One of the things I miss most about London (aside from the museums, and the Thames, and the Tube, and my little flat in Earl’s Court, and a host of other things….) is the food. Being a particularly avid and enthusiastic eater myself, I had to dedicate a post to one of my favorite London pasttimes. I might not be a culinary expert, but if you’re ever in London sometime I hope you get to enjoy some of these places as much as I did!
About 13% of London’s population is of some kind of Asian descent, and everywhere you turn there are restaurants for Chinese, Thai, Indian, Japanese, Afghani, and Pakistani food. (I’m sure I’ve forgotten some ethnicity, so do forgive me.) Being a curry fan, one of my favorite places to eat was Brick Lane, a long road in London’s East End comprised almost exclusively of curry houses. If you’re looking for a gourmet meal this probably isn’t the place for you, but if you’re looking for some authentic Bengladeshi food and have a craving for all things curry-related, this is heaven on earth. As you walk down the street, all you can see is row after row of tiny, dimly-lit, family-owned restaurants. To compete with the other hundred or so nearly identical restaurants, hawkers stand outside every door offering discounted prices and special deals. The best part of this practice is that you have a lot of control as a consumer – restaurants compete for your business, and you can play them against each other by asking for a better deal or mentioning a competing offer (most of the time they’ll do their best to out-do each other). They get you, and you get some authentic, cheap, strong curry – everybody wins :)
Another one of my favorite restaurants was Mangosteen, a chain of Thai restaurants which had a location just a couple of blocks down from where I lived in Earl’s Court. Again, not recommended for a gourmand, but a good, solid, cheap restaurant where I could regularly assuage my yearning for pad thai? Definitely. I ate there far more often than my student budget should have allowed, but every so often I miss it dearly when I need to run somewhere for a quick bite. Thanks to this restaurant, I also learned that a “mangosteen” is a fruit and can now browse the international section of my local grocery store with just a little more snobbery. Yay!
I’ve already mentioned YO! Sushi on this blog before, but it deserves another mention because clearly, I have a weakness for Asian cuisine. YO! Sushi is a chain restaurant with a location in St.Paul’s Square, and was a favorite destination of mine with a few of my flatmates. The focus of the restaurant is a conveyor belt that snakes its way throughout the entire store – customers sit at stools in front of it, and simply have to pick up the dishes they want as they pass by. After you’re done eating, you’re charged based on the number and color of the plates you chose, with grey being the most expensive and green being the least. Being the cheap student that I was however, I always chose to go on Mondays since every plate on the belt was blue (aka £2.20!) :)
I think I would be doing the English a great disservice if, in my list of favorite food haunts, I were to overlook the pub lifestyle of the UK. Everybody probably has some mental stereotype about the English in which they envision a pub scene: old men drinking together wearing tweed and eating fish and chips, rosy cheeked people laughing together and talking, a bar man wiping out a glass with a cloth, or a bunch of loud men drinking pints and thumping each other on the back as they cheer on their favorite football team(s). If that’s your mental image, in many ways it isn’t so far off the mark! The English really do love congregating with friends in dimly-lit wood-paneled neighborhood pubs, drinking a lot of alcohol and cursing at the latest football match. I mean, they love it so much that there’s a hidden pub underneath the Parliament building, where Parliamentarians and their staff go to wind down. (Rest assured, I definitely took advantage of my flatmates’ security badges and invited myself along with them every so often.) The pub right down the street from our flat in Earl’s Court was called O’Neills, and it became a lovely evening to tradition to walk down the street with some friends, order a good plate of fried, heavy food, and enjoy a cold Strongbow straight from the tap. (I’ve already alluded to my affinity for that mead of the gods in other posts, but it isn’t the same if it’s not on tap… it’s really true.) Pubs are more than bars – they are a part of British culture so deeply ingrained that it’s just as normal to see business colleagues stopping by for a drink in their suits as it is to see the more stereotypical clientele. Communities are defined and bolstered by their neighborhood joint. It’s a wonderful piece of English culinary tradition (as cliche as that may sound), and I’m so glad that I had the chance to experience it the way it should be – slowly, with a cold pint and good friends.