Wondering why that London food stall or restaurant has a queue a mile long?
Forget bangers and mash (that’s sausages and mashed potato to you)—London is now home to a fantastically eclectic food scene. Which on one hand, is great. On the other, the rise of no-bookings restaurants and street food culture in the English capital also means the sight of queues snaking around the block, festooned with umbrellas against the rain, is becoming more familiar. Those queues are usually there for good reason—but, often, there’s an almost-as-good alternative just a short walk or tube ride away that won’t involve freezing your buns off. Here’s where to eat instead.
WHERE: Borough Market
This compact, no-booking restaurant unleashed a trend across the capital for cacio e pepe—in this case, chewy strands of thick, hand-rolled, pici pasta, drenched in pepper and cheese. The original is still the best, and if you get to Padella around 15 minutes before opening on a weekday (30 on weekends), you stand a chance of getting in without having to wait for someone else to finish their lunch first.
Where to Go Instead: Head to Pastaio in Soho, which also offers smaller dishes of handmade pasta that are ideal for sharing—three between two should do it. Including, of course, a tasty version of cacio e pepe.
Chick n Sours
WHERE: Covent Garden and Haggerston
Specializing in fried chicken, Chick n Sours is what happens when the Colonel gets sexy. The joint’s crispy chicken delights are paired with original sours to be slurped for a distinctly dirty-but-delicious meal. Tables are bookable, but there are so few of them in the Covent Garden branch’s basement room, you might have to queue. The K-Pop sandwich is an homage to South Korea, with fried chicken topped with Gochujang mayo and Asian slaw. Enjoy it with a Pisco Punch.
Where to Go Instead: Head to Boxpark in Shoreditch or Croydon, where Coqfighter’s panko-fried thigh burger with smoked sambal mayo is possibly is a close rival to the K-Pop, and can be washed down with a craft beer straight from the can.
Despite most outlets of this quirky “Bombay cafe” being enormous, you’ll usually find a queue outside all five branches of Dishoom, with a wait of about 45 minutes. If you’re lucky, there will be room at the bar for you to while away the time with a cocktail and some tasty, pastel-hued Far Far crisps. There are worse ways to wait—and, when you finally get fed, you’ll get to enjoy a vibrant range of uniformly delicious Indian dishes.
Where to Go Instead: Head to Brick Lane, home to London’s curry scene, lots of tie-dye, and a drummer who plays in back of a transit van. Be prepared to put your head down and ignore the offers of free beers from the restaurateurs touting for business all along the road and head for Preem, which is widely thought to be Brick Lane’s best.
WHERE: Soho and Fitzrovia
Both tiny and super-Instagrammable, it’s no surprise that this Taiwanese-inspired venue draws a crowd. The line for Bao’s original Soho branch is across the road (look for the drawing of a man eating a Momofuku bun), so don’t be fooled by the lack of people directly outside. Once inside, you tick your choices off on the small but perfectly formed menu with the pencil provided. The lunch deal is a real bargain and packed with flavor.
Where to Go Instead: For weekday lunch, try On the Bab in Covent Garden just down the road— their juicy bulgogi beef buns should satisfy your cravings. Or, if you’re planning a Monday evening visit, the Fitzrovia branch of Bao has a bookable fried chicken and whiskey night. Bao also has a less-busy market-stall outpost at Netil Market in London Fields on a Saturday that sells its classic buns.
The original Brixton Market branch of Franco Manca was unique—it offered a handful of incredibly well-priced pizzas, with chewy sourdough crusts tasty enough to break your heart. When the owners finally took pity on the patrons queuing through the market and past the hawkers of pots and pans, they opened branches throughout London. The current tally stands at 33—but miraculously, they’ve maintained their signature quality and bargain prices.
Where to Go Instead: Franco’s crown as the best pizza in London is being challenged by Santa Maria, which has just opened a third outpost in Fitzrovia. Or, if you’re prepared to travel, Sodo in Walthamstow offers similarly crusty delights.
Going strong for over 40 years, Tayyabs offers no-frills Punjabi food with fantastic, fluffy, homemade naan on the side. Dishes such as “dry meat” don’t sound that appealing, but the flavors on offer here are spectacular. Portions are very generous, and there’s no lovelier sight than a table piled high with a sizzling, meaty Tayyabs feast.
Where to Go Instead: Try Punjab, a Covent Garden classic that attracts plenty of tourists, but offers great food. Or order a takeaway from The Tiffin Tin, a pricey but classy Indian delivery option with five outposts across north and east London.
This Italian tapas bar offering Venetian sharing plates caused a big splash when it opened in the capital in 2009, but in the intervening years, other cicetti bars have made their mark. Polpo’s snacks, including arancini and pizzettes, are tasty, but pricey. Plus in its flagship Soho incarnation tables are crammed together, meaning dining is not a particularly relaxed experience.
Where to Go Instead: Try Bocca di Lupo, a London classic selling Italian tapas at reasonable prices. Or, if you want a taste of Polpo’s style, head to Spuntino for seriously tasty and imaginative sliders and mac n cheese eaten at the bar.
The Breakfast Club
Trying to catch The Breakfast Club without a queue is like trying to catch a glimpse of Bigfoot—it just ain’t gonna happen. But most of the people waiting eagerly in line seem to be tourists. Although the food in these vaguely 80s-themed cafes, including the classic Cabbies’ Breakfast and Huevos Rancheros, is certainly tasty, you can get as good—if not better—elsewhere. Hint: taxicab drivers don’t actually eat here.
Where to Go Instead: For an authentic full English eaten by actual cabbies, head to the Regency Cafe, which has been going since 1946 and is wonderfully down to earth—although you might still find a queue waiting for you. Alternatively, make the most of Dishoom being quieter in the mornings and enjoy their fantastic curried scrambled eggs or a bacon naan. The haggis toasties at Deeny’s Cafe in Leyton are also delicious.
Temple of Seitan
WHERE: Camden and Hackney
This fast-food place is a takeaway, but the queue it attracts is impressive by any standards. The trend for “dirty” vegan food in the capital is very much on the rise, so although Temple of Seitan’s menu reads like any other fried chicken joint—with fillet burgers, hamburgers, mac n cheese and extra bacon all on offer—everything is 100% vegan. Everything’s so tasty, that’s hard to believe, which is what makes it so popular.
Where to Go Instead: It might look like a neon nightmare, but The Diner, with branches across London, does a great selection of vegan junk food. Biff’s Jack Shack, offering deep-fried jackfruit, is also great for satisfying those animal-friendly dirty food cravings.
WHERE: Angel, Piccadilly, and Covent Garden
A few years ago, London went crazy for ramen, and a whole host of takes on this classic noodle dish popped up across the capital. Ramen’s bright star is now on the wane, but Kanada-Ya’s tonkotsu still burns brightly. Rich broths and fresh flavors, enough to drive even the fiercest hangover away, can be enjoyed in a clean, canteen-style space. They’re also planning to add a gyoza menu later this year, making queues even more likely.
Where to Go Instead: Shoryu has several locations across the capital, making it easy to find a table on which to enjoy its rich broth and slippery noodles. Or head to Wagamama, a supremely popular chain restaurant offering Asian dishes from ramen to yakisoba.
St John Bakery
When you see the queue outside what is ostensibly a humble bakery, you might wonder what on earth is going on. But at St John Bakery, everyone is waiting for one of their legendary custard doughnuts—the bakery is only open on Saturday and Sundays. If you want more than six you have to order ahead, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. Sure, they’re tasty—but these people really know how to ramp up demand.
Where to Go Instead: Go to Bread Ahead in Borough Market for their “custard grenades” instead (they even offer a doughnut workshop), or try one of the unusual flavors at Crosstown Doughnuts. Branches are dotted across the capital, they’re open all week, and they offer unusual varieties such as blood orange and matcha tea.
WHERE: Clerkenwell and Soho
This Mexican taco bar does take bookings, but fast turnaround means it’s worth queuing for a walk-in if you’re in the mood for its unusual take on a staple. Breddos’ origins as a Hackney taco shack and a handful of glowing reviews make it a magnet for the cool crowd, but the mouth-burning heat of the food delivers an adrenaline rush that chili heads will appreciate too.
Where to Go Instead: Wahaca is a chain, so it’s often snubbed by the cool kids. But the food is consistently good, plentiful, and great value, plus Londoners eat here, so why shouldn’t you? If you really want that Instagrammable vibe, though, try the Mexican-inspired Killer Tomato in Shepherd’s Bush and on Portobello Road.
WHERE: Covent Garden and Borough Market
Even by Borough Market standards, the queue for Monmouth Coffee is ridiculous. OK, the coffee is pretty darn good, but the dearth of locals willing to wait 30 minutes for their morning pick-me-up speaks volumes. There are plenty of great coffee places across London, so if you’re willing to forsake the extra helping of cool cache on social media, try one of the myriad other options.
Kiln has developed a fearsome reputation for its small plates of Thai street food, with fresh seafood—including langoustines with kaffir lime and sweet mint—a specialty. With Kiln only taking bookings for groups of four or more, the reasonable prices, relaxed atmosphere, and imaginative dishes are well worth queuing for—or you can leave your number and go for a quick drink while you wait (if you want an authentic British boozer, try Glasshouse Stores a few doors down).
Where to Go Instead: You will need to book at Supawan, but this hidden gem, beloved by locals, is well worth the effort. Flavor-packed Thai dishes are served in a very pretty room by super-friendly staff, and there isn’t a single dud on the short menu.
This street food stall only sells one thing—falafel wraps—but they’re the best in London, hands down. Both falafels and wraps are magically cooked on-site in the tiny tent front of your very eyes, then topped with aubergine, salad, tahini, and chili sauce, resulting in a lunch the size of a baby’s arm for a very reasonable price. Found in Berwick Street Market on weekdays from 10 am to 4 pm, Jerusalem is a magnet for the local office crowd—get there early, and you might even miss the queue.
Where to Go Instead: Those who love falafel in London have a thing for Pilpel. Or head around the corner to Hummus Bros for their delicious chicken and falafel hummus bowl served with warm, soft pitta bread.