EAT LIKE A LOCAL
From Malaysian student canteens to ancient church crypts, 10 eateries serving 2 courses or more, plus drink, for £7.50 (about $12) or less
It's true that most prices in the capital of today's cool Britannia are as outrageous as in any other world-class city, but - unsuspected by many - strong competition, a large student population, and thriving ethnic communities have resulted in a surprising bounty of inexpensive dining options. Many are conveniently located in the very heart of town, so you need not stray far from the usual tourist haunts to fill your belly. A short walk from Piccadilly Circus or Leicester Square, in fact, is the budget diner's single most treasured destination: Old Compton Street, with more than a half-dozen wallet-friendly eateries in its immediate vicinity. Trafalgar Square and Chinatown in central London and Bangla Town in East London also offer excellent options, and from there we spin out into quieter neighborhoods for some truly unusual treats. Without further ado, here are ten top picks, in geographical order from central London outward:
18 Old Compton Street, SoHo. Tube: Leicester Square. 20-7/287-1066. Appetizer, entree, and glass of wine from $8.35.
Ideally located and astoundingly cheap, this institution on Old Compton Street is hands down the ne plus ultra of London's budget dining. Looking much like a chic cafe with sidewalk tables, stylish lighting, and humorous prints of Britannic fuddy-duddies over the wainscoting, this two-floor joint is always jumping with locals and tourists served by a veritable United Nations of waitpersons. They're quick, they're efficient, and they even change the silverware between courses - a remarkable feat considering prices like $6.05 for a set menu that might pair a hearty vegetable soup with a chicken mushroom pilaf (the entire menu changes daily). A glass of French table wine bumps the bill up by $2.30, and a finale of satiny creme caramel goes for $2.25. Seeing me agonize over the plethora of multiculti a la carte selections, Carlos, the bartender from Madrid, recommended the penne in cream sauce with spring onions and mushrooms ($4.90). A wise choice, it turned out, delightfully smooth and not heavy at all. Ditto the appetizer of mushrooms with tartar sauce ($2.99): light, tasty, not oily, and served with lettuce, tomato, and cucumber (in effect, a free salad on the side). Note that while the other Stockpot locations are independent franchises and there is no common menu, all branches hew to a good-food-for-a-good-price credo. On King's Road (273 Kings Road, 20-7/823-3175); Piccadilly Circus (38 Panton Street, 20-7/839-5142); and Knightsbridge (6 Basil Street, 20-7/589-8627).
4-6 Old Compton Street, SoHo. Tube: Leicester Square. 20-7/437-4006. Entree with potatoes, side vegetable, and glass of wine from $10.20.
If someone were to design a hell for Martha Stewart, this homely diner could be its commissary: a sea of orange Formica booths, orange plastic light fixtures, and fakey-brown ceiling beams. The mostly Italian food, on the other hand, draws a steady stream of regulars who swear by the plain but hearty cooking. Take, for example, my own most recent repast, served at a prime table overlooking the lively street action: a competent rendition of chicken Kiev served with chips (french fries, of course; all entr,es come with 'em) for $7.45; a side of the ever-present green peas for $1.50; and an apple crumb with custard for $3.05. The total bill came to exactly $12.40, and frankly, I was stuffed. There are less expensive options on the menu, too, like 20 or so entrees priced around $6.05 (think gnocchi with four cheeses, chicken and mushroom risotto, or tagliatelle with cream, mushrooms, and spinach). For something a little more English, you can try the liver and bacon special at $8.40, and the fish is quite well-priced too: fried cod or plaice (a whitefish) runs $5.95, and grilled trout costs $9.90. Homesick Yanks can even score a Snapple here for $2.50 or a glass of house wine for $3.30.
Mr. Wu Chinese Restaurant Hot Buffet
56 Old Compton Street, SoHo. Tube: Leicester Square. 20-7/494-0032. All-you-can-eat buffet for $7.45, lunch and dinner.
For a couple of years now, friends had been warning me about old Mr. Wu, promising a fate worse than dysentery if I should hazard his wares; after all, what kind of all-you-can-eat slop could he serve in overpriced London for $7.45 at both lunch and dinner? (None of them, mind you, had actually ever tried it.) Ever the intrepid (not to say cheap) gastronome, I recently ventured into the bright, smallish dining room done up in a spare black-and-white color scheme and approached the round buffet table laden with big steel pots. Several customers-both Chinese and "Western barbarians" - were happily loading up, so I took that for a good sign and dug in, piling my plate high with appetizers (fried wontons and the ungreasiest spring rolls I have ever had); several entrees like curried chicken, sweet and sour pork, and beef with chili peppers; plus good old carbs like fried noodles with bean sprouts (scrumptious!) and egg fried rice. This place, in other words, is not for waist-watchers. Don't ask me how Mr. Wu does it, but the merchandise tastes fresh, and considering the speedy service and unbeatable prices, his four London restaurants offer serious pigging out for the pound (as for my friends' dire intestinal predictions, they were happily off-base).