Tips for Eating Out in London on a Budget

London was recently crowned the most expensive city in the world, according to Expatisan’s annual Cost of Living Index. It seems oddly fitting; London connotes images of luxurious afternoon teas and glittering royal jewels, however for those of us living in the most expensive city in the world, and for those planning visits, this new appellation is not particularly well received.

Expatisan’s index took note of this as well. In their data, based on 12,232 prices entered by 1,396 different people, here are just a few of the figures one might encounter during a day out in London:

• Daily menu in the Business District- £13
• Basic dinner out for two in neighborhood pub- £29
• Dinner out for two in Italian restaurant with wine and dessert- £63
• 1 cocktail drink in downtown club- £9

And just to give these figures some further context for American readers, that basic dinner for two at the local pub for £29 would equate to roughly $48. That £9 cocktail on the other hand will set you back about $15. Perhaps it’s just my economical student mindset, but unless said cocktail is served in a gold-plated souvenir cup I am really not that interested.

London’s prices are not entirely unheard of; in any big city, whether it is in the U.K, Europe or anywhere else, there is going to be an inflation of cost. The trick though is finding a few ways around such wallet-crippling figures and getting creative!

a market stall at borough market

A food stall at Borough Market

 

Here are a few tips I’ve cultivated during my time here:

1. Take advantage of Food Markets.

When I first arrived in London, the numerous local markets that popped up on tiny backstreets and various corners overwhelmed me—their size and variety was unlike anything that I’d seen in the States. And for every local market, there is a much larger and well-known hub as well.

Borough Market, for example, is located in Southwark, and has more choices than one could ever need. The market is renowned for the variety found there, and a quick walk through is not nearly enough to grasp the immensity—I’d recommend devoting at least an hour or two! You’ll find Indian, French, and British delights (just to name a few), and every meal I’ve had at Borough Market has cost less than £6.

Somewhat smaller in comparison, Exmouth Market in Clerkenwell also has delicious lunch options from over twenty vendors each day. One of my friends swears the Indian food she had from Exmouth (£5 for a huge portion) was some of the best food she’s had in London. Ask around when you arrive, or do a little research on the food markets that are easily accessible. You not only get a great, affordable lunch, but a fun and authentic London experience!

2. Check out sites like Groupon to see what deals they’re offering.

I try to look at Groupon once every couple weeks to see if there is anything that looks particularly enticing. Often sites like Groupon get a bit of a reputation for offering deals that are hit-or-miss, but I think if you do enough research before purchasing it can be well worth it! One of my recent Groupon purchases was a voucher for two burritos and two beers at a local Mexican restaurant for £8. The food was great and my friend and I were both quite happy! A quick perusal of the website, and you’ll find things like “Italian meal for two with drinks- £24” and “Wine tasting for two, with cheese, for £24.”

These are just a few selections of course, but after checking out both restaurants on their respective Trip Advisor pages, I was pretty confident in the plethora of good reviews I found. Groupon can be very helpful when planning a trip to London. The site often bundles things like dinner, so you’re paying a set rate for two people, and can give a bit of direction if you’re not sure where to eat in such a big city. But, again, be aware and always research the restaurants offering these deals before you book! There’s nothing worse than overpaying for soggy fish and chips.

3. Make sure to eat breakfast!

It’s a terrible cliché, but it really is true—breakfast is the most important meal of the day! And when you’re trying to eat on a budget in London, it is even more important. I know it can be so tempting to forgo breakfast in favor of hitting the streets and the attractions in the city as soon as you can, but trust me, breakfast is not something to miss. Many hotels in the city include—or offer—a full English breakfast. This will include: eggs, bacon, sausage, and side dishes like grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, along with toast and potatoes. If your hotel offers this—great. If not, though, venture out onto the streets and find a local café that does.

The street closest to my flat boasts five cafes that open each morning for breakfast, and they all offer the full English breakfast for £5 or less. After eating such a hearty breakfast, it’s often possible to skip lunch in favor of a snack—or a luxurious afternoon tea—and then have a nice dinner later on. Eating breakfast ensures that you get a proper breakfast experience in London, that you’re fueled for the day of traveling around and that you won’t overpay for soggy fish and chips when you’re ravenous and desperate for lunch!

Unfortunately, when traversing a big city—especially one that is unfamiliar—there will be times when you sit down to what you expect to be a great meal only to be served the dreaded fish and chips I mentioned (can you tell I have a complex about this yet?). It happens. But with a little planning and exploring, it does not have to happen often! Take advantage of the variety London has to offer and don’t be afraid to get creative!

Do any of you have more tips for eating out in London? Or, any dining horror stories to share? Please leave a comment below. I look forward to reading them.

Danielle is an American student currently studying for a Masters degree in London. She has an affinity for most things British, including: tea, crowns, Shakespeare and even The Tube.

Comments

  1. Stephen says

    Danielle, You have a good knowledge of London, and I agree about the markets. But, oh dear, what happened with the fish and chips? Well for great non-soggy fish etc. please try Kerbisher and Malt, 164 Shepherds Bush Road, London W6. The nearest Tube is Hammersmith on the Metropolitan Line. Bon appetit!

  2. Rosemarie Wicke says

    I would rather have real fish and chips any day than the horrible food chains, like burger places and taco chains.I love English meat pies and etc.

  3. Penny says

    We lived in London for 3 years a couple of years ago. We’re homeschoolers, so we spent a lot of time travelling in/out of Central London from Pinner to the museums/theatres/libraries. At first we tried the American Homeschool theory of filling a backpack full of snacks, water, and sandwiches. First trip in to the British Museum, we arrived a bit early. My children, whom I am convinced are Hobbits, decided this extra time waiting for the museum to open was an opportunity for second breakfast and ate our lunch before 9am. After having to spend money for the BM cafeteria that day anyway, I developed some new strategies.
    1) I checked The Metro and The Evening Standard for vouchers.
    2) I subscribed to emails from our favorite high street restaurants and routinely received vouchers.
    3) We often popped in to Marks and Spencer (my personal favorite) or Tesco for one of their sandwich meal deals.
    4) Being lovers of a full English Breakfast, we frequented places which served them all day at a special price.
    5) We still carried a few small snacks and then stopped by a bakery to make a meal off of a treat of croissants, baguettes, etc.
    6) Some places didn’t lend themselves to backpacking it in or didn’t have anything nearby, (National Army Museum, for example. We didn’t want to walk all the way back to tube station area for food) so we ate in the cafeteria there, but shared meals. When we did eat in the cafeterias in museums, galleries, libraries I consoled justified the cost with the quality of the food (really good), it was a proper, hot meal and not fast food, and it meant we could get by with a smaller dinner after a long day on foot and train.

    • Melissa says

      Penny, number three is my favourite tip. I love a good coronation chicken sandwich from Marks and Sparks and a bag of prawn cocktail crisps. Delish!

    • Jennifer says

      I agree with #3. Both trips to London (and other parts of the UK), we frequently picked up food from Tesco. So many great sandwiches, then add some crisps and some fruit. Our first night last trip, we had a Tesco picnic along the Thames. Oh, the memories.

  4. Melissa says

    My favourite tip, other than buying those lovely packaged triangle sandwiches from Marks and Spencer is to consider renting a flat with a kitchen as an alternative to a hotel room. We do it often and I start every morning with a bowl of muesli and a nice cup of tea made in my own (albeit temporarily) kitchen. Once or twice we go out for a full English but sometimes do as you suggest Danielle and have it for lunch. Then at least every other evening we try to be back in the flat for dinner. If you’re careful, you can get a decent flat in a great location for nearly the same cost of a three or four star hotel. Any difference in cost can be made up by the money you save from not having to eat out three meals a day.

  5. sherry says

    Penny’s tips are wonderful. One of OUR favorite London food tips is to pick up “components” at Marks & Spencers or other stores (we even splurged on ready-made exotic items from Harrods for cheaper than restaurants – we had a small fridge in our hotel room & sometimes it was really nice not to have to go out & try to find a place for dinner) and pack a lunch for picnics at museums and attractions. One of the BEST was the cheese shop at Marylebone station … we bought about 4 or 5 “ends” of exotic cheeses for 1 GBP each, some baguette & some salami for a great lunch in the courtyard of the Tate Modern …..

  6. Elizabeth Bader says

    I spent a week in London in ’08, touring around on my own while my husband was there on business, working at the convention center near Westminster. Definitely on a budget at the time, I found lots of places to experience real British food for not a lot of pounds (though I probably put on quite a few!). I had several traditional English breakfasts (including baked beans), the best being at a small cafe near my hotel, not far from the St. James’ Tube station. Though I never could stomach what the British pass for “sausage,” the rest of the meal was fabulous and not too expensive. I had fish and chips at a couple of different pubs. While I never had soggy fish, I did have a fish that was breaded and fried complete with scales, head and bones! Needless to say, I only ate the chips and never returned to that pub. The other fish & chips were the best I’ve ever had, though I can’t remember where I had them. I guess it’s kind of a hit-and-miss kind of thing. You take your chances. I had to try a bit of everything. I had tea and delicious soup at Harrod’s, fabulous warm spiced nuts from a street vendor on Westminster bridge, and pasties in Windsor. I also discovered Greek yogurt there; it was one of the best things I discovered to eat there, and upon my return to the US, was disappointed to find it not available here (though now it’s quite easy to find and it’s all I buy). I also had a macchiato at the cafe in the British museum, and though I was quite shocked to find that it wasn’t anything like what Starbucks calls a macchiato, it was very nice after I added a lot of milk and sugar. For dinner, we relied heavily on recommendations from my husband’s British colleagues, and were not disappointed. These locals knew where to get the best food for the best price. We had Indian, Italian and traditional pub fare. It was all lovely and I gained a new appreciation for British food (with the exception of the breakfast bangers).

  7. Paola Estrada says

    Been in London in 2011 and definitely eating out in the markets is a cheap and delicious solution!! I tried greek, arabic, indian but also english food for a really good price. Plus Tesco offered a quick snack’s choices for someone on budget. I would definitely reccomend doing this instead of goinf to the fast food options or to restaurants and paying a lot!! I rather spend that money sightseeing all what London has to offer

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