Words by Frankie McCoy
Food is social currency: posting an Instagram photo from the latest cult restaurant of *that* cheeseburger/kimchi taco/plate of hand-pulled pasta gives more kudos than being seen at any club or with any handbag. But it’s costly to maintain that totes hip foodie image when a new It dish appears daily. You need to play tactically. You need to know the single best yet cheapest dish to order at the hippest restaurants, for when you’re chic but totally cheap.
When you’re with an awkward veggie (or you are that awkward veggie)
Gunpowder aloo chat (£5.50)
A tiny, corridor-like Indian down a Shoreditch back alley doesn’t sound terribly promising. Yet Gunpowder is brilliant. No oily, heartburner masala here; instead, beautifully light dishes that vibrate with flavour. And there is huge choice for the meat-free mate in your life. Pickled okra fries are amazing but it’s the signature aloo chat that you need: smoky soft potatoes wallowing in sweet, mouth-tickling tamarind sauce and creamy yoghurt.
When you want fine dining (but you’re happy to stand)
Prawnography’s special (£10)
Prawnography might be a street food stand with a devastatingly punning name (thus ticking all the “chic” boxes you really need). But Jim’s background in fine dining means every one of his fish dishes is also a Michelin-worthy work of art. A recent dish of griddled ocean trout with parsley cream, pickled Yorkshire rhubarb, horseradish and popcorn shoot practically deserved its own gallery, besides being a umami bomb of flavour.
When you need a burger. Now.
Bleecker St. cheeseburger (£6)
Imagine the best McDonald’s cheeseburger you’ve ever eaten. Now multiply the pleasure of eating that salty, squidgy, beefy badness by several thousand, turn the uniformly grey meat a luscious pink, and that’s a Bleecker. Founder Zan Kaufman created this perfect thing in 2012. A street food market staple, she’s just opened permanent indoor digs in Victoria, so you can sit down in the warm as you consume the best burger you will ever, ever eat.
When you’re willing to queue
Padella pici cacio e pepe (£5.50)
The cheaper, and impossibly popular, younger sister to Islington’s beloved Italian restaurant Trullo, Padella has a permanent queue outside its doors. Brave it, and you will be lovingly rewarded. Fresh pasta dough is made and rolled in front of you; transformed into pici, a sort of chubby spaghetti, it’s then cooked to al dente and smothered in the most intensely parmesan cheesey, peppery cream sauce. It looks a bit like worms. It tastes phenomenal. And wine starts at £3.50 a glass.
When you’re with your gal pals
Ceru’s small plates (from £5)
Go sharesies and order one dish each, and with a bottle of £17 Turkish white you’ll still be out for under £10. You could do worse than order calamari, crisper and better seasoned than in most beachside restaurants (£7), pancar, a beetroot dip that sparks pita fights over the last scoop (£5) and sticky sweet pomegranate lamb, marinated and cooked for hours and hours until it practically melts (£10).
When you’re on a Tinder date
Breddos baja fish taco (£4)
You don’t want to invest too much time or money in a guy you know only from his Facebook profile. Tacos are the way forward, and that means Breddos. Every filling is brilliant, but you must have the classic: a sparklingly fresh nugget of fish, battered, on a healthy slick of zinging lime mayo, to be wrapped in the corn tortilla and shovelled into your mouth in one bite. Not the most elegant of dishes – juice spurts, tortillas sag – but if your date can’t handle you happily slurping sauce from your wrists, he’s not The One.
RELATED: These are the best tacos in London
When you need to fantasise yourself on holiday
Barrafina pan con tomate (£3.80)
Warning: it is excruciatingly difficult not to order everything at London’s best tapas restaurant. Exercise restraint, though, and just order the pan con tomate. Beautifully ripe, salted tomatoes top thick, almost brioche-like toasted bread, all drenched in very good olive oil indeed. Ridiculously simple yet so perfect, it makes a mockery of anything more complicated. Best with a glass of the house La Gitana manzanilla (£6)
When you’re on your own
A Wong’s Shanghai steamed dumpling with ginger vinegar (£1.50)
Even when not on a budget, solo lunchers with a keen desire to sample thoroughly have a dilemma: you can’t physically consume more than a few dishes before you’re full, leaving a whole menu unexplored. A Wong comes to the rescue. Dim sum starts at just £1.30 per piece, meaning you can order six different things and be out, full yet not bursting, for under a tenner. Although you will end up ordering a second of the soup-filled dumpling. Biting into the thin wrapper releases a flood of porky rich broth, cut through with sour, gingery vinegar.
When you want to feel special
Bellanger tarte flambee alsacienne (£5.50)
Bellanger is a restaurant from the gods of hospitality, Corbin and King, whose restaurants are not only filled with thesps but whose staff treat every single guest like they’re a bonafide A-lister. Their Islington place is as theatrically grand as the original, and universally adored, Wolseley. Yet despite the old school glitz, you can escape without spending your inheritance by ordering the tarte flambee alsacienne: the thinnest, crispest flatbread, that elegantly shatters under the weight of its smoky bacon-onion-cheese topping.
Consider this your insider’s guide to eating cheap in London.