Wind back thirty years and you will be laughing out loud if you heard anyone describing London as a culinary destination. Three decades later and the city is veritably teeming with food markets, street food stalls, artisanal shops, gastropubs and some of the world’s most influential restaurants and chefs, who are all redefining food in the British capital.
London is a city steeped in history and tradition, but also at once intensely forward-thinking and cosmopolitan. It is a place where the pubs are as old as the monuments and exotic curries, Morrocan tagines and Yorkshire puddings live side by side, each equally at home in this city of villages.
Why we love the food in London
Gone are the days that anyone would think that London is only about lack-luster fish and chips and Sunday roasts. Forward-thinking chefs such as Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck, Tom Sellers of Story, Isaac McHale of The Clove Club and of course boldfaced names such as Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Nigel Slater and company has done their bit towards cementing the contrasts between old and new, uniting British food customs with experimental methods and ensuring London’s status as a food city. A recent data-driven index by National Geographic has confirmed as much, with the city ranking right at the top as the number one food city of the World. So once you’ve visited Westminister Abbey, explored the Natural History Museum and revelled over the incredible art at the Tate Modern, it’s time to get straight into the vibrant food scene of London. You can eat your way around the world in this incredible city, whether at one of the vibrant markets or at some of the exceptional restaurants that have been popping up all over the city but don’t forget to also take a bite of traditional British fare. There has been a transformation of the classics and it is easy to find a best-of version of fish and chips, pie and mushy peas, roast dinner and bangers and mash. All nicely washed down with a pint, of course.
Foodie things to do
A visit to bustling 1000-year-old Borough Market near London Bridge is a veritable crash course in British food culture. Here you can sample traditional dishes such as a full English breakfast at Maria’s Market Cafe, pulled pork sandwich with apple sauce at Hobbs, and beef, Guinness and oyster pie from Wright Brothers, or venture down the path of cultural exploration with anything from kid goat kofta wrap from Gourmet Goat to scrumptious tacos with chargrilled stone bass at El Pastór. If the vastness of this mega-market makes your head spin, hop on over to one of the smaller markets. London has no shortage of street food markets with new ones popping up all the time – such as the foodie revolution that has quietly been building in the streets of Bermondsey where you can ply yourself with coffee, gin and all kinds of gourmet food at the Maltby street market.
If you rather want to get your feet off the ground and take in instagrammable vistas together with your morning brekkie Duck and Waffle is just the spot. Situated on the 40thfloor this is one of the most innovative and original restaurants in the city.
We all know Brittain’s love affair with Indian cuisine over the past 250 years. Indulge in your curry obsessions at Gymkhana (order the lamb shank rogan josh), or Gunpowder where fish and vegetarian stews reign, or dive into west African flavours at Ikoyi, or if mezze is your thing you won’t be disappointed with the Middle Eastern flavours at hot spot Honey & Co.
It goes without saying that no food-minded trip to London will be complete without enjoying afternoon tea. Squeezed in somewhere between lunch and dinner, taking tea at this hour is not only a time-honoured tradition but also very much the current thing to do. Embrace this ritual at one of London’s many upscale hotels such as the Ham Yard or The Dorchester, with a view at Obelix West in The Shard or head to everyone’s favourite secret garden hideaway, The Petersham.
On the finer side of things, London has some serious options. Welsh whizz-kid Tomos Parry will surprise you with no-frills stuff from the wood-fired grill at Brat in Shoreditch. Hide in Mayfair by Ollie Dabbous takes you on a ten-course tasting menu with enough taste-bud excitement to blow your Savile Row socks off. An oldie but a goodie, St John, the original ‘nose-to-tail’ pioneer remain defiantly casual and the food is seriously good. British dishes get new life with a deliciousness that belies their humble origins. Tapas fans will cheer olé at Sabor, whilst Chinese food lovers will savour the singular offering at A Wong. Or if it is Italian food you are after, Giorgio Locatelli’s superb hand-crafted pasta continues to keep diners extremely well fed at Locanda Locatelli.
Immersive food experiences
The distillery in Notting Hill houses the Ginstitude where you can have a hands-on gin-blending experience. Learn about gin making and then custom-blend your very own bottle to take home.
London has upped its game with fabulous food festivals happening throughout the year, but there’s elevated hype around the summer months. In March coffee addicts unite at the London Coffee Festival to sip, learn about and embrace the perfect cup.
At the Taste of London in June, things are taken up a notch at the Secret Garden where exclusive mini-masterclasses and Q&A sessions with world-class chefs gives an alfresco taste of the capital’s top restaurants.
Come August and you’re spoilt for choice. The Wimbledon Park Food Festival brings 45 street stalls that celebrate artisan goods from cheese to cider, whilst Meatopia is the ultimate meat-lover’s fest. You also get to go around the world in 800 beers at the Great British Beer Festival. Cheers.
The big weekend brunch has been widely embraced in London and deserves to be celebrated – you can do so at the Brunch Fest that takes place in September and will have you brunching the best and washing down all with cocktails such as the obligatory Bloody Mary. In September you can also go to the Tower of London Food Festival where you can up your cooking prowess with masterclasses, meet celebrity chefs and munch from street-food stalls aplenty.
Shop: Edible souvenirs to gift, or stock your pantry
So, what should you bring home from London to make your trip last even longer? These items are great choices to remember your vacay bite for bite or to delight those at home with.
#1 Anything from Fortnum & Mason
The first humble store opened in 1707 and has since grown to a world-renowned institution of Britishness with a number of self-owned London-based stores and a long list of wholesale stockists around the world. It really is a hall of fame of British food and right at the top of our list of best British food souvenirs to buy. You do need a rather padded wallet though, to make the most of it.
Tea might not be locally grown but the average Brit drinks 876 cups of tea a year (enough to fill two bathtubs). For a posh take on this traditional souvenir buy loose leaf tea from Harrods, Fortnum & Mason, or Whittard of Chelsea. Or take home some of the nation’s best-loved everyday teas from the supermarket such as Twinings or PG Tips.
Known as a nation of tea drinkers it comes as no surprise that the Brits have an insatiable love of biscuits. Basically, they inhale the stuff – 103 packets per household, yearly, to be precise. Make sure some of the classics such as Hobnobs, Jaffa Cakes and shortbread makes it into your suitcase.
Nothing like a good English cheddar of course, but that is just where it starts. British cheeses are a big deal, as proven by their £615 million in exports of cheese. Don’t let the outlandish names such as Stinking Bishop and Colston Basset Stilton put you off – they are all to die for. Go for the high-end side of the spectrum at the famous cheesemongers Pacton & Whitfield, or go artisanal at Neal’s Yard Dairy. Just be sure to check the customs and border protection rules of your residing country before letting loose.
Head straight for The Distillery in Notting Hill, a veritable gin paradise, where you can buy their Portobello Road Gin. Made in Tooting, southwest London, Graveney Gin is a great choice for those that will be impressed by its organic-ingredients-only credentials. You’ll be lucky to score a bottle of Two Birds London Dry Gin that, despite numerous awards, are still being produced 100 bottles at a time only, distilled in handmade copper stills to ensure the quality of each and every single bottle.
Psst: Keep an eye on Eatsplorer Magazine in coming weeks and months as we share more cool stuff about food travel and other tasty things around the world.
What is your favourite foodie things to do in London? Shout out below! ↓↓
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Photography: Liezel Norval-Kruger, Alex Block, Bruno Martins, Cheese Truck, London Coffee Festival, Duck & Waffle, Ed Robertson, Eva Dang, Evelyn Paris, Fortnum & Mason, Ginstitude, Harrods, Hide, Honey & Co, Joshua Rawson-Harris, Kate Krivanec, Meatopia, Neils Yard, Petersham Nursery, Sabor, St Johns, Story, The Clove Club, Tomas Anton Escobar, Tower of London Feast, Whitfield, Whittard.