London has always been the greatest multicultural city on earth, a vast and ever-bubbling stew of Christian and Jew, Muslim and Buddhist, atheist, Sikh and agnostic alike. Right from the beginning, when the Romans took a fancy to a picturesque bend of the River Thames, London has embraced the outside world. Only now, though, does the serious eater have something to really celebrate. And I don’t mean the world-famous temples to gastronomy, as fine as they are. No, for me, London’s joy is tramping the back alleys and byways in search of real food and serious eating. Places where you’re lucky to get a paper napkin, let alone a linen one, places where menus are chalked on boards rather than embossed on stiff cards. I want flavors, bold and pungent, with no concession made to timid tongues and wary palates.
Since I grew up in the country, London was like an edible promised land—a place where every gastronomic urge could be sated. Twenty years later, it’s never been better: Smoky ribs I can devour with my hands; Thai curries that sear the tongue; vast pies packed full with game. These are the places of proper London eating, where I drag my friends when they tire of expensive interiors and endless tasting menus. The joy of these places is that they’re not always easy to find—or easy on the eye. Sometimes you won’t even get a chair or table, scoffing your hot dog or kimchi slider while you’re leaned up against some scrawled-upon wall. Forget 42 courses of strange smears and odd essences—the restaurants on the following pages provide true excitement and put the thrill back into dining. Prices are generally low, but believe me, pleasure is correspondingly high. London is now a city in thrall to its gut. After 50 years of barely edible gloom, it’s about bloody time.