Emica presents: Trafalgar Square tourist traps

London has been at the heart of foodie fashion for several years now but, just like the mullet haircut refusing to die in the face of more current tonsorial trends, the capital still has more than its fair share of fried chicken outlets, kebab joints and tired sandwich bars serving coronation chicken on white sliced, grimly hanging on to their positions on high streets and back alleys across the city. So what’s a hungry tourist to do?

A sandwich and a juice at one of the endless Pret-a-Manger or Starbucks will provide the necessary to keep you fuelled for sightseeing. But to get under the skin of London a little and experience something more than these chain stores’ identical offerings, replicating themselves like a virus afflicting prime locations, you don’t need to head off the beaten track – you just need a few local pointers.

The redevelopment of Trafalgar Square some years ago transformed it from a traffic-ridden hazard to one of the great public spaces: grand, accessible and at the heart of all things London. A food mecca it is unfortunately, and most emphatically, not. Stepping off the Square, however, offers some excellent eating options at reasonable prices – a double act that’s particularly hard to pull off in this most expensive of cities.

The fantastic thing about London is how compact the centre really is. Looking to the Tube map is actually misleading: what may take several stops and require changing lines can, in reality at street level, be a matter of a few blocks walking. So it is that Trafalgar Square is connected to Buckingham Palace via one of London’s most pleasant walks, under the Admiralty Arch and through St James Park. The Park, conveniently for the hungry tourist, is home to Inn The Park, a light, spacious restaurant and upmarket takeaway. Overlooking the duck pond, Inn The Park is popular with both sightseers en route to or from the Palace, Houses of Parliament or Big Ben and government bureaucrats from the ‘Westminster village’ because it so successfully achieves a relaxed, child-friendly café atmosphere, while serving excellent, seasonal and largely organic food at – for London – reasonable prices.

Inn The Park 1

On a warm day, choosing from the salad or sandwich options – no tuna-sweetcorn-mayonnaise here! – plus a delicious sweet something and an artisinal bottled juice and joining the office workers sunning themselves on the grass is an instant cure for sightseeing-fatigue.

Inn The Park outside

If, however, you are heading the other way out of Trafalgar Square, braving the reheated pizza hell that is the 10 minute walk towards Leicester Square and in need of a quick refuelling pit-stop, Gaby’s on the Charing Cross Rd is the place. Unprepossessing from the outside and with old-school formica tables inside, Gaby’s offers a range of Jewish and mezze style dishes like chickpea salads, eggplant with tahini and butterbeans cooked with onions and garlic, making it a great option for vegetarians. It’s not a vege establishment though and their salt beef sandwiches with mustard are famous. With the feel of a typical English caff and offering both dine-in or takeaway, Gaby’s is a low cost option serving an outstanding selection of European Jewish and more Mediterranean oriented food.

Gaby's Deli

Of course, you may have emerged from the labyrinthine National Gallery, blinking in the sunlight like a mole long under ground and in need of a restorative drink. Head down the Strand and right down Villiers St, towards Embankment Tube station, and you’ll be rewarded with Gordon’s Wine Cellars.

Gordon's outside

Overcome any doubts about its dubious appearance and take the precarious and rickety looking stairs and suddenly, what seemed like just a corridor, opens out into a surprisingly large underground drinking den. The small bar area stocks a wide range of wines by the glass or bottle – when I was there last, this included several sherries and a rather nice claret – but don’t ask me what vineyard it came from ‘cos I’d drunk quite a lot of it by then! Tucked into the subterranean foundation arches of the buildings above, perhaps even of Charing Cross Station itself, Gordon’s is intimate and highly atmospheric and not for the claustrophobic. Tables are close packed, candlelit and disappear into the gloom and the damp, curved brick ceiling is within touching distance. That’s touching distance when you’re sitting down. As a popular bar, there is spillover space outside, which would accommodate any severe claustrophobes or, indeed, any punter unluckily trying for a table on a busy Friday night.

Gordon's inside

If Gordon’s is too busy to fight to the bar, a short walk across the footbridge at Embankment Station to the Royal Festival Hall offers very different, but equally atmospheric drinking potential. Festival Hall has recently been stylishly refurbished at some expense and both the Hall itself and surrounds now offer chain and non-chain, budget and high end catering options. But for that riviera feeling, it must be the Riverside Terrace Café. Spilling out from the main foyer and overlooking Southbank promenade and its fairy-lit Plane trees, it offers tables with prime people watching positions and excellent light lunch. On a busy Sunday afternoon, tables on the Terrace Café can be in short supply, but views to accompany drinks need not be lost. Head up to the bar on the fourth floor for one of the most wonderful views in London. This nameless bar largely exists to serve audiences attending performances at the Hall, but it is open to the public and a ticket is not required to take the lift up, buy a drink, take up a position on the balcony and enjoy the spectacular views across the river towards Westminster and, to the east, Tower Bridge. Truly a magnificent experience.

FH Level 4 Bar

Being a tourist in one of the world’s great cities need not mean a diet of uninspiring and overpriced chain-store averageness, nor are Michelin stars required to avoid this fate. With a few pointers, it is entirely possible to eat well and drink in style in London, even in the most touristic of locations.


19 thoughts on “Emica presents: Trafalgar Square tourist traps

  1. Loved this post Emica. We are spending a couple of weeks in the UK in January – any advice for places near the British Museum? (staying in an appartment near there).

  2. Great post – so hard to know where to eat in that part of the world – this has been referred to my colleague, who is driving us crazy by salivating over her impending UK tour, and I hope she makes very good use of it

  3. Loved reading your article. What style, what wit, what a great start in your foodie life you had! Brought back a very happy memory of eating a very good sandwich and a little something, in the sunshine, on the Terrace outside Festival Hall on this day, last July. Well done, you!

  4. Thanks emica it might come in handy one day. I’m always a bit confused when arksed about London. I’ve been to Heathrow more than a few times but never outside the airport itself. Although last time the trip between terminals on the bus seemed to go about 10 ks or more.

    I’m shuffling off to Scotland, Ireland and Netherlands in a few weeks. In my usual careful fashion I’ve a spreadsheet (or two) with dates, where, how, times, flights, accommodation, car rental, bike rental and allocated costs etc. I know the costs ‘cos I’ve paid most in advance.

    I was however somewhat smacked of the gob to read in one guidebook that a recommended ordinary nosh place in Amsterdam was “only” a reasonable $45euros a meal. Yup about aus$90.

    Last I was in Hibernia and the Emerald isle the price and huge servings of what was mostly what we’d call here old school pub food, had me using supermarkets to scrabble together lunch most days.

    I was wondering what the serve volume and price was like in London?

  5. How I wish I knew all this last time there! But coffee? If there a better chain than Cafe Nero, you need to let us know. And Zoe, you’re going to need some regional categories soon! Melbourne, Sydney, London, New York…

  6. Thanks for the warm welcome 🙂

    @librarygirl –
    you’ve got some good options if you’re near the Brit Museum. Try the new Brunswick Centre, between Russel Square and Coram’s Fields for a range of reasonably priced options in nicely designed surroundings (eg, Carluccio’s). Also, if you have kids, Coram’s Fields is a historic children’s park with the wonderful Austrian-run Kipferl cafe. They have one other cafe near my office and it’s a shame for me that I can’t go to this one because I believe you need to be toting kiddies to be allowed into the Fields. If you’re near the top of New Oxford, Tottenham Court & Oxford St, try Inn Noodle where they make their own quick, cheap and very good noodles:

  7. @Francis Xavier Holden –
    yeah, prices are outrageous in the UK! When I was in Amsterdam years & years ago the only thing I could afford to eat was felafel! And it was very good too 🙂 I’m not sure if there’s an average serving size here, but I’ve always found I get given enough food, although my husband has had to fix a snack at home afterwards a few times.
    If you’re in the Highlands I would highly recommend seeking out the Loch Leven Seafood Cafe. It’s a low key cafe attached to their seafood packing shed. Outstandingly beautiful fresh seafood.

  8. @nigel –
    coffee is DIRE in London! There are about 6 places where you can get a decent coffee. Fortunately, two are near my office, two near my flat and one is run by Aussies in Soho. Will post on this topic soon

  9. FXH – I assume you know that if you’re headed to Ireland you should start getting over any coffee addiction you might have now. Because withdrawal on the plane and a holiday with a coffee headache is cruddy. The tea, however, is guaranteed to be strong and is almost always in a pot.

    There is some good food in Ireland, lots of Irish people have lived overseas or travelled a lot, but it can be expensive and hard to find. The serves are always generous in my experience.

  10. Great article Emica! A delight to imagine myself in a London summer, strolling in the park and looking for a comfy wine bar 🙂 I look forward to reading about real coffee available in London (can it be true?).

    I only wish we’d had the inside scoop when we were London tourists. A few dire “caf” meals was enough for us to start packing sandwiches!

  11. “coffee is DIRE in London!”

    It’s been a good long while since I was there, but when I was I had a good cup at H.R. Higgins. Having just come from Barcelona and hit major decent-espresso withdrawal, it was a blessed relief at the time.

  12. Nice one – I’m afraid my vision of London was based entirely on Nigella/Jamie and I thought it was some sort of gastronomic heaven with bounteous markets and millions of homely pubs doing fabulous things with sausages…

    (While we’re on the topic of european food, anyone got any Paris dining recommendations?)

  13. Pingback: Stuff I Like: Progressive Dinner Party | a shared table

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