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
Covent Garden Buffet
92-93 St. Martin's Lane, Covent Garden. Tube: Leicester Square. 20-7/836-5398. All-you-can-eat buffet $9.60. No credit cards.
The very concept of a vegetarian Italian restaurant may seem unusual enough, but just to take it an extra step, this 20-year-old eatery is also an all-you-can-eat buffet. Not that meat-lovers would suffer: there is always one carne (usually fowl) on the table, and the rest of the ten pasta and vegetable dishes are good enough to make you forget the pleasures of the flesh (the ziti with eggplant and tomato sauce actually took me back to a favorite little trattoria in Rome's old Jewish quarter, and the lasagna is practically addictive). Different new dishes are brought out every half-hour, too, keeping the selections fresh and interesting - in all, a remarkable banquet for only $9.60 in a cheerful, pretty space with yellow walls, floral table cloths, and summertime outdoor tables. Drinks and dessert are the low (or should I say high) point on the price list, with a glass of house wine going for $4.65 and an (admittedly yummy) tiramis - for $5.10; but then, who'd have room for dessert after such abbondanza?
79 Brick Lane, East London. Tube: Aldgate East. 20-7/375-0475. Three-course early-bird dinner $11.50; otherwise, two courses plus dessert from $10.75.
The capital of Queen Victoria's old empire is famous for prime Indian cuisine, and one of the primest nabes for sampling it is Bangla Town, a mostly Bangladeshi neighborhood near the Tower of London (keep in mind that "Indian" cuisine generally encompasses the whole of the subcontinent, including Pakistan and Bangladesh). The heart of this very colorful neighborhood is a quaint street right out of Mary Poppins - except, of course, for the Bengali-style streetlamps and the colorful metal archway. Of the many inexpensive restaurants that line both sides, the Shampan (named for a small riverboat typical of Bangladesh) offers a hard-to-beat combo of good prices, superb food (Bengali and Moghul, the type of Indian most familiar to Westerners), and elegant ambiance (plush and pink, with crystal chandeliers). The early-bird dinner, for example, offers three courses (appetizers like bhaji onion fritters or a prawn cocktail; entrees like spicy lamb, chicken, or vegetable Madras, served with rice or nan bread; and a choice of ice cream or coffee) for $11.50, daily before 7 p.m. Otherwise, most dishes are in the $5-$11.50 range, such as keema, minced lamb cooked in a Kashmiri cast-iron balti pan ($4.65), or fish tomato jhool (a lean Bengali fish known as rahi cooked in light spices), for $11.50. For dessert, try kulfi ($1.60), a smooth concoction of milk, fruit, nuts, and cream, or stop at one of the neat Indian bakeries nearby.
Malaysian Hall Canteen
44 Bryanston Square (basement), Marble Arch. Tube: Marble Arch. 20-7/723-9484. Entree, side, and rice plus drink from $4.60. No credit cards.
It doesn't get any cheaper than this cafeteria-style smorgasbord of Malaysian delights subsidized by the Malaysian government for its overseas students (but open seven days a week to all and sundry for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). Never had Malaysian before? It's not so different from Thai or other Southeast Asian, emphasizing fresh meats, seafoods, and vegetables in coconut curry and other exotic sauces.