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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.