Food in London: A Cheapo’s Guide

Confession: I find it incredibly difficult to budget for food in London because THERE IS SO MUCH GOOD FOOD AROUND! I thought I had brought quite a bit of money on my last trip to the English capital in March 2017 but unfortunately, I treated myself so much that I had to borrow some money from my girlfriend to tide over my last few days there. Friends whom I had traveled together with will tell you that I am notoriously tight on my spending so… I guess this is a strong indicator of how much I love the food there. My personal opinion is that the only other city that tops London when it comes to variety and quality of food is Singapore.

Mind you, it’s not just the restaurants that serve excellent food. You’d be surprised when you first taste food from the English street markets and take-outs!

So, for first time visitors to my second favourite place in the world, in a personally compiled and non-exhaustive list, here is my take on the must-haves in London:

  1. The Mac Factory
Super Mario Mac & Cheese from Camden Market in London.

I am salivating as I write this because this is LITERALLY a symphony in your mouth. I told my girlfriend specifically on my 2nd last trip to London that I wanted to visit Camden Lock Market again just to have the mac & cheese there. Don’t just take my word for it though. Take a quick walk around the market; you’ll find lads from this shop handing out mac & cheese samples and you can decide after that if it’s worth your money.

The one that I always get is called Super Mario and it contains sautéed portobello mushrooms, truffle oil and wild garlic. Fun fact: I happen to be a total meat person and the fact that I am willing to give up meat for this particular dish shows that I really really love it.

They do have quite a few other flavours such as the Mambo Italiano, which contains smoked pancetta (that’s a sort of bacon), sautéed mushrooms and garlic oil as well as the Lobster Mac which is made of lobster poached in a garlic and parsley butter with lemon garnish. These definitely do sound appealing! Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the rest since I haven’t actually gotten around to trying them because this one gets me every time. However, if their Super Mario is that good, I am confident that the rest will probably be at least on par with this one.

Price wise, it’s one of the most affordable and tasty dishes I had in London at £6.50. Best of all, when I was there on a weekday for lunch, they offered a free coke or a bottle of water with every mac & cheese so that is definitely some value there.

Pro-tip: check out Groupon UK for any other food promotions the Mac Factory might have!

The smile on my face after my first taste of The Mac Factory’s mac & cheese tells it all.

Price range: £6.50 for all mac & cheese except the Lobster Mac, which is around £8.50 if I’m not mistaken.
Address: Camden Lock Market (look out for kerb markets right across from Cafe Chula alongside the canal entrance)
Nearest tube station: Camden Town Station (Northern/black line, zone 2)
Opening hours: Monday — Sunday, 11am — 5pm

2. Flat Iron Steak

Flat iron steak with fries for two!

I’m actually a little apprehensive about recommending Flat Iron Steak because the staff weren’t the nicest when I visited the place the last time with a couple of friends (I had to sit alone because the waitress refused to add another chair to the table) and because while the steak is nice, it isn’t exactly on the level of spectacular. With that being said, it’s here because it’s typically one of the places to eat at while visiting London.

Flat Iron Steak gets its name from the cut of meat that the restaurant uses which is of the same name. According to Wikipedia, “it is a cut of steak cut with the grain from the shoulder of the animal”. The steak itself is good — it is flavourful and juicy, just as how a steak should be done.

The sides are pretty decent as well. Nat loves the fries there and she orders it every time she is there. I decided to try the creamed spinach the last time I was there and it tasted pretty good as well. This is possibly because I like creamy stuff, so if you are not into butter and other dairy products, you might wish to opt for the chips instead. If price is not a major factor, why not get both as sides to get the full Flat Iron Steak experience!

I don’t normally order drinks so I’ll be hard-pressed to recommend any. Nat however, loves the strawberry and basil drink they serve so if you happen to like berries, you might want to give this a try as well.

To me, prices here are on the heftier side, but a quick look on Facebook shows that the perception of high prices are completely relative and that they are only high if you are a student or if you are on a budget. I’ll just give a quick rundown of the prices here and you can decide for yourself: prices start at £10 for just the steak and a side salad and sides such as the chips and creamed spinach go for about £3 each. There is a service charge as well, so do be prepared to pay an additional 10% on top of your bill. All in all, you should expect to pay about £14-£15 for your meal, depending on the number of sides you purchase.

With all that has been said, if you have not eaten at Flat Iron Steak before, do make it a point to visit the restaurant at least once!

Pro-tip: Do make a reservation in advance or make your way there for an early lunch/dinner or a late lunch, as queues can keep you waiting for about half an hour or so if you happen to be there during peak hours!

Price range: typically £14-£20+, depending on what you choose to order.
Address:

  • 17 Beak St, Carnaby, London W1F 9RW, UK [Nearest tube station: Oxford Circus (Bakerloo/brown Line or Central/red Line, zone 1) or Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly/dark blue Line or Bakerloo/brown Line, zone 1)]
  • 9 Denmark St, London WC2H 8LS, UK [Nearest tube station: Tottenham Court Road (Central/red Line or Northern/black line, zone 1)]
  • 77 Curtain Rd, London EC2A 3BS, UK [Nearest tube station: Old Street (Northern/black Line, zone 1)]
  • 17–18 Henrietta St, London WC2E 8QH, UK [Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly/dark blue Line or Northern/black Line, zone 1)

Opening hours: differs across all four outlets and even across the days of the week, but all of them open from Monday — Sunday, 1200–2300.

3. Poppie’s Fish and Chips

Fish & chips has to be on this list because as I recently found out, it is one of the national dishes of England (surprise!) and in a list of top foods in London, it is definitely a must to include its national dish. The golden question then is, which outlet in London serves the best fish & chips? To that, my answer is Poppie’s.

If you happen to be thinking, “Why is this fella recommending me fish & chips when ALL FRIED FOOD TASTES THE SAME?”, I used to have the same mentality so you are not alone. The strange thing is that I only liked Poppie’s after trying it for the second time. My first taste of the fish & chips from Poppie’s didn’t exactly blow me away, but I guess it was a good idea to give it another go cos I really enjoy it now.

So, what is the difference between Poppie’s and say fish from Long John Silver’s? For one, Poppie’s has good fish. I’m not talking about the frozen sort of batang fish from some huge wholesale supplier. Okay to be honest, the fish sold by Poppie’s could fall under the same category and I might never know. However, what I do know is that I could still taste the cod fish after they deep fry the whole fillet, which is actually a surprising thing to me. This means that the fish isn’t so small to the extent that I can only taste the batter, which tends to happen at some food outlets that are more eager to cut costs.

If that isn’t convincing enough, the chips here are excellent. They are served hot and they are crispy and they are really that good. For big eaters: I couldn’t finish my fries. If you know me, you’d know that I can be quite a big eater (my Instagram handle is hungryjireh, so there you go), so that speaks tons about the portions served at Poppie’s.

In short, at Poppie’s, you get to enjoy a taste of fluffy cod fish enveloped in a crispy batter with a massive side of hot, crispy chips. If that sounds delicious to you, I assure you that it most definitely is.

Poppies’ Fish & Chips (this one was from the Chinatown area)

Price range: a typical set of fish & chips are about £8.50 for a takeaway and £11.70 for a dine-in
Address: Camden Market, Units 339–341, Stables Market, Chalk Farm Road, London NW1 8AH
Nearest tube station: Camden Town Station (Northern/black line, zone 2)
Opening hours: 11am — 11pm (except Friday & Saturday, where it closes at 12am)
OR
Old Spitalfields Market, Unit SP4C, Old Spitafields Market, 12 Horner Square
Nearest tube station: Liverpool Street Underground Station (Circle/yellow Line, Hammersmith/pink Line, Metropolitan/maroon Line, Central/red Line)
Opening hours: 11am — 11pm (Mondays — Thursdays), closes at 11.30pm on Fridays and Saturdays and 10.30pm on Sundays

4. Island Poke

A Hawaiian poke bowl with tuna sashimi and a variety of other toppings!

One of the perks of having a girlfriend who loves Japanese food more than you do is that there is always a need to find the next best Japanese food shop. And so a quick Google search brought us to Island Poke. And the first visit led us to our second visit there more than a week later so that is how you know that you have really found excellent Japanese/Hawaiian food.

The concept is simple: choose a base (either sushi rice/brown rice/salad (don’t do that to yourself here, please), a main (either ahi tuna with shoyu dressing, salmon with yuzu dressing or beetroot with chili lime shoyu (don’t do that to yourself here either) and you then either “go unlimited” for £1 or you are done with your bowl.

What does “going unlimited” mean? It basically means that you get to choose any number of toppings from a pre-selected range for only a pound. Yes, so you get to choose toppings like kimchi, pineapple, mango, edamame and wakame among many others by just adding a pound to the base price of £7.50 — which is a steal, to say the least.

The portions here are also massive. And it’s not all rice — in fact, rice only occupies a third or less of the bowl — and the rest of it is literally filled with toppings. To me, the only other place that is at least on par or that has something slightly better to offer than this is Singapore’s Teppei Syokudo.

If you are into health stuff or if you love sashimi and if you love Teppei’s kaisen bowl as much as I do, you need to visit Island Poke when you are in London.

Round 2: it’s the same order again because yes, it’s that good.

Price range: £7.50 — £8.50 (YOU MUST SPEND THAT POUND!)
Address: 8 Kingly St, Carnaby, London W1B 5PQ, UK
Nearest tube station: Oxford Circus (Bakerloo/brown Line or Central/red Line, zone 1)
Opening hours: 8am — 8pm (Mondays — Fridays), 12pm — 7pm on Saturdays and 12pm — 4pm on Sundays

5. Duck & Waffle

Half a waffle with a crispy duck leg confit, a fried duck egg and mustard maple syrup.

One of the cool things about Duck & Waffle is that it opens 24/7. Yes, there is a fine dining restaurant that overlooks the London skyline that is open throughout the day and that is pretty amazing in itself.

No, Duck & Waffle is not cheap. Is it one of the places that you have to visit when you are in London? I’m not too sure about that. The duck leg is pretty good, definitely. Crispy on the outside, tender on the inside, it was a quite a gastronomic experience. The fact that they serve duck eggs sunny-side up is interesting as well, given that I’ve only had chicken and quail eggs before (I’ve had century eggs, yes, but I’m honestly not sure which animal they came from).

For me, the struggle comes down to the price. It’s £17 before service charge, so the bill comes out to about £20 without drinks. Is it worth it? Tough to say. I liked the crispy duck leg but I love my Chinese 烧鸭, which only costs me about $4 in Singapore. Is it a must to try a duck egg? After trying it once, I don’t think so. The chef might have used a chicken egg and I would have been none the wiser. I’ve also tasted better waffles back in Singapore. The mustard maple syrup was new but I honestly could have done without it as well.

I guess it honestly depends on your personal tastes and preferences. For starters, where else can you get a beautiful view of London from while having a delicious meal? Also, where else can you find this view for just the price of a meal (essentially, free-of-charge)?

View of London from the Heron Tower

Nat also mentioned that her friend visited Duck & Waffle in the wee hours of the morning to catch the sunrise, which sounds like a pretty good idea and a really good deal to me. When you put into perspective that the price of taking the elevator up to the highest floor in The Shard (an iconic 95-storey skyscraper in London) is more than £20, my friend, you should choose instead to visit Duck & Waffle twice.

A sneak peek of the interior of the restaurant.

Pro-tip: Do make a booking in advance if you intend to visit Duck & Waffle. We had to make ours a few weeks in advance and we only managed to get a 4pm slot for a weekday.

Price range: £20 and above, depending on what you choose to order.
Address: 110 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AY, UK
Nearest tube station: Liverpool Street Underground Station (Circle/yellow Line, Hammersmith/pink Line, Metropolitan/maroon Line, Central/red Line)
Opening hours: 24 hours!

6. Burger & Lobster

1 pound grilled lobster with lemon & garlic butter sauce and sides of chips and salad

Make no mistake, this is definitely not for cheapos. This is the most expensive restaurant on this list, but it also happens to be completely worth its price. To quote a friend whom I visited the restaurant with, “Burger & Lobster is not overrated at all.”

The concept used to be simple: you either choose to get a beef burger or a lobster. Over the years, they have expanded their menu but the food remains excellent.

Because I’d tried the lobster before, I wanted to get something to share with Nat when we brought our friend here. They happen to have a burger & lobster combo for £26 (if I’m not wrong about the price) and as I was on a budget, I wanted to save money. In the end, since we don’t get to visit the restaurant very often, we decided to ball and get one set of lobster each. That is how good the food there is.

The lobster is perfectly done, with a nice seared taste. The lemon and garlic butter sauce is better — smooth, creamy and tasty. It isn’t too salty or sour, so they basically successfully ‘Goldilocks’ed it. A combined mouthful of the lobster with the sauce is simply a symphony on your tongue.

You have to try it to believe it. Take it for someone who has been convincing people to cook and scrimp to save money. Maybe these could be the sort of things you save for and splurge on every once in awhile to remind yourself that you are still on a holiday.

Price range: £23 for a basic one-pound lobster set; £26 including service charge. Prices are generally £30 or more per head.
Address:

  • 1 Bread St, London EC4M 9BE, UK [Nearest tube station: Mansion House Station (Circle & District/yellow & green Line)]
  • 36–38 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 4PS, UK [Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly/dark blue Line or Northern/black Line, zone 1)]
  • Hertsmere Rd, Canary Wharf, London E14 4AY, UK [Nearest tube station: Canary Wharf (Jubilee/grey Line, zone 2)]
  • 29 Clarges St, Mayfair, London W1J 7EF, UK [Nearest tube station: Green Park (Jubilee/grey Line, Victoria/light blue Line, Piccadilly/dark blue Line, zone 1)]
  • 6 Little Portland St, Fitzrovia, London W1W 7JE, UK [Nearest tube station: Oxford Circus (Bakerloo/brown Line or Central/red Line, zone 1)]
  • Harvey Nichols, 109–125 Knightsbridge, Belgravia, London SW1X 7RJ, UK [Nearest tube station: Hyde Park Corner Underground (Piccadilly/dark blue Line, zone 1)]
  • 26 Binney St, Mayfair, London W1K 5BN, UK [Nearest tube station: Oxford Circus (Bakerloo/brown Line or Central/red Line, zone 1)]
  • 10 Wardour St, London W1D 6QJ, UK [Nearest tube station: Piccadilly Circus (Piccadilly/dark blue Line or Bakerloo/brown Line, zone 1)]
  • 52 Threadneedle St, London EC2R 8AR, UK [Nearest tube station: Bank (Central/red Line)]

Opening hours: Varies, but generally open from 12pm to 10pm everyday for most outlets