Try the city's cheap Indian restaurants; a little spice is a sure way to brighten up a foggy day.
Quick: Name Britain's favorite dish. Fish- and-chips? Toad-in-the-hole? Shepherd's pie? The correct answer is...chicken tikka masala, which most people think of as Indian but (legend has it) was created in Britain by Indian cooks, who adapted a traditional recipe to please the British by adding a tomato cream sauce. Most travelers to London have noticed that the one sure way to eat cheaply is to go for Indian food. Or it was-commercial property prices have increased dramatically, British pop culture has been in the throes of Indian influences to a degree not seen since the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper's (when things get trendy, prices go up), and the dollar is worth less.
Cheap curries haven't disappeared altogether, but it takes more digging to find them. The best buys are likely to be at lunch rather than dinner, for vegetarian meals rather than meat ones. Look for places advertising lunch specials, and study the menus, which by law should be posted outdoors by the entrance. Die-hards will want to head for Brick Lane (aka Banglatown) and the ethnic enclaves around the Great Portland Street Tube stop for the top values in South Asian cuisine. ("Indian food" is used in Britain as a catchall term encompassing Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi dishes.) Meanwhile, when you're in Central London, you can get a two-course meal for about $10 at the following 10 restaurants. (When calling London from North America, first dial 011-44 and drop the first zero.)
Tiffinbites 88 Wardour St., 020/7287-6155, www.tiffinbites.com. Opened last February by two former buyers for Marks & Spencer's underwear department, Tiffinbites feels like an Indian version of Pret A Manger. Their "tiffin boxes" are based on traditional Indian packed lunches and include three dishes: a main (lamb rogan josh, chicken tikka masala), a vegetable, and rice ($7.40 to $9.30). An assortment of appetizers, such as samosas (pastry triangles stuffed with meat or vegetables), go for $2.40 to $4.40. And here's a sweet deal: Between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., you can sample the latest recipes in return for your written feedback. Tiffinbites also has two branches in the City (122 Cannon St. and 24 Moorfields; closed weekends).
Soho Spice 124-126 Wardour St., 020/7434-0808, www.sohospice.co.uk. At two courses for $9.60, the set menu at Soho Spice-daily from 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.-is one of Central London's best buys. Choose one of two appetizers (one vegetarian) and a main (vegetable, lamb, or chicken). All mains are served with rice, nan bread, dal (spiced lentils), and a vegetable. The setting is ^ la Ikea, rendered in exotic colors, and there is a downstairs bar open on the weekends where you can order veggie samosas, seekh kebab (minced lamb on a skewer), and crisp spinach-and-onion bhaji (similar to fritters) for $4 each. After 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, the bar turns into a nightclub.
Govinda's 9-10 Soho St., 020/7437-4928; closed Sundays. At this "pure vegetarian restaurant" run by the Hare Krishna organization next door, the dinner buffet ($6.40; 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.) is cheaper than the lunch one ($8; noon to 7 p.m.). Either way, you get a lot for your money: steamed veggies, a mixed vegetable dish that changes daily, brown or white rice, dal, beans, salad, a roll, and a pappadum (a cracker-like bread made with lentil flour). E la carte items are also reasonably priced, from $1.45 to $7.20, but they tend to be Western dishes such as pizza, quiche, and lasagna. The setting is akin to a local cafZ, with spiritual artwork and Hare Krishna literature on the tables-happily, there's no active proselytizing.
Mela 152-156 Shaftesbury Ave., 020/7836-8635, www.melarestaurant.co.uk. This usually expensive restaurant has a set lunch menu from noon to 3 p.m. Dishes range from sandwiches to two-course meals served with rice ($4.70 to $7.90). Mela also offers a three-course pre-theater menu ($17.50; 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.). From the contemporary pinewood-furnished dining room you can see the cooks busy at work through the kitchen's glass windows.
Iky's Cafe Unit 4-5, Jubilee Market, Covent Garden Piazza, 1a Tavistock St., 020/7836-9279. If only there were more places like Iky's in the overpriced Covent Garden shopping area. It's part of a mall-style food court, where you order at the counter, pay, and carry your own meal to a table. The menu is split between traditional Indian dishes and Anglo-American fast food (skip it). Appetizers start at $1.30 for a meat or vegetable samosa and go to $4 for a large order of barbecued tandoori chicken; curry entrZes range from $3.20 to $6.30. The best buys are the set lunch deals, which also include a drink, bread, and a salad or vegetable for $4.80 to $7.20.
Star Kebab House 178 Earl's Court Rd., 020/7370-4051. This carryout bills itself as a kebab house (kebabs are $4 to $7.20, if you're interested), but it also serves a variety of Indian meals. All food here is halal-prepared according to Muslim dietary law. Curry dishes with rice range from $5.20 for lentils to $8.80 for meat and chicken, but the snacks are a better value (from $1.15 for a samosa to $4.80 for chicken tikka). In the backpacker's haven that is Earl's Court, Star Kebab closes at 3 a.m. Sunday to Wednesday, 4 a.m. Thursday, and 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Eat at the counter if it's raining; otherwise get your food to go.
Masala 4 Hogarth Rd., 020/7370-4483. Masala hews to more traditional dishes cooked according to halal standards, such as chicken tikka masala for $7.85 and mattar paneer (curried peas with homemade cheese) for $5.75, and starters like aloo tikki (potato cakes) for $2.40 and nan bread for $1.45. The room is small and unpretentious; you choose from a deli-counter display and the server brings the food to your table. Prices are higher than at Star Kebab House, but the atmosphere is more soothing.
Salwa Restaurant 4 Crawford Pl., 020/7262-3356. It's more of a halal deli than a proper restaurant, but the surroundings on the ground floor are clean and decent (alas, the seating area, with only a few tables, is a bit cramped). There are more places to sit upstairs, but you have to brave a dingy, narrow staircase in the back. Not recommended for a full sit-down meal, Salwa will do for a quick nosh. The curry dishes start at about $9.60, or you can load up on a variety of samosas at $1.50 a pop.
YMCA Indian Student Hostel 41 Fitzroy Sq., 020/7387-0411, www.indianymca.org. This hostel for expat students was founded in 1920 as a London satellite of the YMCA of India. The dining hall offers cafeteria-style Indian food to residents and visitors alike. On weekdays, lunch is served ^ la carte, with dishes costing less than $4. Dinners daily and weekend lunches are a buffet. Included in the $7.20 price is a curry, rice, and chapati (unleavened whole-wheat bread). Pay at the front desk, then bring your receipt to the dining hall and line up, tray in hand, for whatever the cook dishes out. Lunch, popular with non-Indian students from the nearby universities, is served from noon to 2 p.m. (12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on weekends); an Indian crowd predominates at the dinner service, daily from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Majli's 32 Gloucester Rd., 020/7584-3476. Cheap Indian restaurants are almost nonexistent in this neighborhood of "bright young things." That said, Majli's has a two-course set-lunch menu ($11.15), and you can pull off a bargain at dinner if you choose carefully from the vegetarian options. Appetizers cost $4 to $4.80, and they can be combined with nan bread ($2.40 to $2.80), raita (spiced yogurt with cucumber or other vegetables, $4), or one of the veggie side dishes ($5.60). The restaurant is small but comfortable; on nice days there may be an outdoor table or two on the street.