This prominent corner pub opposite Tooting Bec tube used to be a rough joint inhabited by slightly scary alcoholics. Now, there are mismatched mirrors on the walls, red leather chesterfields, Daft Punk on the sound system, and a big sign above the bar stating, optimistically, ‘Yummy food coming soon’.
The congested road between Tooting and Colliers Wood might not be the first place you’d look for a fine local gastropub, but this railway tavern perched above Tooting train station was taken over by the Charles Wells pub company in 2012 and given a major overhaul. In collaboration with the Yummy Pub Company, it now boasts a remarkably ambitious menu of small eats and more substantial main courses. We couldn’t fault either our pie and chips or a club sandwich - though, if anything, the dish presentation was verging on the overly fussy (a bit like the new decor). To drink, there’s a decent selection of ales, and if you’re in the mood for a bit of local cinema, the basement has been converted into a small screening room with blockbuster-style movies such as the ‘Bourne’ series.
The Castle has been home to a public house since 1832, although its newly revamped decor is anything but 19th century. This Young's pub now features a British gastropub menu with Meantime brews in tanks, among many other tipples. The new garden - where a car park used to be – was added in summer 2014. It has various outdoor seating areas including cabana-style huts and outdoor heating on demand. The menu holds few surprises - burgers, pies, roast meats, fish and chips. Our chicken, ham and leek pie was standard pub fare, served with mash and a tiny and superfluous saucepan of gravy. The main attraction here is undoubtedly the garden (on warm days).
Cheap eats in south London
Sri Lankan restaurant
Disco lights twinkle round the door, cheap wall art depicts idyllic mountain scenes, but it’s the cooking that attracts devotees of fiery food to this modest Tooting eaterie. Prices are divertingly low: especially when you factor-in the BYO policy. Street food snacks (‘short eats’) include croquette-like mutton rolls (with clove-spiked meat fillings). Follow them with rich, warmly spiced crab masala – claws and all. Worth getting messy for.
Unlicensed: no corkage charge.
Meal for two with soft drinks and service: around £20.
If you’re happy eating on the hoof, Borough Market is one of the best places in London to find a lunch for around a fiver from Mon-Sat. Highlights include the Brindisa stall, Kappacasein toasted cheese sandwiches, and many more. The market exists in skeleton form from Monday to Wednesday, so pop along in the latter half of the week for the full experience. If you want to miss the crowds, a morning visit is advisable.
Takeaway meal per head: around £5-£7.
Saturday produce market
This friendly market in Lewisham College car park is a great place to grab a bite as you do your weekly grocery shop. A regular gang of star-studded street food vendors includes Spit & Roast with deep-fried buttermilk chicken baps, Mike & Ollie with Lebanese-style flatbread wraps, Fleischmob serving Austrian schnitzel, plus juicy beef patties in glazed buns from Mother Flipper.
From £4.50-£7.50 per dish.
Tucked in a corner of the Surrey Quays Shopping Centre car park, Café East rewards intrepid diners who manage to find it. Inside, the sparsely furnished room has big square tables packed with happily guzzling South-east Asian customers. The menu is an edited-down list, each dish portrayed in an adjoining colour pic. Try the herby summer rolls and the beautifully flavoured pho noodle soup. Prices are low, making this an ideal place for groups to enjoy a veritable Vietnamese banquet. Unlicensed; no alcohol allowed.
Meal for two with soft drinks and service: around £25.
This Balham restaurant may look suspiciously like a building site – all bright lights, rough-hewed woods and huge metal scaffolding poles (a deliberate design element) – but Balham’s Beyrouths, which serves the food of Beirut, Lebanon, is surprisingly polished. Friendly, efficient staff dish out a roll-call of crowd-pleasers: from well-made houmous (garnished with virgin olive oil and fresh pomegranate seeds) to juicy pieces of grilled lamb and deliciously smoky baba ganoush. Portion sizes are decent.
Meal for two with drinks and service: around £30.
Tooting’s long been a place for great Indian food, but Chicken Shop is its first really stylish bar and grill. No prizes for guessing what they serve, but they do a simple thing very well indeed. No bookings: arrive off-peak if you don’t want to wait at the tiny bar.
Meal for two with drinks and service: around £40.
South Indian and Sri Lankan café
Classic South Indian breakfast and snack dishes are beautifully rendered at this basically furnished Tooting café. Rarely have we seen such a perfect dosai: crisp on the outside, moist and rice-fragrant on the inside, served with rich sweet sambar (spicy lentil dip). Most of these meals cost under £3. The non-veg options are OK – mutton and chicken, mostly – but meat-free food is the star.
Meal for two with soft drinks and service: around £18.
Eritrean and Thai café
This little licensed caff in Vauxhall serves fry-ups for breakfast, then a Thai menu for lunch. But it’s in the evening that it comes into its own as an Eritrean restaurant. More than 30 Eritrean dishes are produced, ranging from dorho (spicy chicken stew) to kitfo (finely chopped rare beef seasoned in ghee with herbs and paprika). We recommend the ‘special platters’, which feature a dazzling variety of dishes from the à la carte. Just one special platter feeds two people easily. To finish, try the Eritrean coffee ceremony at £7 for two people.
Meal for two with drinks and service: around £30.
This no-bookings, cash-only Chinese café in Clapham is an offshoot of the original in Brixton Village Market. The seating may be cramped, and you might have to queue, but the food is consistently good. Try the pork buns, which look like meat-filled muffins, or a generous portion of spicy chicken ban mein noodles. And leave room if you can for some smacked cucumber: a new classic.
Meal for two with drinks and service: around £22.