Every year, studies are published ranking the world’s most expensive cities. These studies fall into two categories: those that put London at the top of the list, and those that are wrong. I’ve lived here more than five years, and I still can’t figure out how most Londoners survive in a city where a 15-minute taxi ride can easily cost $40. And eating out? The cynical rule of thumb for transplanted New Yorkers is that you’ll pay twice as much for a meal that’s half as good. If you’re visiting, you can easily shave a few pounds off your food and drink bills by following these rules.
Eat the empire. There are cities where it doesn’t pay to stray from the dominant cuisine. (You really wanna try the Chinese place in Florence? Good luck.) But the countries Britain once conquered make food that’s far tastier, and often cheaper, than that plate of Dover sole. Try Rasa Samudra, a Keralan palace specializing in seafood.
Think like a frugal local. For a cheap, filling street meal, try a “pasty” (a turnover filled with meat or vegetables), a kebab sandwich, or a “jacket potato” (a baked potato stuffed with anything from chili to tuna). Explore the gastropub. All London neighborhoods now feature at least one pub with high-quality, relatively cheap food. Try the Thai fare at the Churchill Arms on Kensington Church Street, or pay a visit to The Eagle, the original gastropub, on Farringdon Road.
Drink beer, not wine. The choice of wines in London restaurants and pubs is much better than it was in the ‘80s, but you pay for it. If you insist on drinking wine, do the math: In most places, as soon as your table goes over two glasses, it’s usually cheaper to buy the bottle.
Shop farmer’s markets. You can get fabulous produce at farmer’s markets, which have been around less than a decade in London. A guide to the markets by neighborhood is available.
Takeaway. There’s a terrific fish-and-chips place (Costas Fish Restaurant) near my flat in Notting Hill where they tack on 2 pounds ($3.75) per dish for the privilege of sitting in a dining room with zero atmosphere and a ventilation system that keeps your meal on your clothes for weeks. Do what the locals do: Get it to take away, and snag a bench in Hyde Park.
Tesco rules. Tesco is Britain’s answer to Wal-Mart. Whether you’re looking for a noontime sandwich, fresh fruit, or a bottle of milk for your in-hotel cup of tea, you’re not likely to find it cheaper anywhere else.
Chain yourself. London features a number of chain restaurants that offer good, fairly cheap meals in no-frills, cafeteria-style settings. These include Wagamama (Asian noodles), New Culture Revolution (peasant Chinese), and Masala Zone (Indian).
Bring your own. An “unlicensed” restaurant means BYOB, which saves you money. Try the India Club on the Strand or Tendido Cero, the across-the-street annex of the excellent Spanish mecca Cambio de Tercio in South Kensington.