It’s January. We’re all poor. But that doesn’t mean we have to hibernate completely. Here’s our pick of ten restaurants that won’t break the bank, outstretch your overdraft or mean the rent doesn’t get paid.
You’ll be able to get a meal (starter and main, or a decent number of small plates) along with some booze for £20 — or sometimes well under — at all of the below. Our selection is spread across town and includes a variety of cuisines (not just those that are traditionally cheaper, for example, Indian and Vietnamese).
Banh Mi Bay, Holborn
The banh mi Vietnamese baguette is the centre-point of this all-day café-restaurant, but there’s also pho, summer rolls and chargrilled meats on offer. The food here bursts with fresh herbs and spices, and the noodles are all handmade on-site daily. Pho and most other main courses cost between £7 and £8.
Bonnington Café, Vauxhall
Originally a squat, this restaurant in picturesque Bonnington Square (a couple of minutes from less picturesque Vauxhall station) is now a uniquely run co-operative. In the region of 20 different cooks head-up the kitchen here, taking residency for the day and preparing their own menus. You need to contact said chef directly to book and make enquiries about the menu (their details are on the website), but you’re rewarded for your efforts with mains for £6-£8 and starters and desserts for half that. Plus it’s BYO with no corkage. With so many rotating cooks, it can be a little hit and miss but that’s all part of the gamble.
Brasserie Zedel, Soho
Prix Fixe menus are available every day at this grand Parisian bistro close to Piccadilly Circus. At £8.95 for two courses or £11.95 for three, an evening here need set you back only marginally more than a portion of fish and chips (or a supermarket-ready meal) but features superb service, a bustling atmosphere and French food that’s up there with the city’s best. Keep drinks to a minimum if budgets are really tight, or make the most of the cheap food to make a budget night of it.
KaoSarn, Brixton and Battersea
The original of this two-branched Thai restaurant gained popularity at Brixton Village for its hefty flavours, intricate spicing, low prices and BYO licence. It now follows the same formula for its second opening in Battersea, not far from Clapham Junction station. All the classics are present, and correct, and we find the standard of meat and fish to be notably higher than at many a shabby Thai. The atmosphere at both restaurants is informal and bustling, though the Battersea branch is a touch smarter.
So popular are the udon noodles here that there’s often a queue just to get at them. It’s worth the wait if you’re a noodle fan, though, as these are widely held as the capital’s best. Choose from a hefty portion of hot or cold noodles, hot or cold broth, and many a meat, fish or veg topping for between £7 and £15.
Mamuska, Elephant & Castle
It may not surprise you that a restaurant set inside the Elephant & Castle shopping centre is pretty cheap, but if you’re yet to try it then the quality might do. It’s Polish fare, dished out in canteen-style (grab a tray), so don’t expect anything too refined, but hearty portions costing just £3 for starters and £6 for mains are well-flavoured and very enjoyable all the same. A glass of wine, beer or cider is £3, at weekends a litre jug of spicy bloody mary is £9, and freshly squeezed orange juice is just £1. A double-shot of Polish Wyborowa, Zubrowka or Krupnik vodka is only £3, too.
Hot and cold meze is order of the day at this second Meza opening in a part of south London known for little other than curry houses. From hummus to Merguez-style sausages, brilliantly crisp potato bites and many a vibrant salad, dishes are made with love by an ex-West End chef but cost far less than you would pay in that part of town — they start at under £4 and head to little over £9.
Silk Road, Camberwell
This off-the-beaten-track Sichuan restaurant has built up quite a following for its dumplings, which are juicy within, slightly crisp outside, packed with tender minced meats and cost less than £3 for 10. Beers and wines are similarly cheap, resulting in a meal that's ideal for group-sharing and unlikely to cost more than a tenner.
Something of a London institution, this North Indian restaurant and grill has been around since 1972 but gained popularity and renown more recently thanks to praise on food blogs and across Twitter. Grilled meat such as its signature lamb chops are among the best you’ll find in London, while dahls, curries and freshly baked breads also knock the socks off most other Indians. Be warned, though: if you don’t book then you’d better be prepared to wait. If you do book, you may still have to wait. Starters begin at £4 while most mains are well under £10. They’re big, too.
The Vincent Rooms, Westminster
From carefully created classic dishes with a modern twist, to attentive service, this plush restaurant feels far too classy for the price. The catch? Well, it’s run by Westminster Kingsway College and staffed by their cheffing and hospitality students. If that puts anyone off, then all the more space for the rest of us; the students are overseen by pros at all times and our experience (as well as that of other reviewers) is that it’s a pretty slick operation. The menu is constantly changing but expect the likes of pan-fried sea bream with crab risotto and samphire, or pork belly roasted in dark ale. Mains are in the region of £8-£12, starters and desserts £4-£6.
Also see our follow-up feature with 10 more great restaurants you can dine at for under £20 a head.
This article is part of our Best of London Food and Drink series. Visit the page for more recommendations of where to enjoy the capital's top food and drink, categorised by cuisine, food type and more.