March, 2004 -- London has always been the first choice for those seeking new trends in the wast area of what's called "cool." The biggest revolution for savvy travelers, though, has taken place on London's eating scene. New cuisines and revamped old ones -- Thai one year, sushi the next, and now new-wave Indian -- are storming through budget eateries. Healthy food, from freshly squeezed this to organic that, is converting the meat-and-two-veg crowd all across the city. Even pubs tend to offer much better fare, replacing congealed, prepacked sludge with hearty homemade dishes. Some have even turned into understated but stylish restaurants known as "gastropubs." The selections in this article are designed to guide you to the best value options and point out some of the locals' favorites. Take a break from sightseeing on at least 1 day, because it's at lunchtime that some of the celebrity chefs lower their prices enough to let in the rest of us.
Best Dining Bets on a Budget
Best Overall Value: The name of Nico Ladenis has been synonymous with splurgey London dining for decades, so it's a shock and a delight to find the ambrosial three-course lunch and early-bird menu at his new eatery, Incognico, 117 Shaftesbury Ave., WC2 (tel. 020/7836-8866), costs a mere £12.50 ($20). Nico has retired from the kitchen, but this remains a superb budget blow-out.
Best Fixed-Price Bargain: Indian food is the hot thing, so it seems fitting to split this accolade between a newer restaurant and an old friend. Masala Zone, 9 Marshall St., W1 (tel. 020/7287-9966), restyles traditional street food, offering thalis from £6 ($10): this meal on a tray includes a curry, bowls of vegetables, dal, yogurt curry, rice, poppadums, chapattis, chutneys, and raita. Or try a South Indian feast at long-time budget favorite, Diwana Bhel Poori House, 121 Drummond St., NW1 (tel. 020/7387-5556), for just £6.20 ($10), and you can bring your own wine with no charge.
Best for Families: Talking drink trolleys circle the restaurant like R2D2 while the food circles on a long conveyor belt. So tell me YO! Sushi isn't kid heaven! The restaurant's many branches are heaven for Mom and Pop, too, because at most branches the kids eat for free from Monday to Friday. There are scaled down and toned-down dishes for them, from chicken nuggets to fish fingers.
Best for a Grand Entrance: The sweeping staircase down into the multileveled Vong, Berkeley Hotel, Wilton Place, SW1 (tel. 020/7235-1010), could have been made for a royal entrance. And the £22.50 ($36) early- and late-bird menu is a fair deal for a "black plate" filled by Euro-celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
Best of Britain I: Lily Langtry and Edward VII used to tryst at Rules, 35 Maiden Lane, WC2 (tel. 020/7836-5314), and this 200-year-old restaurant still specializes in feathered and furred game-farmed now, rather than blasted onto the plate with a 12-bore shotgun.
Best of Britain II: Cabbies know everything, and they're always right, as you'll find out if you travel by taxi. Their vote goes to North Sea Fish Restaurant, 7-8 Leigh St., WC1 (tel. 020/7387-5892), for the national dish, fish 'n' chips.
Best Pub Grub: The beef-and-ale pie at the Museum Tavern, 49 Great Russell St., WC1 (tel. 020/7242-8987), is a hearty bite. Or, if you want to go gastro, check out the Atlas, 16 Seagrave Rd., SW6 (tel. 020/7385-9129), where the chef likes to apply a Spanish or a North African twist to his Mediterranean cuisine.
Best for Sunday Lunch: The three-course Sunday lunch at Maggie Jones's, 6 Old Court Place, off Kensington Church St., W8 (tel. 020/7937-6462), is like granny used to make, offering such national culinary treasures as roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and yum-scrum apple crumble.
Best Barbecues: Enjoy the sizzle and smells of steaks, lamb, sausages, and corn-fed chicken cooked to order by the Hellbergs, who run Arkansas Café, Old Spitalfields Market, E1 (tel. 020/7377-6999). Keir gets up at dawn to choose the best meat from Smithfield Market and posts the life story of each cut.
Best for Vegetarians: Amid the fleshpots of Soho, Mildred's, 58 Greek St., W1 (tel. 020/7494-1634), can do magical things with a pinto bean and organic wine.
Best for Nonsmokers: You can't light up at Wagamama, 4a Streatham St. (off Coptic Street), WC1 (tel. 020/7323-9223), which is fun and frantically busy anyway. Nor is nicotine allowed to yellow the shelves at top shop 'n' lunch spot, Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, W11 (tel. 020/7221-1992).
Best for a Romantic Dinner: No restaurant can rival the cozy candlelit charm of Andrew Edmunds, 46 Lexington St., W1 (tel. 020/7437-5708), where young locals whispering sweet nothings make up the bulk of the clientele. Afterward, wander the buzzy streets of Soho hand in hand.
Best View: Raise yourself above the hoi polloi in Covent Garden Piazza at Chez Gerard at the Opera Terrace, First Floor, Covent Garden Central Market, WC2 (tel. 020/7379-0666). Even the stilt-walkers won't be able to interrupt your meal.
Best for the Morning After: The Star Café, 22 Great Chapel St., W1 (tel. 020/7437-8778), does a fantastic all-day breakfast. And if the situation is grave enough, you can get a Bloody Mary from the pub downstairs.
Best Gory Story: The 17th-century It-girl Lady Elizabeth Hatton was murdered in Bleeding Heart Yard in the middle of her annual winter ball. Now some say she's a see-through regular at Bleeding Heart Tavern, off Greville St., EC1 (tel. 020/7404-0333), which you'll find in the yard today. This restored 1746 tavern serves earthy regional English cuisine and robust real ale.