Ten Great Affordable Bistros That Give London a Gallic Flavor
London is a city where chefs push culinary boundaries and serve an astonishing range of cuisines from around the world.
What if you fancy simple French cooking over the latest culinary fad?
What if you like your snails in shells rather than in porridge?
Here are 10 bistros and brasseries that don't take fright at frites, and most of them have great lunch deals, too.
Service is friendly at this small Soho bistro owned by three brothers. There's a good selection of charcuterie and cheese and a variety of small plates for sharing. None costs more than 10 pounds ($15.35). Seabass fillet with Provencal crab bisque, peas and samphire, for example, is 8.90 pounds. The lunch and pre-theater set menu is 15 pounds for two courses and 19.50 pounds for three.
9 D'Arblay Street, Soho, W1F 8DR; +44-20-7439-8100
Eric Chavot is one of the finest chefs in London. He held two Michelin stars at Capital restaurant and is known for his skill, his creativity and his big personality. Chavot is happy to focus on the classics at this Mayfair brasserie. He just adds a twist or two of his own. His cooking is of such a standard that you don't need to hop on the Eurostar for a French lunch. This place is one of the most expensive on the list, but it's worth it. The set lunch is 28.50 pounds for three courses.
41 Conduit Street, Mayfair, W1S 2YQ; +44-20-7078-9577
This tiny Bermondsey bistro is one of the most Gallic places to eat in London. Sitting here for Sunday lunch - surrounded by French people chatting to each other across the room - it can feel like you have wandered onto the set of the TV comedy 'Allo 'Allo!. It's very relaxing just to squeeze into a table and order from the daily menu chalked on a blackboard. It may feature options such as salmon rillette with salad (8 pounds) and veal medallions with gratin Dauphinois (18.50 pounds). About 15 wines are available by the glass and carafe.
109 Bermondsey Street, London Bridge, SE1 3XB; +44-20-7407-2140
This charming Provencal restaurant is headed by Marseillais chef Julien Carlon and Christophe Gravelot, who work with suppliers from across the south of France. A huge skylight brightens the dining room, housed in a former auction house. The set lunch is 21.50 pounds for two courses and 26.50 pounds for three. Dishes may include veal-head terrine with pickles and mustard vinaigrette; and roasted guinea-foul breast with cabbage and chestnut. The selection of wines by the glass includes options from Corsica.
115 Chancery Lane, Holborn, WC2A 1PP; +44-20-7242-8373
This neighborhood restaurant has been serving Chelsea diners - many of them French - since 1998. There is so much you want to eat a la carte, it's tough to settle for the weekday set lunch. But that menu is particularly good value at 19.50 pounds for two courses, including coffee. It may include pan-fried prawns, tomato and garlic or lemon sole with garlic butter. The wines are also reasonably priced, meaning it is easy to lose an afternoon.
145 Dovehouse Street, Chelsea, SW3 6LB; +44-20-7351-1155
Brick Lane is beter known for curry than Camembert. This bistro is absolutely charming, prettily decorated in a retro French style that matches the traditional menu. It's like a step back in time, and a very pleasant one. Starters at night are all priced below 10 pounds and mains below 20 pounds. At lunchtime, it is 17.50 pounds for two courses. Chez Elles is owned by two women friends, and the front-of-house was all-women each time I visited.
45 Brick Lane, Spitalfields, E1 6PU; +44-20-7247-9699 or +44-20-7247-9699
This Smithfield bistro is the baby brother of the nearby Club Gascon restaurant. It specializes in food and wines sourced exclusively from southwest of France, with a focus on duck. You might do worse than go for the classic duck burger, at 9.50 pounds. Or you could go for lunch-menu dishes such as garden tomato salad with basil, or roasted leg of lamb, confit garlic, girolles and croquettes. The cost? Just 13.50 pounds for two courses.
63 Charterhouse Street, Smithfield, EC1M 6HJ; +44-20-7608-0851
This Soho establishment bills itself as the oldest French restaurant in London and traces its history to 1927. Diners over the years have included Coco Chanel, John Gielgud, Mick Jagger, Elton John, Ralph Richardson, Judi Dench and Princess Diana. After all that time, and a makeover last year, L'Escargot retains its classic style. There is currently no set lunch. That won't affect me: I always order a dozen snails (21 pounds) and entrecote steak (24 pounds) plus crème brulee (8 pounds). If you are on a budget in Soho, better head to Blanchette. L'Escargot is a place to linger.
48 Greek Street, Soho, W1D 4EF; +44-20-7439-7474
Confusingly, Mon Plaisir also describes itself as London's oldest French restaurant. This Covent Garden favorite traces its history to the 1940s. Mon Plaisir is popular with locals and tourists alike, and is competitively priced. The set lunch is 15.95 pounds for two courses and 17.95 pounds for three. Options may include hake fillet with a chive sauce and celeriac mash, and pear-and-almond tart.
21 Monmouth Street, Covent Garden, WC2H 9DD; +44-20-7836-7243
This Belgravia establishment is another old-timer on the London scene and regularly wins awards for being the city's most romantic restaurant. You can sit outside in the summer, while in the winter there are lots of cozy corners for dates, assignations or even (I suppose) for anniversaries. La Poule au Pot's popularity hasn't dented the quality of the cooking or the ingredients, which is high. The prices reflect that, so don't go with a cheap date.
231 Ebury Street, Belgravia, London, SW1W 8UT; +44-20-7730-7763
If you have read this far and have run out of fingers, you may have noticed that (in a Spinal Tap moment) my Top 10 has reached No. 11. I just really want to recommend my favorite French meal in London: Canard a la Presse, at 140 pounds for two. Owner Otto Tepasse prepares this dish of duck in blood sauce tableside, warning that it will take at least an hour to squeeze out the last drop of flavor while regaling you with anecdotes. These may feature his racy times as sommelier at Stringfellows nightclub, with customers dancing on the tables, more than 30 years ago. Allow plenty of time: While the sauce takes an hour, Otto serves the liver, breast and legs in separate courses that can fill an afternoon. (You need to order in advance.)
182 Gray’s Inn Road, Bloomsbury, WC1X 8EW; +44-20-7713-0107
Richard Vines is Bloomberg's chief food critic. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines