Counting the pennies before payday? Even central London has some budget bites on offer. Find delicious grub in Zone 1 with our handy guide.
1. Pasta perfection in London Bridge: Padella
The menu at Padella, a bustling two-floor spot on the outskirts of Borough Market, is a paean to the transportive power of pasta. Stroll past before midday and you’ll see the chefs toiling away in the window, knocking out the fettuccine, pappardelle and wormy little strands of pici that will later be tossed up with things like eight-hour beef-shin ragu or cacio y pepe (cheese and pepper – a Roman classic good enough to get the Pope blaspheming). It’s a simple remit, fulfilled beautifully. Plus, you can get a plateful and a starter for less than £10 if you order correctly. Bellissimo!
What to order: Pici cacio y pepe, £6.50.
2. Bargain basement rotis in Euston: Roti King
Looks really are deceptive. Set in a basement in a forlorn back street in the epicurean badlands of Euston, Roti King might not inspire much confidence from the outside, but don’t be fooled. Down those drab stairs lies one of London’s finest, serving up incredible Malaysian roti (flatbreads) and curries to crammed, in-the-know diners. There’s always a bit of a wait, but the roti are worth it: flaky, dense and chewy all at once, utterly satisfying even without the superlative little bowls of dhal or fillings including cheese, meat and – good God! – caramelised banana. Bow to your new king.
What to order: Roti canai (two roti with dhal), £5.
3. Superb steamed buns in Soho: Bao
Soho’s Bao, a market stall-turned-restaurant hawking the titular Taiwanese stuffed ’n’ steamed buns, might be one of the most relentlessly praised eateries going, but it remains a great spot for bargain scoffing, queues be damned. (Caveat: its Windmill Street branch takes basement bookings.) The menu is as minimalist as the tranquil wooden interior, featuring meticulous little dishes like pig’s blood cake, aged beef rump cap (the only thing costing more than a fiver), scallop with yellow bean garlic and, obviously, the selection of house bao. The pork and peanut ‘classic’ is the, er, classic, but save room for the knockout fried Horlicks and ice cream iteration.
What to order: ‘Classic’ bao, £4.
4. Houmous heaven in Soho: Hummus Brothers
Some might dismiss the notion of houmous as a ‘main’, but as anyone who’s spoiled dinner by chomping through a pot of Sabra can attest, there’s great substance to the Levantine super-dip. And Hummus Brothers has been wowing with it for years. The Wardour Street hub may be a utilitarian box, but the houmous is killer: smoother than usual and tahini-heavy, a perfect bed for toppings of chicken, falafel, feta, guacamole and so on.
What to order: Our meal deal, which gets you a main, a side and a drink for £5.
5. Good, clean, Hawaiian fun in Carnaby: Island Poke
A serene Polynesian-themed lunch spot, Island Poké is arguably the city’s premier peddler of the achingly trendy Hawaiian raw fish dish. There are nods to Japanese and Californian style too. The process is simple. Pick a rice (brown or sushi), a marinated fish (tuna or salmon) and sprinkles, dressings or toppings (pineapple chilli salsa, wakame, nori, shallots, seeds, avocado…), and bingo: there’s your bowl. Despite the punchy flavours, it’s wholesome stuff – unless you decide to slather the lot with sriracha mayo, which of course you will.
What to order: House ahi bowl, £7.80.
6. Cut-price canteen curries in Fitzrovia: Indian YMCA
Who knew London’s best-value Indian was an unprepossessing canteen kitchen attached to a hostel in deepest Fitzrovia? Plenty, as it happens. The Indian YMCA’s dining room dishes up home-style curries and sundries to legions of Indian students and local office workers for crazily little cash (£3 meat curry, £1.70 rice, £1.50 bhajis and samosas). There’s not an iota of luxury: it’s counter service and the dining room itself, with its formica tables and dowdy upholstery, wouldn’t look out of place on a car ferry. Tourists may baulk, but this is
a bona fide institution, dhaling.
What to order: Daily set menu, £8.
7. Diamond paella in Hatton Garden: Oh'Lola
Ah, paella, a Spanish classic too often maligned as a holiday horrorshow – piffling little prawns grimly adrift in a sea of salty grains. Not so at Oh’Lola, which has reclaimed Valencia’s finest dish as a plate to be proud of. It’s primarily a chic, colourful lunch spot, so the paellas on offer (chicken, seafood and veggie, plus alternating specials of black rice and pasta versions) are served up in boxes. There’s also a wider menu of croquettas, tortillas, calamari and octopus to further slake any Iberian cravings. Portions are decent and, as befits the Hatton Garden location, prices are a steal.
What to order: Seafood paella, £7.
8. Punchy Peruvian street food in Chinatown: Butifarra
It’s easy to assume Peru’s food culture starts and ends with ceviche, and while this informal little picanteria – with garish, llama-embroidered upholstery and primary-coloured walls – does an excellent line in zingy cured seafood, the pull here is filling fare of a more rustic variety. At Butifarra, think savoury corn pancakes, caramel-slathered cookies and the banging, beautiful butifarra itself: a chewy roll stuffed with roast pork (beef short rib, chicken and smoked duck are also options) and doused in red onion salsa and sweet-potato mayo – a delectable, Catalonian-influenced hangover from Peru’s heyday as a hot spot for conquistadors.
What to order: Pachamanca pork butifarra, £6.30.
9. Prix-fixe Parisian classics in Piccadilly: Brasserie Zedel
The gents behind the Wolseley founded Brasserie Zédel in hommage to the grand, egalitarian Parisian brasseries of yesteryear. Thus, down in this cavernous Piccadilly basement (imagine the ballroom from ‘The Shining’ but liberally coated with gold leaf) you’ll find a mixed bunch – canny tourists, thrifty first-daters, seasoned gourmands and celebrating families among them – scoffing their way through the lengthy menu of classic French fare: from snails and onion soup, through steak haché and chicken in champagne, to crème brûlée and tarte tatin. It’s traditionally French, so there’s not a lot for veggies here. It’s also preposterously reasonable: the prix fixe menu is London’s single greatest edible bargain.
What to order: The two-course prix fixe. For example: £9.75 carottes râpées and steak haché.
10. No-frills Jewish goodness in Soho: Tongue & Brisket
The interior of kosher-style deli Tongue & Brisket is pretty humdrum, but with a warm, caff-ish atmosphere and food this good, you’d be a schmuck to complain. There are plenty of authentic Jewish titbits behind the counter (liver, latka, chicken soup, fish balls and such) but salt beef is the star here; a hulking great slab of it sits in the window. And, oy vey, the go-to sandwich is a showstopper: caraway-studded rye crammed with glistening, deep-pink beef, plus pickles and sinus-stripping mustard for good measure (sauerkraut’s extra, but at 30p, it’s a no-brainer).
What to order: Salt beef sandwich, £5.60.