louise in Holborn for an authentic representation of one of London’s former “gin palaces”, complete with private bar-side cubicles.
Pasta From Padella
While pasta in London is well-regarded, it’s unusual to see huge crowds lining up for the chance to sample well-crafted ravioli. But that’s the story at Padella, the Borough Market restaurant whose legendary pasta inspired levels of hysteria not seen on the city since the dawn of the no-reservations, walk-in burger joints of 2012. After trying the beef shin pappardelle and simple tagliarini with garlic and chilli, you’ll be ready and willing to line up to try out the rest of the menu in no time.
Salt Beef Beigels
Cured in brine and slow-boiled for hours, the delicacy of salt beef belongs sandwiched between two beigel (yes, that’s bagel to you Americans) halves, slathered in hot English mustard, and topped with pickles. The sandwich is available throughout the city in locations like the famous Brass Rail in Selfridges department store, at Monty’s Deli, or most evocative of all, at Brick Lane’s historic 24-hour Beigel Bake, where every beigel comes with a dollop of East London charm.
You can probably find a decent lamb chop in any of London’s established grill houses, but to truly taste the best, juiciest, and most perfectly cooked chop London has to offer, you’ll have to head to Tayyabs in Whitechapel. The sprawling Punjabi restaurant is an institution and while it will win no awards for service, the slightly chaotic experience is worth it for the spicy, salty, melty chops that will have you dreaming about them for days.
With origins dating all the way back to the Roman era and a first mention in an 1863 British newspaper, the humble sausage roll is without a doubt one of Britain’s most beloved snacks. At its core, it’s simply pork sausage meat surrounded by flaky pastry casing, shaped into a long, slim roll and cooked in the oven to deliver a substantial hit of calories. Of course, the quality varies depending on where you buy it, but like pizza, sausage rolls are pretty much always good, whether it’s a cheap bakery-bought roll or a gourmet wedge infused with fennel and black pepper.
London’s huge Turkish community is responsible for gifting the city one of its favorite dishes—the doner kebab, a huge chunk of meat roasted on a revolving spit. While Londoners love stopping off for late-night doner after a night of drinking, that’s just one way to consume Turkish food. For those with more sophisticated palettes, head to one of the city’s many excellent Turkish ocakbasi and opt for shish (large cubes of chicken or lamb cooked on the grill), beyti (ground lamb or beef wrapped in lavash bread and topped with yogurt), and plenty of roasted red onions and pomegranate.
INSIDER TIPBritish artists Gilbert and George eat some of the city’s best Turkish food in the same restaurant (Mangal 2) in Dalston every night of the week without fail.
Roast potatoes, roasted meat (chicken, beef, pork, or lamb), assorted vegetables, cauliflower cheese, Yorkshire puddings, and assorted condiments like mint sauce, bread sauce, English mustard, horseradish, and cranberry jelly make up some of the most important elements of a traditional Sunday roast, a meal that should leave you ready to sleep within 30 minutes of eating it. Every pub in London serves a Sunday roast—and if it doesn’t, then it can hardly call itself a pub—and the quality ranges dramatically depending on the establishment. For a sure thing, try the Old Red Cow in Farringdon or enjoy a fancy roast at the iconic Simpson’s in the Strand where the meat (preferably beef) is served in a classic, refined style from a glass tray and carved at the table.