Forget fish and chips. Some of the tastiest—and cheapest—meals in this most international of cities are being dished out in its vibrant ethnic neighborhoods.
Back in the 19th century, most of London's few Chinese residents found homes around the docks in the city's then-grim East End. That was before German bombs flattened much of the area in World War II, and the post-war decline of the shipping industry robbed Chinese sailors of their jobs. In search of new opportunities, a handful ventured west to set up restaurants on the edges of raffish Soho, a patch of the city center long favored by immigrant groups.
Chinatown was born, and Londoners, starved for variety, soon discovered a taste for fried rice and egg rolls. The tiny grid of 17th century streets just north of Leicester Square became the cultural focus for London's entire Chinese community, swollen in more recent decades by arrivals from Hong Kong. Almost 80 restaurants are now packed into a few hundred square yards, with menus to satisfy all regional tastes, from the familiar Szechuan of China's southwest to the lesser-known Dongbei of the far northeast.
For the best and cheapest meals, follow the crowd of Chinese students. (There are about 9,000 living in London.) One clear favorite is the Cafe de Hong Kong, an airy eatery that offers genuine Hong Kong cooking in clean, bright surroundings (49 Charing Cross Road, 011/44-20-7534-9898). Order a plate piled high with noodles, mushrooms, and bean curd and there'll still be plenty for a 10-pound note (about $16).
And you'll find plenty of under-10-pound meals at the tiny Jen Café, where handmade dumplings are a specialty (4-8 Newport Place, 011/44-20-7287-9708, $10). Looking for a gastro-treat? Modest in appearance and too cramped for big groups, Four Seasons is famous for its roast duck, served in a sauce whose recipe is known only to its chef (23 Wardour Street, 011/44-20-7287-9995, $14).
It's just a 15-minute ride south on the Underground from Oxford Circus, but Brixton shares none of the glitz and glamour of the West End. In the early days of mass migration from the West Indies, Brixton was one of the few districts where new arrivals could find rooms, and this neighborhood's casual, rough-and-ready character will remind some visitors of the Caribbean itself. (Brixton can also be just plain rough: In the 1980s, it was the scene of violent race riots, and the bad rep-largely unjustified-persists.) The music is loud, the nightlife is upbeat, and there's jerk chicken or curry goat on the menu for the spice hunter.
For the full flavor of the neighborhood, start at the open-air market that fills the streets close to the Brixton Underground station and the nearby arcades. Stalls are heaped with barracuda and catfish, plantains and yams, while takeout stands sell hefty slabs of Jamaican bullah cake (less than $2) or escovitch fish, a traditional Jamaican breakfast snack of fish marinated in a vinegar-based sauce ($6.50).
A short climb up Brixton Hill leads to Negril, named after the famed Jamaican beach town (132 Brixton Hill, 011/44-20-8674-8798). Appropriately, there are tables outside for dining alfresco on London's warm days. Enjoy staples of West Indian cuisine from Jamaican rice cooked in coconut milk with gungo peas ($5) to saltfish fritters ($6.50). You can also bring your own beer or wine.
For a big blowout, there's Bamboula, almost opposite Lambeth Town Hall, where a serving of succulent jerk chicken-half the bird-costs just $11 (12 Acre Lane, bamboulas.net). Unassuming from the outside, the restaurant sports an interior that makes a bold attempt to re-create a Montego beach hut—including palm fronds in the window and a bamboo-thatched bar.
Also known as Little Beirut, this cluster of more than 50 cafés and restaurants caters to London's swelling crowd of transplants from the Middle East and North Africa. There are no reliable figures, but by some reckonings more than 300,000 Arabs are living in London, and the half-mile strip of Edgware Road, the busy highway that runs down to Marble Arch, is their shared meeting place.
Egyptian, Syrian, Moroccan, Persian, Kurdish food-even just an old-fashioned falafel-are all available, together with a bit of the flavor of a souk. Women in veils shop for groceries while men gather on the sidewalks to throw back tiny cups of fierce coffee and trade gossip over their shisha pipes-the hookahs that are central to the café life of the Middle East. (A smoking ban introduced in 2007 keeps the practice outdoors, which is bad news during the British winter and has caused many of the old all-night shisha bars to close altogether.)
Much of the immediate area is decidedly posh-Mayfair and the elegant squares of Bayswater are nearby-but there are restaurants for every budget and taste. Typical of the locality at its most relaxed and unpretentious is Abu Ali, where a mixed meze (appetizer) of hummus, tabbouleh, and other regional favorites is an ample meal for most appetites (136-138 George Street, 011/44-20-7724-6338, $12). The menus are a tad tattered, but the atmosphere is reminiscent of the casbah and you can expect the attention of the proprietor himself.
A younger crowd is more likely to be found just around the corner at the modish Beirut Express, which combines a traditional menu with the sleeker look of a Western café (112-114 Edgware Road, 011/44-20-7724-2700). Open from 7 A.M. to 2 A.M. seven days a week, it's handy for night owls or early risers looking for a sustaining plate of, say, foul moudamas ($8), the bean stew that's often eaten for breakfast in the Middle East. Venture a little farther north and Kandoo offers a spicy introduction to Persian cooking, like shishlik, grilled lamb marinated in yogurt and served with rice or salad (458 Edgware Road, kandoorestaurant.co.uk, $17). A bring-your-own alcohol policy keeps prices down.
Some like it hot, some prefer mild. Whatever your style, Brick Lane is a must-visit destination for any curry aficionado. Every year, the narrow street, east of the towering office blocks of the financial district, stages its own curry festival to coincide with the celebration of the New Year in Bangladesh. On any given day, the 40-plus curry houses in the immediate neighborhood pull in thousands of diners hungry for a taste of the subcontinent.
Immigrants have shaped the area's character for centuries. First came the Huguenots, Protestants fleeing persecution in 16th century France, who built many of the elegant row houses that still survive in the Spitalfields district. Then came the Jews escaping the pogroms of Czarist Russia. Today, almost a third of the population of the local borough are Bangladeshi by origin and their influence pervades the area. One of London's largest mosques—East London Mosque, capacity 5,000—stands a few minutes' walk from the southern end of Brick Lane.
The best time to visit is Sunday morning, when flea markets crowd the local streets, adding a bustle that's missing midweek. Bargain hunters rub elbows with more affluent visitors exploring the boutiques and art galleries that have transformed patches of the edgy East End. Tourists looking for an $8 meal should follow their noses to the BanglaCity supermarket, where Sunday morning purveyors sell steaming bowls of curry or vegetable Samosas, or jilabi (honey cookies) to be enjoyed in the open air (86 Brick Lane, 011/44-20-7234-5710).
Competition for customers is fierce among the restaurants on Brick Lane, but the keenest curry fans look to the side streets, free of tourist traffic, where a few of the restaurants maintain the standards of the old country. Take 30-seat Meraz Cafe (56 Hanbury Street, themeraz.co.uk). Set up to feed the earliest Bangladeshi settlers in 1974, the restaurant takes pride in shunning the techniques of mass cuisine adopted by some of its bigger neighbors. Here, sauces are still prepared individually for dishes that include $9 ceena shathkora (beef on the bone cooked with citrus fruits) and $13 Tandoori prawns. On a larger scale, Clifton avoids the fusty atmosphere often associated with curry houses (1 Whitechapel Road, cliftonbricklane.com). Plate-glass windows help to banish the gloom, and the open-plan kitchen serves specialties from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, such as spicy-sour chicken or lamb tetul tanga bujon ($13).
London is home to thousands of Turkish Cypriots. When the former colony was torn apart by conflict between the Greek and Turkish communities in the 1950s, many fled to Finsbury Park, an oasis of greenery a few miles north of the city center.
Ignore the rumble of the buses outside and the lunchtime scene at a typical Green Lanes eatery could be anywhere in Turkish Cyprus. In the front window sit elderly women pounding dough for the restaurant stoves just behind. The language of the staff and diners is largely Turkish, and the menu-with prices almost as modest as back home-would delight any homesick Cypriot. A big pide, a Turkish equivalent of pizza, served with a heaping bowl of salad and a chunk of Turkish Delight, costs less than $10.
Though the shop fronts along Green Lanes, the district's main thoroughfare, have the classic look of a Victorian high street, they host a range of Turkish-owned businesses from hardware merchants to jewelers. But food is the big draw. Hala pulls in crowds from the immediate neighborhood-its $13 manti (Turkish ravioli) and $11 lamb's liver kebabs are standouts (29 Green Lanes, 011/44-20-8802-4883). Near the top of many lists is Antepliler, which includes a café, a restaurant, and a patisserie (46 Grand Parade, Green Lanes, 011/44-20-8802-5588). Kebabs made with organ meat are the main attraction, running less than $8 for liver, heart, or kidney. If you're looking for something even more exotic, consider the lamb's testicles.
And for a sugar-rich dessert, Turks from across London head for Yasar Halim, down the road from Hala, to stock up on bread or raid the mounds of sticky delicacies (495-497 Green Lanes, 011/44-20-8340-8090). For the full sweet-toothed Turkish Cypriot experience, try the lukma, a crisp, honeyed doughnut of tooth-aching sweetness (about 16 cents each). The true taste of Turkey—and of London at its most richly diverse.