High style, low spend: London’s best chic but cheap restaurants
Whenever he would open a new place, the restaurateur Jeremy King reminded his staff that no restaurant worth its salt left its customers feeling swindled. The choice to spend a lot or a little, he said, was theirs; bills could be £30 or £300, depending on the mood. King no longer runs any restaurants — though one is thought to be in the works — but when he was in charge of Brasserie Zedel (20 Sherwood Street, W1, brasseriezedel.com), it exemplified this thinking perfectly: it offered a set menu doing three courses for £14.95, alongside bottles of vintage Champagne running into the hundreds of pounds. The prices are different now.
There are others operators who do a similar thing. At the Ivy chain (various locations, the-ivy.co.uk), it’s easy to rack up an enormous tab, but likewise a Sunday lunch might be spent sat at the bar, with a £16 Shepherd’s pie — incidentally their most famous and perhaps best dish — and a glass of £8 wine. The surroundings make it feel an occasion; there is a sense of grandeur to them all. With places like these, it’s all in the ordering: cannily navigating a menu means some of the capital’s best restaurants can be enjoyed without a sense of dread arriving at the same time the little leather book does. With this method in mind, try, for starters, the likes of Hoppers (various locations, hopperslondon.com), Brigadiers (1-5 Bloomberg Arcade, EC4, brigadierslondon.com), Brutto (35-37 Greenhill Rents, EC1, @bru.tto), the Tamil Prince (115 Hemingford Road, N1, thetamilprince.com), Manteca (49-51 Curtain Road, EC2, mantecarestaurant.co.uk) or Flour & Grape (214 Bermondsey Street, SE1, flourandgrape.com).
You might think this approach would work everywhere but more and more, it simply doesn’t — at the top end of the market, price wise, it is becoming increasing common to see drinks lists kicking off in the low teens for the tiddliest glass of wine, starters getting going at about £18, and the very cheapest main still troubling the £30 mark. No amount of cutting one’s expectations will help here; ditto the ever-growing number of places that only offer a tasting menu. Moreover, in compiling this list, over and again we found that places we’d remembered as having the odd lower cost dish had simply scrapped these from the menu, or pushed the price up. Set menus we’d eaten last year at £24 are now £38; the £9 cocktail has become £13, that sharing dish doesn’t come in at £50 for two but £70.
And while London still can boast a number of excellent cheap restaurants — here, for instance, are 25 chosen by the city’s chefs — many are often marked by a sense of being, shall we say, underdressed. They are basic; the food might be excellent, the cost may be low, but the looks leave something to be desired. Sometimes a bit of flash is what’s wanted. Though getting out for under £80-a-head often feels like something of an achievement these days, below are the places the Standard’s team each go when they want something with high style, but relatively low spend. You would be hard pushed to say they are cheap cheap, but they’re somewhere where a meal might cost between £20-£40 a head, but the night would still feel special. In other words: here are 30-or-so favourites from the Reveller team — or where we head on our own dime when the night is an event, but the bill shouldn’t be.
Jimi Famurewa’s top five
London is lousy with fresh pasta. And any wallet-friendly restaurant recommendation list worth its artfully-sprinkled Maldon will recommend one of Padella (6 Southwark Street, SE1, padella.co) or Bancone (W1, WC2, bancone.co.uk) or Officina 00 (156 Old Street, EC1, officina00.co.uk). But there’s something about the combined elements at Stevie Parle’s Carnaby Street spot — the sleek, terrazzo surfaces, the alluring bustle, the truffled, fried burrata sandwich — that always feels, to me, uniquely underrated.
19 Ganton Street, W1, pastaio.co.uk
Casa do Frango
Only those that misunderstand the abiding appeal of a Nando’s would need a “posh version” of it. But this upwardly mobile Algarvian chicken brand’s first location, complete with hanging plants, dramatic skylight, and whitewashed 19th century warehouse touches, delivers and then some on that inescapable comparison. Bonus points for the fact some of the best dishes are the vibrant vegetarian platters.
32 Southwark Street, SE1, casadofrango.co.uk
Cuttlefish starter for £8. Beetroot caserecce for £7.50. Three courses on a Sunday for £25 per person. Deptford’s restaurant scene seems to be ever-expanding and thriving away from the prying eyes of the rest of the city. But there is something of the pleasing timewarp to the prices and the low-key, close-quarters sophistication of this longstanding sibling restaurant to Peckham’s Artusi (161 Bellenden Road, SE15, artusi.co.uk).
165A Deptford High Street, SE8, marcella.london
Ingredients are only worth what is being done to them. While an old-fashioned drift towards lobster, caviar and other luxury signifiers feels especially prevalent on menus at the moment, imaginative vegetarian spots like this two-site Middle Eastern phenomenon are a way to ensure you’re getting maximum bang for your buck. Take your pick between Soho and Spitalfields, but the confit potato latkes are non-negotiable.
W1 and E1, bubala.co.uk
To describe this glamorous, 37-year-old south-east London institution, heralded by a fibreglass Bengal tiger, as “cheap” is maybe a slight stretch. However, some close-reading of the menu’s especially generous highlights — the sprawling £20.95 vegetarian thali, say — or an embrace of a terrific, £22.95 daily set lunch can keep things away from an accidental splurge.
119 Brockley Rise, SE23, babur.info
David Ellis’s top five
Tucked away as it is on a particularly smart street, with a particularly smart set going there, nothing about Michelin-recommended Kateh feels anything less than top end. It is an occasion restaurant, but one that needn’t cost the earth: its fine Persian starters are all under a tenner, the majority of mains less than £20. Very much more dash than cash.
5 Warwick Place, W9, katehrestaurant.co.uk
The newer West End outpost of this Burmese is pricier, but at the Shoreditch original — which truth be told has far more atmosphere — the best thing on the menu is just £14. This is the mohinga, a warming catfish curry, and paired with a yellow pea paratha (£7), is as good a meal as any in town. All clean wood and greenery, it is sleek, too.
58 Bethnal Green Road, E1, lahpet.co.uk
Throbbing with both vintage vinyl records and an eager crowd, this astonishingly good Thai is somewhere that can be nipped into for a quick curry (about £9) and a whisky and soda (£5), or luxuriated over slowly, ordering most of its menu. There are few restaurants I return to over and over but Kiln is somewhere I never tire of; more than that, it is somewhere I am always excited for. There is something special in that. Spend is dependent on choice, but a long meal for two tends to clock in at around £60-70.
58 Brewer Street, W1, kilnsoho.com
Nick Gilkinson, above, has played a blinder here: though it has many terrific hole-in-the-wall style spots, Whitechapel is light on upmarket options. Townsend, with its parquet flooring and scandi panelling, offers an airy sense of refinement. It is modern British in style; often this means finely-sourced produce at extraordinary cost, but here a short menu and a helping hand from the Whitechapel Gallery — which Townsend sits inside — mean prices are kept fair. Three courses of seasonal cooking done with finesse and a sense of elegance come in at £34 and wine starts from a fiver a glass.
77-82 Whitechapel High Street, E1, townsendrestaurant.co.uk
There are five of these across town, but the Soho basement is a favourite; being there feels wayward and conspiratorial, all low light and wood panelling. It is somewhere to drink too much — cocktails are £7.50 — and gorge on steak (from £12… £12!). Go all in for £24, and a wobbling plate of beef, lamb and pork chops appears. It is a glutton’s feast at a pauper’s price.
Across town, theblacklock.com
Clare Finney’s top five
Galvin Bar and Grill
On the face of it, not the sort of place you’d expect to leave without some financial restructuring. Even the entrance is imposing, and that’s before you get to the chandeliered restaurant. The glamour is high – but the bill doesn’t have to be. The Galvin brothers are a grounded pair, and offer three courses for £25 on the set menu; otherwise, the likes of a mizo-glazed aubergine main is £14, a tenner will get decent wine.
1-8 Russell Square, WC1, galvinrestaurants.com
Bottle + Rye
One of those bars you expect the streets of Paris will be paved with, until you arrive and find the city of love doesn’t make it easy. The stylishly casual local perches on the edge of Brixton Village like a Breton-topped Parisian on a high stool at the bar. There are staples like saucisson, pâté and bread for under a tenner, as well as anchovy toast to fall in love with. Happily, there are plenty of fine wines by the glass, kicking off for about a fiver.
404-406 Market Row, SW9, bottleandrye.com
I share Legare with reluctance. I don’t want to compete with you for its softly glowing dining room, or the attention of its entertaining and informed staff. I don’t want to vie with you for the generously portioned plates of fresh pasta, but you deserve a perfect ragu for £21 as much as I do. Stick to this, olives and a potent negroni, and you’ll leave full and happy for under £40.
31 Shad Thames, SE1, legarelondon.com
Parsons is close to perfection. Its white tiled walls, green banquettes, fresh seafood and carafes of Vino Verde are the place to which my mind wanders on a drizzle-grey day. So too is its plaice, served whole with samphire and capers for £24, making Parsons’s one of the few good restaurants in London to dish up fish mains for under 30 quid. Its fish pie is under £20. It’s not cheap, but its beautiful and, for a special occasion, to escape for under £45-a-head feels very good indeed.
39 Endell Street, WC2, parsonslondon.co.uk
José Tapas Bar
Jose Pizarro didn’t just open a restaurant on Bermondsey Street in 2011, he opened a portal. Many restaurants claim be transportive, but few do so as powerfully as this tapas bar. One bite of boquerones, one sip of Estrella Dam, and you’re in Barcelona. Close your eyes, savour the fried goats cheese and honey, and you can almost feel sun on your face. Stop there, and you’ll walk out with change from £20.
104 Bermondsey Street, SE1, josepizarro.com
Ben McCormack’s top five
A Piccadilly pasta restaurant where the menu suggests two people share three bowls, which clocks in at roughly £23 each. This would make Notto notable for the border of Mayfair and St James’s, even if it weren’t owned by Michelin-starred chef Phil Howard (of Elystan Street and The Square fame).
198 Piccadilly, W1J 9EZ, nottopastabar.com
This Portobello outpost of Soho House has all of the benefits of a members’ club (cool decor, celebrity clientele) and none of the drawbacks (that pesky membership fee). The all-day menu, with starters at £5 and mains at £11, makes it feel like brunch whatever the hour, and if you’re going to the Electric Cinema there’s 50 per cent off the food bill from Monday to Thursday
191 Portobello Road, W11 2ED, electricdiner.com
A very English interpretation of a très français model, Hereford Road is a meat-focused restaurant from former St John chef Tom Pemberton that feels like a nose-to-tail version of a Parisian neighbourhood bistro. Reasonable prices (devilled kidneys and mash, £17.50) are all the more remarkable given the quartier in question is Notting Hill.
3 Hereford Road, W2 4AB, herefordroad.org
La Fromagerie Bloomsbury
It might be famous as one of London’s best cheesemongers but it’s less well known that the Bloomsbury La Fromagerie, on cute-as-a-button Lamb’s Conduit Street, has a small but perfectly formed dining room tucked behind the counter. Expect fromage-focused soups, salads, small plates and pasta, plus the big cheese of a full fondue savoyarde to share (£18.50).
52 Lamb’s Conduit Street, WC1N 3LL, lafromagerie.co.uk
Royal China Club
You’ll need to stick to drinking tea or tap water to keep the bill down but this deluxe flagship of the dim-sum specialist makes its dumplings onsite rather than shipping them in from a central kitchen, as at other Royal Chinas. That freshness means the simplest (read, cheapest) things are best: barbecued pork puffs, prawn and chive dumplings and soft-shell crab spring rolls clock in at around £8 a plate.
40-42 Baker Street, W1U 7AJ, royalchinagroup.co.uk
Josh Barrie’s top five
Fans of Fish Wings & Tings will be well aware of Danclair’s Kitchen, chef and founder Brian Danclair’s marginally higher-end restaurant in Brixton Village. His famously moreish codfish fritters are available, as are his hot, guava-glazed wings — both inimitable mainstays of his original rum-imbued party venue — but so too are dishes such as sirloin steak, which is smacked down to be immaculately tender and draped in chimichurri, and his grandmother’s empanadas, where spiced chicken is neatly pocketed in soft pastry. It is a precise menu delivered well, and dishes stay on or below the £15 mark (only the catch of the day reaches such a height), in part thanks to the careful use of Brixton’s local wholesalers.
67-68 Granville Arcade, SW9, danclairskitchen.co.uk
The menu at Chet’s, now a permanent fixture at the Hoxton hotel in Shepherd’s Bush, is one of the more fun in London. A flamboyant but resourceful take on Thai cuisine is delivered adjacently to the breezy ease of an American diner, and the result is a restaurant where loaded fries sit comfortably next to curries and toasted rice salads. There is much to enjoy, but probably the most enticing is the club sandwich, which, for £16, brings a canny take on the New York classic: fried chicken, bacon, papaya slaw, jalapenos and red cabbage are dressed delightfully in ranch. It is a triple-decker worth every penny, not least because it comes with chips.
65 Shepherd’s Bush Green, W12, chetsrestaurant.co.uk
Like Chet’s, Norman’s is as much an Instagram force as it is a place to eat — the place is on the books of a talent agency — but in 2023, who would expect anything less? In Archway, it is a modern take on a British institution: the classic caff. And sure, it’s a little New Balance cool, but it is also replete with comfort, filled with fish pies, sausage and chips, even “pork twizzlers” from time-to-time in a cursive nod to our school dinners of old. And, very much like those canteen bowls, prices are low — not to the point of a real greasy spoon, but accessible enough in these times of turbulence and change.
167 Junction Road, N19, normanscafe.co.uk
Ah, Mangal II, a feted spot at the centre of East London’s modern culinary scene. The Dalston joint has been honoured before; dissected, in fact, such is its importance in playing a part in the capital’s dining culture. Above all else, Mangal II is a glorious place to have dinner: the food is polished but comforting; the cooking skilled and the atmosphere fun. Recently, there has been charred mackerel on green tomato ezme; duck dolmas in fermented pepper broth. There must also be a mention of the sandwiches. Yes, here is a true London restaurant — one you would recommend to any visitor, at any time.
4 Stoke Newington Road, N16, mangal2.com
Taco Queer might be the place to rile any GB News fans, and for that it is only more appealing. At the restaurant, tucked away in Lewisham, drag is as much a selling point as the food; a self-styled LGBQT+ taqueria that draws on traditional Mexican street food among “vibrant colours” and in a “warm atmosphere”. And so here is a place to party — the £5 daiquiris would be a good place to start — in a safe and inclusive place. As far as the menu is concerned, expect slow-cooked pork served with a sticky pineapple marinade and guacamole sauce, and a baja fish number. Elsewhere on the menu are quesadillas, loaded nachos, and playfully inventive veggie options.
26 Loampit Hill, SE13, tacoqueer.com
Mike Daw’s top five
The search for profit in restaurants is one that often leaves diners dejected. Not so at Piglets where the food feels distinctly generous. The menu is made for sharing and changes as often as new produce crosses the threshold, but two can eat well with change from £50. Wines are, granted, a little dear, but the young list is immaculately sourced. Bottles start at £25.
28 Brixton Water Lane, SW2, naughtypiglets.co.uk
Noble Rot Soho
Noble Rot’s set lunch is still the best value in town, serving three dishes for £22. At time of writing, trout rillettes, poached chicken and apple tarte fine comprise the courses. Hearty, simple, delicious and with tasting wine portions from £3, you’ll have change from £30 in one of London’s best and most beautifully fitted-out restaurants.
2 Greek Street, W1, noblerot.co.uk
Randall & Aubin
Fine seafood is expensive in Britain, but Randall and Aubin manage to control costs whilst maintaining visible generosity with their food. Order the rock shrimp tempura (£12.80), the lobster bisque (£10.50) and the assiette de fruits de mer (£34) and a table of two are eating some of Soho’s finest seafood perched beneath a disco ball for under £30 each.
16 Brewer Street, W1, randallandaubin.com
The delightful menu at the humble Canton Arms has leaned into more European influences almost simultaneously with our national leaning away. This is no bad thing. Roasted grelots with romesco arrive deliciously reminiscent of Spanish calçots, there’s French boudin noir, and Italian gnocchetti sardi. Sharing specials for two are usually £35; eating and drinking well here is done with affordable ease.
177 South Lambeth Road, SW8, cantonarms.com
The best of the so called “old-Soho” haunts, Andrew Edmunds deserves its legend. The transient nature of the daily changing menu a permanent fixture of so much time in London. There’s always delightful daily soup, it’s usually five pounds. Mains typically come in under twenty. The wine list espouses diversity and affordability; the 2018 Anjou gamay at £32 a bottle remains good value.
46 Lexington Street, W1, andrewedmunds.com