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).
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.
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.