Guided, informal tasting tours of London will open your mind - and your palate - to a great and surprising cosmopolitan feast.
Like New York, with which it has a lot in common, London's social and cultural variety is played out in its kitchens and on its tables. It's a side of the city that few visitors get to experience. Guidebooks, restaurant reviews and articles in foodie magazines put the spotlight on the latest chefs, the multi-Michelin-starred eateries, the places where your credit card gets a heavy duty workout.
That's fine. London can hold its own in that regard. But spend enough money and you can probably eat gorgeous food almost anywhere. What few visitors get to experience is the wonderful ethnic diversity and the old-fashioned traditional treats found off the beaten path in neighborhood cafes, bars and bistros, local shops and market stalls.
In 2016, Eating London Tours introduced two tasting walks that allow visitors a chance to get off the tourist treadmill and spend three or four hours discovering interesting corners of the city and really great things to eat and drink in unexpected places.
The tours are led by vivacious local residents, skilled in breaking the ice and bonding small groups of strangers into relaxed parties of friends enjoying moveable feasts at about 10 different places. They are great ice breakers for solo travelers looking for a bit of safe, no-strings company as well.
And it's not only about food. Along the way the guides share local stories, history and gossip and introduce you to the people who make, sell and serve their specialties with skill and enthusiasm.
Each of the London tours is distinct and, if you have time, trying both is a good way of covering a lot of territory - physical, gastronomical and philosophical.
The East End Food Tour is a morning ramble through one of the city's oldest quarters, home to immigrants for hundreds of years, and also home to some of England's most famous classic dishes.
The Twilight Soho Food Touris an evening out the West End's coolest and edgiest district, where just about every cuisine in the world is represented and quite a few are tasted.
I joined both tours, starting with the East End. Check out what it was like.
East End Food Tour
We gathered at Old Spitalfields Market for our East End Food Tour at 10am. In all there were eight of us: a pair of friends from opposite ends of Europe meeting up for a London reunion, a multi-national couple in town to visit family; two computer analysts come all the way from California for a Chelsea game and a long boy's weekend, our bubbly guide Emily and me.
After a few minutes to exchange names and back stories and to get to know each other, we followed Emily across the road for our first "course" - a bacon sarnie at St John Bread and Wine on Commercial Street. I'd never ventured into any of the St John restaurants (there are several branches), that boast of their nose-to-tail eating experiences because I'm not a fan of offal - something they are noted for. But their bacon sandwich, legendary according to our guide, was a very nice way to start the day.
For the next four hours we dipped in and out of alleys and lanes, apparently covering lots of different neighbourhoods but never actually wandering more than a few blocks from Spitalfields.
We gobbled down the equivalent of an 8-course meal - bread and butter pudding in a 17th century restaurant, fish and chips at an award winning chippy, two different curries at one of Brick Lane's oldest Indian restaurants, English cheeses selected by two handsome Frenchmen and matured in cellars below their shop and a salted caramel tart in a trendy Shoreditch restaurant masquerading as a pizza parlor. At Beigel Bake, London's 24/7 Jewish bakery, we tried chewy hot bagels stuffed with salt beef (that's corned beef brisket in the UK), pickles and mustard and at a tiny pub off Brick Lane we sampled pretty warm, pretty flat English beer.
Not everything we tried was to everyone's taste - the English mustard can blow the roof off the heads of the unwary; the beer was, I'm afraid, a stereotype reinforcer and hardly typical of most beer served in the UK today. But all in all, this was a successful exploration and a lovely way to spend several hours in good company,learning about a historic London area that is becoming so hip it may soon vanish, while munching away on an ever changing assortment of tasty nosh.
Find out how to book this tour
Check out the Twilight Soho Food Tour
Twilight Soho Food Tour
About halfway through our Twilight Soho Food Tour, we crossed Shaftsbury Avenue, the thoroughfare that slices between Soho and Chinatown and headed for Chinatown's main drag, Gerrard Street. There, we entered an unmarked door beside a restaurant and began to climb a staircase through semi-darkness. On the second landing, the word Opium, surrounded by some Chinese characters, was painted on wine dark walls. Two more landings and through some dark curtains and we were in Opium - a dim sum, tea and cocktail bar that looks like you need a password, a secret handshake and a special knock to get in.
If you're visiting London, you'd need a knowledgeable local guide like ours, the vivacious Hannah, to find out of the way gems like Opium. The evening tour sets off from the Theatre District at 4:30pm and is an adults only Soho bar crawl. Along the way we sampled gin in one of Soho's oldest gin joints, frozen jalapeňo cocktails to accompany tacos in a Mexican bodega, Basque wine with pintxos - the Basque name for tapas - and Spanish wine with the delicious acorn-fed Iberico ham. We didn't sample the cocktails at Opium but by the time we got there we were already pretty merry. Last stop, an Italian chocolateria where the smell of chocolate was so strong that it stayed on my clothes and hair for the rest of the night.
The Twilight Soho tour highlights the international and louche character of this nighttime entertainment area warts and all. And it's a great way for uncertain visitors to discover the many respectable pleasures of one of London's red light districts.
How to Join an Eating London Tour
How to Join an Eating London Tour
Each London tour is limited to a maximum of 12 people and takes four hours:
- The East End Food Tour leaves several times a day, Monday to Saturday and is priced for adults, adolescents 13 to 18 years old and children under 13. The tours are not cheap but they cost, per person, what you might expect to pay for a good meal, transportation and an attraction on a day out in London.
- The Twilight Soho Tour is not wheelchair friendly and participants must be at least 18 years old. The cost, per person, is the equivalent of what you might spend on a theater ticket and a light meal in the West End.
Vegetarians can be accommodated. If you have other dietary requirements let them know in advance and they will do their best to accommodate you. They are not, however, able to adjust for lactose intolerance or gluten intolerance. I absolutely cannot stand coriander and gin - both of which featured on the menus the night I took the tour - but I had no problem at avoiding those ingredients.
Tickets can only be purchased on line, in advance.
To find out more and to book visit their website or telephone +44 (0) 20 3289 6327 from the UK or +1 215 688 5571 from North America.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.