March 20, 2024

Taste of London: The city’s iconic dishes and where to get them

#local food #London

It is no secret that out of all the great cuisines of the world, British (or more specifically English) food is quite often looked down on. Our food is relentlessly the butt of the joke, wryly described as ‘a beige mess’ or looking as if ‘the Luftwaffe is still flying over the country.’ 

I’ll admit it, British food can hardly stand up for itself against the titans of world cuisine like French, Thai, Levantine, Mexican, Italian, Vietnamese, or Mediterranean, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fantastic and diverse. We can’t be blamed for liking potatoes, fat, meat, and fried food when the weather is the way it is. British food is, more often than not, comfort food, and there’s no better place to get acquainted with it than London.

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With that said, here are my (and Walkative’s) Must-Eat London dishes, and where to get them.

 

No. 1. The Full English Breakfast

Full English breakfast - where to eat it in London

Truly an iconic breakfast -and probably the most likely to give you a heart attack- the Full English (not to be confused with the Full Scottish or Full Irish) is a staple of English cuisine. Both the world’s best hangover cure, and the perfect start to a long day of work, it’s a plate laden with sausages, baked beans, eggs (fried or scrambled), bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes, and bread (toasted or fried). If you’re brave enough, and want to get tourist bonus points on your visit, add black pudding (a type of fried blood sausage), and lather the dish with ‘brown’ sauce, a sauce that can only be described as tasting exactly like you’d imagine; the colour ‘brown’ manifest.

Whole culinary wars are fought over who can claim the best Full English in London, but a place that is always amongst the heights of debate is the Regency Cafe near Westminster, a simple, traditional, cheap, breakfast institution. ‘Sup with the Londoners, and make sure to have a cup of tea to wash it down.

 

No. 2. Fish & Chips

Fish and chips where to eat it in London

London is by no means a seaside town, where Fish & Chips is more common, but the raging Thames has long brought fish to the shores of the city, and because of this, some of the UK’s best can be found here. It’s simple: battered fish (cod, haddock, flounder, or plaice), with chips (or ‘fries’ for the less discerning visitor), and peas. If you’re feeling decadent ‘mushy peas’, a creamier, smoother mix of marrowfat peas covered in baking soda overnight and smashed with butter, mint, and a little water the next day, is even better.

For an award-winning spot to grab it, try Toff’s on Muswell Hill. Proudly flinging out chippie teas since 1968, it’s an institution that is still authentic. If fish isn’t your thing, and you want to give a German a heart attack, try the battered sausage, one of my personal favourite orders.

 

No 3. Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea where to have it in London

If you’ve watched your fair share of Downton Abbey and countless rom-coms, you’d be forgiven for thinking all Brits do is sit around and drink tea with little sandwiches and cakes. Sadly, it’s a little over-emphasised, and we quite deliberately lean into this image because it makes us seem more civilised than we actually are. That said, afternoon tea can still be an event for us, more often as a treat or celebration, due to its association with the lavishness of the old aristocracy. 

The most famous, and benchmarks of all Afternoon Teas are the ones at The Savoy and The Ritz, reaching an eye-watering £75-80 per person. The history and atmosphere certainly harkens back to an older era, but for those who want just as a delicious Afternoon Tea without the price tag, The English Rose Café near Buckingham Palace is a little more down-to-earth at £22 per person. 

 

No. 4 The Sunday Roast

Sunday roast - where to get it in London

There are few things as sacred to Brits as the Sunday Roast. A century-old tradition with its origins in the meal after Sunday Service, it is still one of the few things that brings us all together. Every family has its own traditions, variations, recipes, and opinions on what is ‘the perfect roast’, but the core of it is the sense of Sunday rest and family.

Normally a ‘roast’ consists of a roasted meat (Beef or Lamb, or for the wildcards, chicken), roasted carrots, parsnips, greens, potatoes cooked in goose fat, gravy, and crucially, Yorkshire Puddings. Nay-sayers will argue this isn’t crucial, but they are wrong. Yorkshire Puddings -a simple savoury batter baked into a cup-shape- carry the gravy perfectly, and are ideal to snack on before the food coma sets in.

Many places claim the top prize of Best Sunday Roast, but nearly all agree at least one of them is The Devonshire in Soho. It’s nearly always sold out for weeks in advance, so if that doesn’t work for you try The Quality Chop House, The Pig and Butcher, or for a more budget-friendly choice, The Gladstone Arms.

 

No. 5 Curry

Where to eat perfect curry in London

Though it might not seem like a typical ‘British’ dish to those outside the UK, Curry, (specifically South Asian curry) is no doubt one of the country’s favourite meals. From the British Curry Awards, to Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation dish being ‘Coronation Chicken’, a kind of curried chicken sandwich, no small town is complete without a curry house. In fact, there’s over 10,000 of them in Britain.

The popularity of curry has its origins in the bloody history of British Empire and the East India Trading Company of the 1700s, but gained even further traction in the 1950s with the first generation of South Asian communities setting up curry houses across the country, with a second wave in the 1970s and 80s. These curry houses catered to more sensitive British palettes, and it’s from here that we get the Balti, for example.

As well as Manchester and Birmingham, London was also at the centre of this scene; and so, where might you go for the best London Curry?

The simplest answer is: anywhere. You’d struggle to find a bad South Asian curry in the city, particularly in comparison with most other cities of Europe. Try Brick Lane or Drummond Street and take your pick. Another central London choice is Punjab, a London institution, established in 1946. For spots with a more modern influence, try Dishoom or Kricket, and if you’re feeling decadent with a higher budget, head to Ghymkhana, a restaurant boasting 2 Michelin Stars.

 

There’s plenty more great traditional dishes to try in London: pie and mash, Eton Mess, cottage pie, pasties, victoria sponge, but this short introduction will hopefully whet your appetite. For more recommendations, and local pearls of wisdom, join Walkative’s Welcome to London tour, and ask your expert guide! It’s the only way to get the best bespoke hidden gems in London.

Will

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