Visiting London can be an expensive business, but you needn’t spend big money to eat well. Here are 10 best restaurants and cafes in central London that won’t break your budget.
Daddy Donkey, Holborn
Stalls, vans, mobile trailers: in the last 18 months, London’s street food scene has exploded. A new wave of “mobilers” have rolled into town, parked up, and started to offer high-quality takeaway food at highly competitive prices. Such is the current interest that there is even a subset of rival London burrito slingers, including Daddy Donkey, Luardos and Freebird Burritos. For now Daddy Donkey remains the, erm, daddy, so popular that it needs barriers to manage the queue during the lunchtime rush. How many street market mobilers can say that? Its salsas are arrestingly vibrant, its black beans earthy, elemental comfort food of the first order, its shredded, slow-cooked pork and beef fillings (as they’re more suited to being held on a hot counter) probably a better choice than the Guardian’s smoky, but slightly chewy chipotle-marinated steak. While not quite as revelatory as the hype might suggest, Daddy Donkey certainly dishes out good burritos.
• Burritos from £5.25. Pitches 100-101 Leather Lane market, EC1
Malletti, Soho and Clerkenwell
There are two reasons to love Malletti. Firstly, there is that sign at the entrance: “Are you thinking of ordering while talking on your mobile? Don’t! You will be totally ignored.” Secondly, and more importantly, it serves remarkably good pizza. Don’t be put off by what you see in the window. This pizza al taglio – big rectangular pizza, from which Malletti cut you a large slice – may look slightly wan and anaemic when it is cold, but after it has been reheated in the little counter-top oven, it sings. The thin, crisp bases are slathered in a wonderfully sweet, nicely acidic tomato pulp and judiciously topped – on the Guardian’s sample – with mozzarella, fresh, rugged tangles of spinach and plump preserved artichoke hearts (God’s ingredient). “This place does the best pizza,” a lad tells his friend as they walk past. A couple are having the same conversation in the queue. A queue that never dies down. Clearly, London loves Malletti.
• Pizza slice £3.95. 26 Noel Street, W1. Second branch at 174-176 Clerkenwell Road, EC1
Yalla Yalla, Soho and Oxford Street
You might imagine that modern day Soho is a neutered, vanilla shadow of its once seedy self. Many would argue it is. In the area around Brewer Street, however, the sex shops and strip clubs are alive and well, and doing a brisk trade. As is Yalla Yalla, a somewhat incongruously located Lebanese food hub. A small, side street cafe-restaurant of considerable charm (a chunky, rough-hewn wooden counter, a few tightly packed tables, scatter cushions made from old keffiyeh), it is a cosy bolt-hole where even the budget traveller can afford to eat in. If you choose to take away, it is sensationally good value – £3.50 will buy you a huge flatbread wrap stuffed with tiny, hot juicy soujoc lamb sausages, peppery, sumac-seasoned omelette and lightly pickled vegetables. All that sweet-sour-spicy interplay will stoke a fire in your heart and leave a pleasant tingle on your lips. The only problem? Finding a doorway to perch in, while you eat, without looking like you’re lingering in Soho on very different, disreputable business.
• Takeaway prices – pastries/wraps £2-£4, mains £6-£10. 1 Green’s Court, London, W1. Second branch at 12 Winsley Street (just off Oxford Street), W1
Bea’s of Bloomsbury, Bloomsbury and St Paul’s
It is easy to see why Bea’s is so popular. It looks pretty good (smart wallpapers, attractive cup cake displays); its ethos is sound (quality, seasonal ingredients are used in its conscientious on-site cooking); and the staff are chatty and well-organised. There are edgier, more interesting places to eat, for sure, but, taken together, all that makes for a winning combination. At lunch you can mix ‘n’ match that day’s bright-eyed, bushy-tailed salads with quiches, pasta bakes and such. Later in the afternoon, enjoy a pot of tea and Bea’s magnificent baking. Its Valrhona chocolate brownie (£1.90), the crisp shell giving way to an almost truffle-like centre, is highly recommended.
• Takeaway prices – combination lunch plates from £3.50. 44 Theobald’s Road, WC1. Second branch at One New Change, 83 Watling Street (near St Paul’s), EC4
This collaboration between ace restaurateur Alan Yau and Italian master baker Rocco Princi, looks like the lobby of a sleek Milan hotel. It is a forbiddingly chic tableau in glass, marble and beautiful people. There is even that hotel favourite, a water feature: a kind of rustic trough that runs along one wall. Such immaculate design, however, is where the slick efficiency ends. Princi runs as a canteen. That is, you choose what you want from the counter, you’re given it on a tray, you pay at the till. Except there is nothing to tell you that, no indication of how it all works. The counter-intuitive decision to position the cake section by the door, as you come in, only adds to the confusion. The staff range from helpful to hopeless. For instance, you pay for your drinks at the till, then take your receipt and collect them from the bar. Who knew? Not me, until I had to ask the question directly. Basically, you could spend a long bewildered time in here trying to work it all out, get served and find a seat. Why, then, is it packed? Because Princi’s food, which runs from tiny sweetish pizzetini (60p) topped with a pungent smear of dried anchovy to full meals such as braised beef in barolo wine, is very, very good. A Parma ham sandwich (£4.60) is just that: ham (sweet, salty, silky, punchily porcine, melt-in-the-mouth) between two pieces of insanely good focaccia farcita flatbread. Its crisp exterior is slightly charred – having, presumably, been baked in a wood-fired pizza oven – while the open-textured interior is soft and elastic with a glossy olive oil sheen. That bread, on its own, makes Princi worth the hassle.
• Pizza slices from £4.10, hot meals around £6-£8. 135 Wardour Street, W1.
The Harp, Covent Garden
If, like me, you find that within a few hours of arriving in London you need a drink, five minutes and a nice sit down, this is the place to do it. CAMRA’s current pub of the year, the Harp is an oasis of calm and good cheer amid the noise and chaos of Covent Garden and Trafalgar Square. Real ales, often from local breweries such as Meantime and Ascot Ales, are the draw at the bar. Food consists of a changing roster of sausages from O’Hagan’s, whose owner, Bill O’Hagan, was something of a pioneer in the revival of the proper British banger. They are served simply, like a hotdog, on a Viennese-style roll, with fried onions. The Guardian’s pork and sage sampler was meaty yet moist (too many modern butchers neglect fat content in their overly dense, meat-packed sausages) and confidently seasoned. Washed down with a pint of Dark Star’s light, slightly grapefruit-y Hophead (£3.20), it is a fine reviver.
• Sausage sandwich £2.50. 47 Chandos Place, WC2
“F*ck the chicken tikka,” runs the provocative slogan painted on the wall in the toilet. It is typical of Mooli’s unconvincing attempts to portray itself as all hip and rebellious. In reality, the business is run by two friends, an ex-City lawyer and a management consultant, who politely thank their backer, the Bank of Baroda, on their website. Indeed, for all the PR spin about how passionate the owners are about Indian street food, Mooli’s has the feel of somewhere that has been conceived, with cool corporate logic, as a novel fast food concept that could easily be rolled-out as a chain. And why not? Its food (if not the try-hard attitude) would certainly brighten up the British high street. These mooli – a tasty wholemeal roti wrap, filled and served like a burrito, wrapped in foil – may play fast and loose with notions of authenticity (what is that lettuce, tomato and red onion doing on there?), but they taste marvellous. The Guardian’s sampler of slowly braised beef is long on deep-set, beefy flavours, the Keralan spicing giving everything a spicy, fruity lift. Those salad bits, moreover, do actually – along with a smear of raita – give the wrap the cool, clean punctuation it needs.
• Mooli from £2.95-£5. 50. 50 Frith Street, W1
City Càphê, the City
London is currently in love with filled bánh mì, the lighter, thin-crust Vietnamese take on the French baguette. For an example of this stodge-free evolution in sandwich history, hunt out City Càphê, which you will find down an easily missed side street off Cheapside. Its bánh mì (“freshly baked every morning by an independent craft bakery”) are genuinely delicate and, likewise, the fillings have a real zing. A marinated pork sampler bristles with flavours: lime, lemongrass, chilli, a caramelised honeyed sweetness, aniseed hints of star anise. The meat is gloriously moist and tender, and swaddled in a daisy fresh layer of grated carrot, cucumber and coriander. The Càphê also serves various bún and pho noodle dishes, cuôn (Vietnamese spring rolls) and interesting Foco coconut, mango and pomegranate drinks. The staff are notably friendly. The small space (bright red enamelled furniture, yellow walls, colourful photos of Vietnam) is similarly jolly.
• Bánh mì from £3.75, noodle dishes from £5.90. 17 Ironmonger Lane, EC2
A deli spin-off from restaurant Bocca di Luppo, Gelupo extends chef Jacob Kennedy’s fascination with regional Italian food, at a fraction of the prices he charges across the road. It is best known for its refined gelato: incredibly smooth, creamy and clean-tasting ice-cream, made mainly with milk, rather than eggs and cream. Elsewhere, you will find lesser-spotted delicacies, such as sandwiches that use the spreadable Calabrian salami, n’duja, and homemade erbazzone, a kind of thin pie-pasty cross, filled with intensely flavoured combinations like pureed aubergine, pesto, pine nuts and fennel seeds. From the ice-cream flavours (hazelnut say, or ricotta and pear) to the baking (blood orange and almond polenta cake), it is all unusual, classy stuff. A boon for the gourmet traveller who is operating on a tight budget. If you want to linger, there are a handful of stools at a counter where you can sit and eat.
• Ice-cream from £3 (adult tub), sandwiches from £3. 7 Archer Street, W1
Lantana Cafe, Fitzrovia
Tiny Charlotte Place is an unusually laidback corner of London, an atmosphere which the Australian-owned Lantana does its best to maintain. The service can be deceptive. We have become so used to robotically programmed waiting staff that the unhurried, unscripted approach of Lantana’s Zen-like surfer dudes can initially seem a bit vague. It isn’t. The staff are just allowed to behave like (actually very helpful, pretty efficient) human beings. Relax. Go with the flow. The food is certainly worth it. If you want to eat-in, there’s a slightly cramped cafe space where you can enjoy interesting breakfasts, such as poached eggs with Sicilian ratatouille, good coffee and, later, great lunches. Lantana does a gourmet steak sandwich on sourdough which, at £11, is well worth stretching the budget for. Next door, Lantana Out serves fantastic cakes (£1-£1.50), salads, quiches and soups to takeaway. On this visit, a roast beef sandwich (£3.80) was exemplary: the beef pink, peppered, thick cut and served on real bread with caramelised onions, verdant rocket and a liberal smear of horseradish that started out fruity and built to a peak that felt like napalm on the old nasal hairs. Fantastic. If you’re really watching the pennies, Lantana’s wrap-soup-salad-sweet deals (£4.50-£6) are a good option.
• Lantana In, breakfast £2.50-£9, lunch dishes £4.50-£11. 13 Charlotte Place, W1No tags for this post.