Coming to London for the Olympics or a holiday from the heat? Well, you’ll need to eat, won’t you. While there are plenty of “where to eat in London” lists on the internet already, I’ve found that many of them are super-pricey, super-meaty, or both. I thought I’d put together the list that I wish someone had given me a year ago when we were moving here. These are a few of my favorite real-life places serving real food (including plenty of plants) that, for the most part, won’t break the bank. I find myself returning to them over and over.
A few general notes: I live in northwest London, and naturally I eat in my own neighborhood more often than others. But quite a few of these restaurants have multiple locations, so I think you’ll find many of them useful city-wide. You may be surprised to find a couple of chains — namely Wagamama and Pret a Manger — on an Umami Girl list. It surprises me a little, too. But they’re here because London is surprisingly good at turning out legitimately good-tasting, fresh, and reasonably good-for-you food from this type of more enlightened chain.
GINGER & WHITE. Opened in 2009 when the owners couldn’t find a really great cup of coffee in their neighborhood, G&W has quickly expanded to three locations. The atmosphere is lively and cozy, the coffee (sourced from London’s own Square Mile Roastery) is as good as it gets, and the homemade, responsibly sourced food is just right for breakfast and lunch. They call it “slow food for busy people.” Who wouldn’t want a piece of that? They even make their own creatively flavored peanut butters and leave them on the tables to go with your toast. As is common in London, the spaces are teensy, but kids are welcome. (Belsize Park location pictured top row, left.)
MELROSE AND MORGAN. This is the grocer/deli that a vegetable-lover’s dreams are made of. A seasonal menu sourced largely from the British Isles, with creative salads and sandwiches like panzanella with favas, green beans, and peas; and the best vegetarian stuffed aubergine (that’s an eggplant, by the way!) for miles. I’ve been inspired at home by their use of quinoa in small quantities in vegetable-packed salads. The baked goods are dangerously delicious, too, and all just sort of sitting out there on the table whispering your name. You can also shop for fresh and artisan ingredients here if you want to put together a quick dinner or picnic on your own, though you’ll definitely pay for the quality and curation. Limited seating available in both locations, plus plenty of takeout. (Pictured top row, middle.)
GAIL’S. Billed primarily as a bakery, I like Gail’s most for their fresh and inventive salads, soups, and sandwiches. There’s a tiny smoked salmon and avocado number on the counter at breakfast time that I sometimes think about while I’m still in bed on a Friday morning. Green tea gets brewed loose-leaf in your cup, and the coffee is stroooong and delicious. With 11 locations in London, you’re likely to find a convenient location. UPDATE (October 2012): Third time’s a charm, and after three unsavory customer service experiences at Gail’s, I really can’t wholeheartedly recommend it anymore. You’ll still find good food and drink at convenient locations, but caveat emptor. (Pictured top row, right.)
WHOLEFOOD HEAVEN. Even though I’m not vegan, it seems I can’t live anywhere for more than a couple of weeks without having a favorite vegan food truck. (In NJ it was these guys.) I’ll save the unpacking of that one for a chat with my therapist friend Daphne and just move right along now…. Wholefood Heaven is an adorable restaurant in a converted Citroen van run by Chef David Bailey, formerly the head chef of Saf Restaurant, and his wife Charlotte, a natural health expert. One bite of their Massaman Curry Buddha Bowl, and you’ll never wonder why they were featured on River Cottage, in the documentary Planeat, and in the 2011 British Street Food Awards. Check them on twitter to find out where they’ll be. (Pictured smack-dab in the middle, looking like a van.)
WHOLE FOODS KENSINGTON. Yes, it’s a Whole Foods, which is very American of me. But if you love Whole Foods, it would be almost criminal not to stop at this one. It’s three giant stories in a gorgeous converted department store with the best windows you’ve ever seen. The entire top floor is a healthy food court, with a juice bar, vegan and raw foods, sushi, a wine bar, shabu shabu, gourmet pizza and burgers, and more. Let’s not discuss it. Just go. (Pictured middle row, right.)
OTTOLENGHI. I know, I know, again with the Ottolenghi. This is the priciest spot you’ll find on the list, but it would be downright mean of me not to encourage you to go to one of the four Ottolenghi locations or the related Nopi. Dinner reservations can be tricky, but I think lunch is the perfect meal to have there anyway. You can fill a large plate with three or four of the best hearty salads you’ve ever had, and even pair them with a glass of bubbly if you like. I think many of you won’t need an explanation of who Yotam Ottolenghi is or why you should be madly in love with him if you like vegetables. But if you do, please go ahead and have a look at my previous post. (Pictured bottom row, left.)
MILDRED’S. I discovered Mildred’s only recently, when Cope sent me Trip Advisor’s list of travelers’ favorite restaurants in London. We awesomed up and went on a date there last Friday, and we loved it. LOVED it. It’s totally vegetarian, with lots of vegan options, but more than anything it’s just a cute place with delicious food and a really good vibe. It made us feel inconspicuous in our plant eating, which is so great and so strangely rare. The restaurant is tucked into a pretty little street just steps from Oxford Circus. It’s a great place to sit for dinner (and they don’t take reservations, so you’ll get a table if you wait), but they also do a booming takeout business. (Pictured bottom row, right.)
WAGAMAMA. A chain restaurant modeled after Japanese noodle bars, Wagamama started in London in the early ’90s and now has locations worldwide, including more than 25 in London. The menu is dominated by noodle and rice dishes, but there are plenty of other options, too. Miso soup with pickles and a raw salad make a good light lunch, and I wish I could say I don’t replicate the edamame with garlic chili salt at home. There’s a fairly inventive rotating menu of fresh juices, too. Oh, and the green tea is free. This isn’t a place that will blow your mind, but if you live a real life and are looking for fresh food in convenient places while you travel, you’ll find a happy medium here.
PRET A MANGER. And if we’re talking about high-quality chain restaurants that use a red star as their logo, we can’t forget Pret, which also originated in London. Here it’s almost hard not to eat at Pret, since it may be even more ubiquitous than Starbucks is in the U.S. I wouldn’t say I seek them out. (Who would have to?) But I will say that quite a few times I’ve been grateful to see one when I’m starving, in a hurry, and looking for a totally decent option. (Okay, to be perfectly honest, I’ve actually started looking forward to eating at the one at Heathrow when we’re waiting for the morning flight back to New Jersey.) They seem to make a really solid effort to source responsibly and to provide a wide array of plant-based food. My sense is if you’re traveling to London and are the type who gets hungry frequently (ahem!), you’ll probably be glad that Pret beat you here. I know I am.
And that’s all she wrote! I have quite a few other favorites in my life, but I think they’re too small and local for a general write-up for travelers. If you’re heading to London or know someone who is, I hope my good-weird eating habits — which I know many of you share in one way or another — will be of use. If they are, please share this post and help us both! And if you have any of your own favorites in London that would suit vegetarians and plant lovers, please feel free to add them in the comments.