Finding somewhere decent to eat on a budget isn’t always easy in central London, but if you know where to look, there’s plenty to sink your teeth into in the Covent Garden area. From British to Japanese, Indian or vegetarian have a look at our top picks below. Do you agree with our choices? Use the comments box below or tweet your suggestions.
Getting your hands on Osaka’s most famous street food, okonomiyaki, has got much easier in London over the past couple of years. But for our money this stalwart (and sister restaurant Abeno by the British Museum) are still the best for the full experience. Pop your bags and coats in the cleverly designed chest seating, then watch as the staff diligently mix the thick pancake-like batter in front of you, before cooking it on table and counter-top grills.
There’s a bunfight brewing in London. Just a few weeks ago I was raving about the kannelbullar (cinnamon buns) at Fabrique in Haggerston. Now, just like Scandi crime novels, there’s already another thriller in town – the Swedish bakery (‘bageriet’) in Covent Garden is also a contender for producing the capital’s best buns. Bageriet was opened by bakers Daniel Karlsson and Sven-Gunnar Appelgren at the beginning of May.
At Baozi Inn, kitsch Communist Revolution decor meets northern Chinese street food tidied up for London. True to Sichuanese form, red is present in most dishes – if not as a slick of potent chilli oil, then in lashings of sliced or whole chillies. Beware of the generously portioned spicy beef noodles: the soup is topped with a layer of tongue-numbing chilli oil. Dan dan noodles, cucumber salad and crescent dumplings are all good choices, especially when accompanied by fresh, unsweetened hot soy milk.
Venue says: “Why not come in and try some delicious seasonal red cabbage with your pie and mash. Don't forget to include lashings of gravy!”
With bargain prices and proper British food, this pie and mash house – signed simply ‘The Pie Shop’ – is something of an anomaly among the tourist traps of Covent Garden Market. It’s housed in one of the refurbished arches, keeping the traditional exterior and flagstone floor, but the fixtures and fittings are stylish and modern: bright white tiles, polished marble tables and a shiny aluminium counter.
A swish Bombay brasserie in the style of the old post-colonial 'Irani cafés' of Bombay, Dishoom is filled with retro design features: whirring ceiling fans, low-level lighting and walls adorned with vintage Indian magazine advertising. The look is certainly distinctive, but the effect can be so slick when compared to the real thing that the venue can feel rather soulless and corporate. This doesn’t stop the design-conscious and Indophile thronging here through the day, from breakfast (for sausage nan rolls with chilli jam) to dinner (for the stir-fries and tandoori grills).
It’s not how big it is: it’s what you do with it. Take this new joint in Neal’s Yard’s, which is serving pizzas that wouldn’t be out of place on ‘Man v. Food’. Served fresh from the wood-fired oven, most of these thin crusts are available by the slice (£4). Or, you can order a whole 20-incher (£20), which is enough to feed you and two of your pals. They’ll even let you have more than one choice of the topping selections if you ask nicely.
This canteen-cum-social club with a 1970s interior evidently doesn’t feel it needs a makeover. At 8pm on a Thursday night it was packing in the punters – City gents, high-street workers and students. With no concessions to comfort or aesthetics, its winning formula is cheap Indian food, and has been for decades. The restaurant is unlicensed but the small downstairs bar enables you to cash-and-carry bottles of beer to your classroom-style table.
Growing up in south London, I was never too far from a Jamaican patty. From corner shops to shabby jerk shacks, there was no shortage of places to pick up a filled parcel of dayglo yellow pastry. Even the local fish and chip shops sold them. Sadly, a lot of the pasties round my way were not up to proper Caribbean standards – often limp, sweaty and mass-produced. You won’t find a south London letdown at Covent Garden’s new patty stop. Instead, these patties are golden-hued, fresh from the oven and filled with anything from jerk chicken to prawns or curried goat.
London may have swooned for Ottolenghi and Yalla Yalla, but this homage to Egypt’s hole-in-the-wall koshari vendors, from food writer and champion of Levantine cooking Anissa Helou, is still a brave move. The small, pristine space with a stainless steel counter is slightly reminiscent of a school canteen: there are a handful seats along one wall. This is really a takeaway joint, with a menu only a shade more varied than it would be at a stall in Cairo or Alexandria.
Handy for singles or couples, this long-established conveyor-belt sushi joint is keenly priced. Quality is good enough, though we found the thick fatty stripes in the raw salmon off-putting, the nasu (aubergine) miso oily, and the sushi rice too sticky. Still, the japanese potato salad is delicious doused with soy sauce (and easy to eat with chopsticks), the tempura is elegant and the fresh spinach rolls drum-tight under their cloak of sesame dressing. Serve yourself green tea from the urns if the blue-aproned floor-staff don’t get to you in time.
The Black Penny
It was a marketing wheeze that really, really worked. This new café/takeaway in Covent Garden sold every dish for a penny on opening day, and when we went a few days later there were huge queues waiting for tables and (mostly) takeaway. It reminded us of the old drug dealer’s trick to get new clients: ‘the first one’s free’. Addiction to Black Penny may become a recognised medical condition, but it won’t be because of cost – low though that is. When you finally reach the counter, you see dishes that look like those at many another coffee place: soup, sandwiches, salad, quiche, a stew, lots of baked sweet things. But when you finally sit down in the small back dining room, you realise this isn’t the stuff of two-for-a-penny cafés. The quality is high in both sweet and savoury dishes. Salads are a particular strength, with confident seasoning in the dressings and excellent assemblies of sprightly ingredients to carry them. The kitchen has a masterful pasty-maker, as we saw in both a savoury tart and a Pennsylvania-Dutch-style apple pie. They also had a good ceviche on the menu when we were there. Portions are enormous and prices eminently reasonable - £7.50 for a salad box that some people would be happy to share between two, sandwiches just under a fiver. In the food, the only downer was inelegant presentation of salad selections. The separate components were piled together so that their flavours blended in some unappealing ways: ceviche on top of couscous is never a good