London has a world-class dining scene with Michelin-starred restaurants galore and an impressive array of global dining spots from curry houses on Brick Lane to dim sum dens in Chinatown. But for a true flavor of the city, you need to sample some classic British dishes, whether you indulge in a spot of afternoon tea or feast on a hearty roast dinner.
The ritual of pairing tea, cake, and sandwiches in the afternoon dates to the early 1800s when the 7th Duchess of Bedford scheduled tea with her well-heeled acquaintances to bridge the gap between breakfast and dinner.
Now tea rooms and posh hotels throughout the country offer their take on this age-old tradition and London is home to over 250 afternoon tea venues. The full experience starts with finger sandwiches (typically cucumber, egg and cress, and smoked salmon) followed by scones served with jam and clotted cream and a selection of individual cakes, all washed down with a choice of tea.
London's top hotels usually serve loose leaf tea in beautiful teapots with the sweet and savory treats presented on tiered plates. For a luxury spread, head to one of the city's high-end hotels like the Ritz, Claridge's, or the Savoy. Or fill up after a culture fix at Kensington Palace (where tea is served in the Orangery) or the National Gallery (where the tea room overlooks Trafalgar Square).
Synonymous with the east end of London, jellied eels are something of an acquired taste. The dish is made by boiling chopped eels in water, vinegar, lemon, nutmeg, and other spices to make a fish stock. When cool, the liquid solidifies and forms a jelly-like substance.
Jellied eels were popular in the 18th century with London's working classes when eels were plentiful and cheap to source from the river Thames. The dish used to be served on stalls throughout the east end of London but there are only a handful of places that sell them now. To try them for yourself, head to the historic pie shop, M. Manze near Tower Bridge or hip fish and chip shop, Poppies in Spitalfields.
Traditionally served on a Sunday, the British roast dinner consists of roasted meat, roasted potatoes, vegetables (typically carrots, parsnips, and broccoli) and lashings of gravy. The meal dates back to the 15th century when King Henry VII's royal guards would eat roast beef every Sunday after attending church.
The ritual soon spread to households across Britain and it's still one of the nation's favorite dishes. Most London pubs serve roast dinners on a Sunday.
Top picks include the Jugged Hare near the Barbican for large portions of meat and duck fat-roasted potatoes, the Anchor & Hope in Waterloo for whole joints of meat carved at the table and the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms in Fulham. Check out our guide to the best Sunday roast dinners served in pubs near top London parks.
Pie and Mash
Savory pies were a popular street food in Victorian London, served by 'piemen' who would sell their wares in neighborhoods in the east and southeast of the city. Eel was a common filling but when shops opened, minced beef or lamb became a popular choice.
London's oldest existing pie and mash shop is M. Manze on Tower Bridge Road which opened in 1891 and the original recipes are still used today. Order a meat pie served with mash and liquor (parsley gravy). Goddards in Greenwich serves handmade pies made to family recipes and F.Cooke on Broadway Market keeps pie-eating hipsters happy.
Fish and Chips
It's one of Britain's favorite dishes but fried fish was first introduced to the country by Jewish refugees from Portugal and Spain and London's first fish and chip shop is said to have opened around 1860 in the east end.
The perfect fish and chip pairing should be crispy and comforting: moist white flaky fish encased in golden batter served with fluffy chips and mushy peas. The city's oldest restaurant is Rock & Sole Plaice in Covent Garden, a lively chippy that serves sustainable fish prepared using traditional recipes dating to 1871.
Poppies in Spitalfields is a modern restaurant with kitsch interiors decked out with a jukebox, mini red telephone box and black and white prints. Sutton & Sons in Stoke Newington serves a posh selection of seafood including monkfish, seabass, and oysters paired with locally brewed beers.