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
The Moon Under Water Free House
105-107 Charing Cross Road, SoHo. Tube: Leicester Square. 20-7/287-6039. Two meals for $9.95, or entree with two sides plus drink from $9.35.
It's not often that a place is both trendy and cheap, but this hip and funky bar/restaurant manages both with panache. Spanning a city block with a curvaceous aqua-blue couch that seems to go on forever under ceilings tarted up with baroque flourishes and neon, this place is as much about people-watching as it is about drinks (beer and shots start at $2.99; drink specials like $1.65 for a bottle of Beck's are posted from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.) and food (an all-day "two meals for 9.95" deal, Friday and Saturday till 8 p.m. only). You and your co-diner can choose from ten different Anglo-international entrees such as Swedish meatballs, mint-laced lamb burger, or breaded plaice. The regular menu is also reasonable, with meals ranging from $7.70 for a fillet of haddock served with the inevitable fries and peas, to $9.35 for half a roast chicken with peas and potatoes; a hearty salad fattens the bill by $3.75. None of it is Michelin-star material, of course, but it's pretty darn good for the price, and you'd also be hard-pressed to find as many pretty faces to dine with anywhere else.
39 Endell Street, Covent Garden. Tube: Covent Garden. 20-7/240-0272. Entree, drink, and dessert from $10.30.
No, this tiny gem of a joint isn't trying to cash in on the Princess Di funerary craze of not so long ago. Anglo-Portuguese chef and owner Antonio Santos' place has lasted on the scene for 32 years, and with good reason: the Anglo-Italian food, the prices, and the lively crowd occupying a dozen tables in a cozy paneled room crammed with theater posters (in warm weather, a handful of tables spill out onto the pretty street). On a recent visit, I settled on a steak-and-kidney pie served with chips and peas ($7.45) - nice and homey, like my mom might have made if she were my mum. Afterward I treated my palate to a $2.99 serving of apple pie and ice cream, bringing my bill to $11.75, including a can of soda. There are prices both higher and lower, too, ranging from $6.20 for spaghetti with tomato and basil to $9.10 for halibut marinara. Another great deal, served all day (late risers, take note), is the $5.79 "English breakfast" consisting of two eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, two slices of toast, and tea or coffee.
Cafe in the Crypt
Church of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square. Tube: Charing Cross. 20-7/839-4342. Entree, side, salad, and drink from $10.20.
If you've ever wanted to dine on top of dead people, look no further than this unique cafeteria-style eatery set in an actual cross-vaulted crypt with black chairs and tables sprawled over long-dead souls buried under the marble floor (I myself lunched recently over "Mr. Andries Baron Who Departed this Life Sep. 19, 1777 Aged 57 Years"). Creepy? Maybe, but the simple English-oid food is good and the proceeds benefit the restoration of the famous but plainish Anglican church above. Daily specials are the thing here, like a plate of Cumberland sausages and onion gravy served with a choice of rice or potatoes and fresh vegetables or salad - truly a mouthful, and all for $10.10. I opted for the second special: roast vegetables (surprisingly cooked al dente, crisp and wonderful) in tomato and thyme sauce, with the same choice of sides, for only $9.10. A glass of house wine bulks up the tab by $4.10, so I grabbed a soft drink for $1, along with a helping of gateaux (little cakes) for $3.25. On the way out, check out the small modern art gallery and the London Brass Rubbing Centre, where you can make impressions of ancient bas-reliefs to hang on your wall back home. Your kids will love it, and prices are not too outrageous, ranging from $4.80 for "sheep safely grazing" to $9.80 for a magnificent "King Richard the Lionheart crushing a lion on his tippy-toes" (children get an additional $1.50 price reduction).
The Chandos Pub
29 St. Martin's Lane, Covent Garden. Tube: Charing Cross. 20-7/836-1401. Entree with two sides and drink, for about $12.26.
No visit to London is complete without a pub stop, though the recent trend to spiff up these age-old social institutions has made it just a tad trickier for the budget traveler. Fortunately, the Chandos has managed to keep its prices well below the stratosphere, especially considering the fancy digs and central location just off Trafalgar Square. Look for the pretty corner building with the elaborate hanging flowerpots that mark the front of just about every London pub. Downstairs, a cozy old-style bar serves beer starting at $2.65 for a pint of domestic Samuel Smith, while upstairs the lovely dining rooms (named for the nearby opera house) are decked out in chintz, paneled wainscoting, and opera-themed prints. Most entrees are priced around $9.90 and come with a choice of new potatoes or chips, and vegetables or salad; on my last visit I wavered between the steak-and-ale pie (cooked in beer gravy and topped with puff pastry) and the bangers (Cumberland sausages) and mash - then ended up splurging on the fish and chips, a large fillet of cod served with fries and garden peas for $11.50. It was well worth the extra cash, as the fish was fresh, light, and flaky, and the fried spuds were likewise crisp and oil-free. Finally, a fun option at the Chandos is the veddy civilized afternoon tea ($6.50), served daily from 3 to 5 p.m.: a pot of the caffeinated infusion, two scones, jam, and clotted cream.