London is one of the world's great dining capitals. Here you can experience a global range of cuisines, anything from a traditional English feast to the regional cooking of countries spread around the globe, from Italy to India.
The last few years have been momentous for the London restaurant scene. Top-end places can no longer rest on their laurels; they are dealing with educated, well-traveled, and opinionated customers who know the value of a meal.
On top of that, the "gastropub" has become a force to be reckoned with. Young chefs have taken over moribund pubs, filled them with odd pieces of furniture, and now offer top cooking at less-than-top prices. Some are in the city center, but you'll also find many gastropubs in residential neighborhoods outside the usual tourist areas.
A big change in London has been the geographic shift from the West End to East London, where new cafes and small restaurants have emerged in what is now a dynamic part of the capital.
But perhaps the greatest coming-of-age for London's restaurants is the acknowledgement from the rest of the world that London is now a gastronomic world-class city. The internationally famous chef Joël Robuchon has described London as "possibly the gastronomic capital of the world," because all that is new and innovative in cooking and the restaurant world now originates in Britain's capital city.
It's all good news for restaurant-goers: Eating out in London offers more choice, more value, and more fun than ever.
Theater Dining - Restaurants in Soho, Covent Garden, the Strand, and Piccadilly Circus & Leicester Square are candidates for dining before or after a show in London's Theatreland.
Hours -- Restaurants in London keep varied hours, but in general, lunch is served from noon to 2pm and dinner from 6:30 to 9:30pm, although more restaurants are staying open later these days. Sunday is the usual closing day for restaurants, but there are exceptions. (Many also close for a few days around Christmas, so call ahead during the holidays.)
Prices -- Price categories above are based on a typical main course. Very expensive (££££) = £75+; Expensive (£££) = £17+; Moderate (££) = £10 to £17; Inexpensive (£) = under £10. But remember these are average prices.
Reservations -- Nearly all establishments, except pubs, cafes, and fast-food joints, prefer or require reservations. Almost invariably, you get a better table if you book in advance. For a few of the best, you must reserve weeks in advance, even before leaving home. (Always confirm your reservation nearer the time.) However, if you don't have reservations, even at a "reservations required" restaurant, it's worth checking; if they have room, you won't be turned away. If you're staying in one of London's top hotels, you might get lucky by asking the concierge for help with hard-to-get reservations. The free app Uncover hooks you up with last-minute availability at the tendiest and busiest restaurants.
Restaurant booking websites are useful, both for specific restaurants and if you're uncertain of where to eat. Top Table (www.toptable.com) has a large selection of London restaurants. You enter details (number of people, location, and so on), check the list and details like a typical menu, reviews, any special offers, and then book online. OpenTable.co.uk runs a similar service.
Restaurant Deals -- Look to the Internet for occasional impressive discounts on London dining. Websites promoting special deals include Lastminute.com and Squaremeal.co.uk. It's also worth subscribing to regular newsletters such as those emailed weekly by Lovefoodlovedrink.co.uk and Travelzoo.com, and signing up to deals websites such as LivingSocial (www.livingsocial.com) or Groupon (www.groupon.com). For a top meal at reasonable prices, many destination restaurants offer set-price lunch deals, as well as limited, but top-quality pre- and post-theatre menus. Some London and U.K. newspapers run promotions (usually during January and February). Keep an eye on local press.
Taxes & Tipping -- Charges for service, as well as any minimums or cover charges, must be made clear on the menu, and all prices shown must include 20% VAT. Most restaurants add a 10% to 15% service charge to your bill. But beware, some may add the service charge, but still leave the total blank on your credit card payment, a deplorable practice that's fortunately not widespread. If nothing has been added, leave a 10% to 15% tip as long as you were happy with the service.
The Best Places for a Cheap & Cheerful Meal
London has its fair share of good, cheap places to eat; you just need to know where to look.
Chipotle, 114-116 Charing Cross Rd., WC2 (tel. 020/7836-8491; Tube: Tottenham Court Rd.), is part of a large American chain, and the place for burrito wraps. Try the chicken variety at £6.60. A meal costs around £10. Hours are Monday to Saturday 11:30am to 11pm, Sunday 11am to 10:30pm.
Gourmet San, 261 Bethnal Green Rd., E2 (tel. 020/7729-8388; Tube: Bethnal Green), is considered by some as London's best no-frills Szechuan cooking; certainly it's among the most fiery. A meal costs around £8. It's open daily 8:30am until 230pm.
Open Kitchen, 40 Hoxton St., N1 (tel. 020/7613-9590; www.openkitchen.biz; Train: Hoxton), is the training restaurant for the London City Hospitality Centre (LCHC), so you'll get ambitious cooking with great ingredients at unbelievable prices. Starters cost £4, mains £7, and desserts £4. It's open Monday to Friday noon until 2pm, and Wednesday through Friday 6 to 8:30pm.
The Stockpot, 273 King's Rd, Chelsea SW3 5EN (tel. 020/7823-3175; www.stockpotchelsea.co.uk), has been feeding impoverished Londoners for 50 years, and is still London's best budget pit-stop. Dinner menus range from £6.50 to £14.90. It's open Monday-Satrday 9am until 11pm and Sunday 11:30am to 11pm.
Everybody who goes to Wong Kei, 41-43 Wardour St., W1 (tel. 020/7437-8408; Tube: Piccadilly Circus), complains about the service and sometimes the food. But somehow it's part of a visit to London. It's cheap, packed, serves a huge Chinese menu, and the service is reassuringly consistent -- always bad. Meals are served Monday to Saturday between noon and 11:30pm, Sunday noon to 10:30pm.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.