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What to Know about Food & Drink in London

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What to Know about Food & Drink in London
London's culinary landscape is colorful, flavorful, and extremely diverse. There is no dearth of options, with everything from classic pub grub to high-end dining. Ethnic cuisine and pop-ups round out the mix.
By Savi and Vid, AFAR Local Expert
Photo by Savi and Vid
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    Sample Local Dishes
    Everyone who comes to London must try a traditional plate of fish and chips. Poppies is an English institution that has been slinging fried cod, mushy peas, and chunky chips since 1945. The atmosphere is vintage but the fish is fresh, and sustainable. Or try a more cutting-edge approach to British cuisine at St. JOHN Bar and Restaurant, around the corner from Smithfield Market. Famous for its nose-to-tail cooking—a technique that uses an animal’s whole body—St. JOHN is revered for its rustic food and no-nonsense approach to quality.
    Photo by Savi and Vid
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    Traditional Pub Grub
    The mere mention of English food conjures images of 'pub grub' accompanied by a pint. Get in the spirit with a meal at a cozy local watering hole like the Rose and Crown in Stoke Newington or the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead—a classic example of the old-world charm found in the best of London’s pubs. Most pubs in London serve food, and less often (these days) bar snacks like pickled eggs. You can't go far wrong with classic dishes like steak and kidney pie or bangers and mash, and the Sunday roast dinner is an institution. Traditional desserts—called "puddings"—are hot and stodgy; try bread and butter pudding or spotted dick with custard. And don't forget the drink: A pint of local bitter or cider will wash your food down nicely.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Britain's Other National Cuisine
    Britain's fascination with Indian food goes back a long way, and dishes like chicken tikka masala are arguably just as "British" as bangers and mash. London is a city of serious curry lovers, and there is no shortage of Indian and Bangladeshi cuisine. The area around Brick Lane is curry central, and Lahore Kebab House and Tayyabs in Whitechapel are justifiably famous, serving some of the finest Punjabi cuisine this side of the pond. The lamb chops at Tayyabs in particular are legendary; it's best to get a bunch of different dishes to share. Make sure to get plenty of naan bread and Cobra beer as accompaniments. For a slightly different take on the Subcontinent, check out Dishoom, a chain of old-style Bombay cafés.
    Photo by Savi and Vid
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    Artisanal Farmers' Markets
    The colorful seasonal produce at London's farmers' markets sits alongside fresh meats and cheeses and offers a culinary experience rooted in the heart of London’s food scene. The bustling Borough Market is one of London's most popular destinations for chefs and food-lovers alike. Follow your nose and sample as much as you can. You’ll find everything from venison to honeycomb to truffle oil, with the emphasis on local, artisanal—and expensive. If you prefer smaller markets, try the Berwick Street Market or the Marylebone Farmers’ Market. Pick the tastiest-looking goods for a picnic in the park. And if flowers are your thing, do not miss the chaotic Columbia Road Flower Market.
    Photo by Savi and Vid
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    Culinary Tours
    Taking a London food tour is a great option if you are passionate about trying local food or are interested in new ways of exploring the city. London boasts a number of such tours, each peppered with historical and cultural information and offering you the chance to sample a range of tasty English fare. Eating London Food Tours takes you around the East End, with stops for bacon sandwiches and curry. Mind The Gap Tours explores the Brixton and Borough Markets, while Walk Eat Talk Eat offers tours all around the city and with a wide variety of themes. Most tours last for four to five hours, and prices of all meals are usually included in the cost of the tour.
    Photo by Savi and Vid
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    Indulge a Little with High Tea
    Forget about counting calories and surrender yourself to one of the joys of life: English high tea. Expect dozens of indulgent treats such as finger sandwiches made from freshly baked bread and brushed with rich butter, generous slivers of cake, dainty macaroons, tiny biscuits, and decadent scones served with clotted cream and homemade jam. Wash all this down with a pot of properly brewed English tea served in delicate china cups. Better still, have a glass of champagne as well. To experience this quintessentially English tradition at its finest try any or all of the Goring Hotel, the Savoy, the Palm Court at the Ritz, and the English Tea Room at Brown’s Hotel.
    Photo by Savi and Vid
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    Vegetarian Delights
    London is home to a new generation of vegetarian and vegan restaurants that boast wholesome food and nuanced flavors. It's an extremely veggie-friendly city and you'll never have trouble finding good food. Try one of the many South Indian eateries dotted about town: Sagar on King Street and Rasa N16 on Stoke Newington Church Street are both quality and eminently affordable options; make sure to try a traditional dosa with spicy sambar and coconut chutney. Camden Market is known for its vegan cafés. Try Cookies and Scream—which offers delicious vegan ice creams and sweets—or quench your thirst with one of the vegan beers or wines at Manna.
    Photo by Melissa U.
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    The Innovative and the Unusual
    London’s food scene is dynamic and constantly evolving. The South Bank hosts a number of country-specific street food festivals that allow you to sample bites from around the world. Mexican churros, Indian kati rolls, Vietnamese pho, and Moroccan harira are just a few of the things on offer, depending on the time of year. Alternatively, get in on the pop-up dining trend by trying one of London’s many supper clubs. Hosted in studios, flats, and other unusual locations such as beneath abandoned railway arches, these pop-ups often have very limited seating but are unique experiences which take an inventive approach to dining and showcase varied cuisine.
    Photo by Kristian Cabanis/age fotostock
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    The Finest Dining
    Connoisseurs of fine dining have no shortage of choice in London. Many innovative, Michelin-starred chefs have gained international accolade thanks to their London restaurants. Highlights include Alain Ducasse at The Dorchester (French cuisine with international influences), Gordon Ramsay's Petrus (modern French in stylish surroundings), and Chef Chris Galvin’s Galvin at Windows (seasonally-inspired French haute cuisine). For something a touch more traditional, try Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. The restaurant is famous for its fascinating interpretation of historic British dishes using modern techniques of molecular gastronomy. Yotam Ottolenghi's NOPI, in Soho, serves fresh and inventive cuisine largely inspired by the Middle East and Asia.
    Photo by Savi and Vid
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    Quirky Bars to Get Your Drink On
    London has an abundance of rather whimsical bars, notable for their creative atmosphere and delicious libations. You enter the PortSide Parlour through a toilet, but the bar’s sultry atmosphere and warming cocktails—it specializes in rum—are well worth the misdirection. On the other hand, you enter the Callooh Callay through a wardrobe and end up in a bar inspired by Lewis Carroll's nonsensical "Jabberwocky" poem. Once there, expect popcorn-flavored cocktails served in gramophones. At Evans & Peel Detective Agency, those with an "appointment" should arrive at the secret entrance, where they'll be led through a hidden office door. An old-school speakeasy awaits with tipple served in brown paper bags.
    Photo by Savi and Vid