A distinct part of my memories in London revolve around eating. I remember the kitchen in our flats better than I remember the bedroom. I think I could still find the way to the grocery stores easily enough and I know exactly where in that store I would go to buy one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten. No, it wasn’t at a restaurant. It was one of the premade pizzas from Sainsbury’s but it was delicious. I think I found it at Waitrose once too.
This pizza had garlic butter, caramelized onion, mascarpone and feta cheese and it came with a small container of incredibly thick and gooey balsamic vinegar to drizzle over the top of the pizza after you baked it in the oven. My mouth still waters when I think about this pizza. What made it even better is that it was fairly reasonably priced. I bought it a few times and once (after a long day) I, my 5 foot 2 inch, 105 pound self, ate the entire pizza in one sitting.
That leads me to tip number one for saving money. Use the local grocery stores rather than eating out every night. If you have access to a stove or oven there are plenty of delicious things in the grocery stores that won’t break your budget. Save your money for special nights out or other excursions.
Besides that pizza, the freezer lunches were actually pretty good. I don’t eat them in America because they really do taste like cardboard to me, but the ones I tried in London (especially the ones with Indian-inspired dishes) were actually quite good.
One of my favorite meals to cook for myself there was simple tortellini. In the grocery store it is in one of the refrigerated sections and there are plenty of types to choose from; they are all “Made in Italy”. I would just follow the directions on the back for how long to boil them, then drizzle a little olive oil and fresh-grated Parmesan cheese from Borough Market on the top. Delicious and simple.
It isn’t just meals at the grocery store that can help you save some cash. I looked at what I spent after my first week there and a surprising amount was on bottled water in the restaurants and stores. After that I would buy a pack of them in the grocery store and take one with me when I left every day. That was far cheaper and I never got dehydrated, not even after climbing to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Snacks are something else that can break your budget. I would buy red grapes and aged white cheddar (the older the better) and pack them together in little bags for snacks. For many of you it may sound odd, but I got the idea after watching Disney’s Ratatouille. Sure, I consciously knew fruit and cheese went well together, but after seeing that scene I decided I would try it and London became my first opportunity. The cheddar there is amazing and the soft salty cheese with the crisp sweet grapes made an incredible pair. I still haven’t been able to find a cheese that matched that flavor without paying an arm and a leg for it around home. A brick of cheese and a bag of grapes lasted me for a few days and I not only felt like I was eating healthy, but I looked forward to my snack every day.
Speaking of cheese, the best place I found to get really good Parmesan was at Borough Market, but that wasn’t all I found. They have fresh fruits, lunch stands, smoothies and delicious fresh bread. I ate at the market twice but it is what I had the second time I recommend most. That time I bought a grilled cheese sandwich. But this was no ordinary grilled cheese. It was made with cheese from one of the original British cheddar cheese makers and it had a little something extra. It was made with sourdough bread that had a bit of cheese on the outside to make it crispy and it also had some leek, red onion and garlic pieces in the sandwich for a more complex flavor. It was the best sandwich I have ever eaten. Hands down.
Borough Market is also where I discovered Cranberry. They sell the most divine chocolate-covered fruits and nuts. My favorites were the chocolate-covered cranberry, banana, candied ginger, raspberries and honeycomb. I could have eaten those all day. You would buy it by weight and it was fairly reasonably priced even after exchange rates.
Of course, being in London I had to try some fish and chips. Fish and chips stands are all around, but we went to one just around the corner from Borough Market. Since I am not a big fish eater I split one with my roommate while we waited to go in to a show. After a bite or two, however, we both wished we had gotten our own. With fresh cod and a crispy batter and a side of delicious chips all topped with some malt vinegar it disappeared quickly.
Another traditional British dish I got was pie and mash from a pub. I found it just by walking by a pub, smelling the dinners and thinking, “That smells good and I’m hungry,” and walking in. Meat pie, mashed potatoes and peas, all seasoned to perfection and all smothered in smooth gravy made me want to waddle off and sit in the sun and just digest.
Those two dishes really are must-haves while you are in London. I never heard any of my friends say they had bad food from a fish and chips stand or a pub, so just find one near you that looks good and enjoy.
Oh, and make sure that least one day you get the traditional British breakfast made up of sausage or bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, eggs and toast. It’s big and hearty and very traditional and delicious.
Now don’t laugh. One of our favorite desserts came from a very familiarly-named store. It was a McFlurry. From McDonalds. Now I told you not to laugh and here’s why. It didn’t taste like the Flurry here. The DairyMilk McFlurry in London has two things going for it: British cream and British chocolate. It was rich and creamy and the chocolate was so much smoother and richer that anything we can buy for two dollars. Simple, delicious and available all over.
Besides a few recommendations, I’m not going to name specific restaurants. Partly because everyone has their own preferences and partly because I forgot to write down the names of the restaurants I ate at. Instead I’ll tell you how I chose them and I was never disappointed.
When I was getting hungry but wasn’t really hungry I would walk down whatever street I was on and the neighboring streets until I smelled something delicious. I would then look at the door and window to see if they had a menu. Many places had a menu right in the window. If the prices looked reasonable I would go in and order dinner. If the prices were too expensive I would keep walking. There were enough restaurants that it never took long to find one I thought looked good and would fit my budget. If a place looked/smelled absolutely amazing I might make an exception to my menu rule and hope for a cheap price. But I made sure to budget in a few expensive dinners just in case.
The first of the restaurants that I made sure to remember the name of is Pret a Manger. This is a chain store that is all over London and carries great, fairly healthy food. They have salads, wraps and sandwiches as well as other things. Plus, they are affordable and you can usually eat on the go. One meal I had was a hoisin duck wrap with a vanilla rhubarb drink.
Wagamama is a great, mid-price Asian food restaurant that has a few stores in London. One specifically is between Borough Market and the Globe Theatre. I got the edamame appetizer and a ginger udon dish that was fantastic.
There is a gelato stand that is almost next door to the Globe theatre entrance that sells mouth-watering gelato. My favorite flavor was the lemon. Very refreshing on a hot day.
If you want an interesting dessert go to Ciao in Soho for ice cream that looks like spaghetti. They have tasty meals too. And, of course, if you are hungry there is always Borough Market. My final recommendation is the Orangerie in Hyde Park, by Kensington Palace. It is a must to go there for tea and scones with clotted cream. It gives the very proper uppercrust British feel with the melt-in your mouth goodness of the scone.
My final bit of advice: just follow your nose.
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