Whilst the water in London is drinkable, it suffers from a surfeit of lime.
Many people either have water filters in their homes or drink bottled water.
By law, restaurants and cafes must provide you with tap water if requested, and cannot charge for it. If you ask for water without specifying, you will usually be brought bottled water, which must be paid for. So if you are on a budget, remember to ask for tap waterwith your meal.
Most English public houses are quite charming, with a very good selection of quality beers. There are quite a few very old pubs in London.
If you are on a budget but don’t want to subsist on pot noodles, or you wish to eat traditional English food, the pub is the place to go. Main courses are usually between £6 – £10. However, a lot of them close the kitchen around 7pm or earlier, so it’s a good idea to make sure they are serving before ordering your drinks.
Some pubs have an upstairs or downstairs lounge, which is usually less crowded.
The range of wines is usually limited (and wine bars are scarce).
Pubs are busiest on Thursday and Friday evenings in the ‘quick pint after work’ period, and on weekend afternoon and evenings; table space and service will be hard to find.
If you can, pick afternoons/evenings early in the week to check out the interesting pubs, and either make reservations, or choose something cheap and cheerful for dining during the peak times.
Whereas restaurants have table service, in most pubs you order food at the bar, and give your table number so the staff know where to deliver your dinner. If you’re not certain, ask at the bar.
Sundays: some pubs offer a ‘traditional Sunday roast dinner’, served from midday onward, ’til they sell out: roast beef, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, selection of two veg, and gravy, plus your drink. Quality ranges, of course, but it’s a good option if you’re out for a long day of sightseeing.
Many pubs still close at 11pm (no, we aren’t kidding). Some places now have late-night licenses, but 11pm is still common. Last orders are called about 10:45 – 10:50.
All public spaces in the UK are smoke-free. There are no longer smoking areas indoors, but many restaurants and pubs have gardens and terraces where smoking is allowed outdoors.
There is a chain of pubs called Wetherspoons, which carries ‘real ale’ – naturally brewed beer from small(ish) local producers, comparable to N. American microbreweries. Confusingly, these pubs all have different names – look for the Wetherspoons name on the window.
It’s a reliable choice across London for decent beer and eminently affordable pub grub. A burger, chips (fries), and a pint of beer or glass of wine are usually offered together for between £5-7.
Fancy a pint Good source of pub reviews, complete with interactive maps and directions. Very useful – stick to the 3-pint or more ratings for best results!
BITE: Beer in the evening Honest reviews from ordinary (opinionated!) people who live here and like their beer.
By UK law all establishments must display menus and prices outside and you can check these out before you enter.
Many restaurants in the theatre district (around Soho and Covent Garden) offer set-price and pre-theatre (i.e. pre 7 – 7:30) menus.
All-you-can-eat buffets are common in Chinatown and Soho.
Time Out London Reviews of restaurants, pubs, bars, clubs, shows, the works, and constantly updated. Very useful.
“Simply Food” Restaurant Listings Guide. This is an excellent service, giving ratings, price ranges, maps and reviews for almost all London’s restaurants.
Reliable food chains that you’ll find in London
(we’ll assume you can find the fast food places yourself):
Pret a Manger – healthy breakfast, lunch and snack food, and drinkable coffee
Wagamama – Japanese noodle bar. Utilitarian decor. Specializes in speedy fresh noodle dishes
Pizza Express – Does what it says on the tin, fresh thin-crust pizza cooked on-site.
Nando’s – ‘Home of famous Portuguese flame-grilled peri-peri chicken’ (with a token beanburger for vegetarians).
Tipping & Service
Sadly, the London service industry is not particularly good – don’t expect friendly chirpy waiters and shop assistants. Service outside of London tends to be friendlier and more personable.
Tipping in the UK is 10 – 12.5%. Most people round it to 10%.
Always check your bar or restaurant bill before tipping.
Some have already added a Service Charge i.e. tip (this isn’t the same as VAT however).
If the service was lousy, don’t tip.
Whilst generally waiters, etc. are paid so poorly they make it up with the tips, bad service means they aren’t doing their job properly, and there is no reason you should reward them for it.
Although the native English themselves seldom ever complain, if you do have a problem they are generally good about fixing it (after they get over the initial shock!). Don’t be afraid to send food back to the kitchen!
If you’re on a seriously tight budget, consider visiting a grocery store to buy coffee, tea, cereal and sandwich makings to keep in your hotel or flat. Grocery stores in England have well-marked organic sections, and labels list ingredients and allergens clearly.
Links point to store locators – enter your post code to find the nearest shops.
Waitrose – high-end groceries, good quality, good beer and wine selections (one benefit of living in Europe – cheap Italian and French wine!)
Marks & Spencer – their food locations have lots of yummy single portions for microwave slaves.