Going to the theater twice a week can really leave a hole in your budget, even if, like me, you dial down your costs by sticking to nose-bleed seats and £10 shows at the National. Add to this the cost of meals out, and WHOOSH! There goes your budget!
However, I make penny pinching into a sport, and keeping down food costs is a big deal to me. After four years of London theater watching, I’ve got several restaurants* I make regular visits to on show nights. This is my overview of the best cheap eats to be found in London’s theater-land, from Covent Garden, Leicester Square, and Shaftesbury Avenue, to the South Bank, and all the way out to Islington, Hammersmith, and Dalston – and a real and genuine summary of the places I go to have a pre-show dinner over and over again.
All times included are walking distances, based on a brisk Londoner-style walk from the front door of the restaurant to the front door of the theater. Allow additional time if you haven’t picked up your tickets, need to go up three flights of stairs to get to your seats, and of COURSE if you are having a hard time getting the waiter to give you your bill!
Theater Neighborhoods & Best Cheap Restaurants (click neighborhood for details)
Covent Garden (Royal Opera House, London Coliseum, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Noel Coward Theatre etc): Battersea Pie Station, Pepe Italian Street Food, Lupita, Chando’s Opera Room (drinks only), Gelatorino (dessert)
Leicester Square/Shaftesbury Avenue (Wyndhams, London Hippodrome, Lyric, Apollo, Gielgud, Queen’s, etc. – I consider this the “West End” proper, more theatres than I can type): choose from nearby options, or Taro, the Baozi Inn or Flatiron (see below).
South “West End” (Theatre Royal Haymarket, Criterion, Comedy Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre): Assaggetti (corporate but quick and reasonably priced); Flatiron Steak House (DEELISH but must be there at 6).
North-“West End” and Soho Square (Dominion, Shaftesbury, Soho Theatre, Palladium): Enrique Tomas ham emporium, Thai Cottage, Pitt Cue Co, Inamo, Icco Pizza
Southbank and Waterloo, a.k.a. the Deep South “West End” (National Theatre, Old Vic, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Young Vic, Southwark Playhouse): Culture Grub, Waterloo or Southbank Wahaca, Mar Y Tierra
Sloane Square i.e. the Southwest “West End” (Royal Court, Cadogan Hall): La Bottega
Islington i.e. the slightly east West End (Sadler’s Wells, Almeida): Masala Zone, Oregano Pizzeria, Banana Tree Canteen, Tenshi Japanese Restaurant and Sushi Bar
Hammersmith, a.k.a. the Way-out West End (Lyric Hammersmith, Hammersmith Apollo): Akash Tandoor
The Barbican, a.k.a. the slightly East West End (Barbican Theater, Guildhall Music School, Silk Street Theatre): Amico Bio (at Barbican station), Grab Thai food (near Old Street station)
Hackney and Dalston a.k.a. the Far-east West End (Hackney Empire, Arcola): 19 Numara Bos Cirrik
Southeast West End Docklands/Wapping/South End (Wilton’s Music Hall): “Bon Appetit” Lebanese restaurant (133 Leman Street, really very close and in a neighborhood that’s a bit of a wasteland)
Far-northern West End (Tricycle): Small & Beautiful
Far-southern East End (aka Greenwich) (Greenwich Theatre): Goddards at Greenwich
Far-southern off West End (Landor): Alba Pizzeria
Covent Garden (east West End, including the Noel Coward, Duke of Yorks, Royal Opera House and London Coliseum – 5 minutes, Theatre Royal Drury Lane – 8 minutes, Aldwych and Novello – 10 minutes): new to the fold and close to my heart is Pepe Italian street food, across the street from the Noel Coward and in spitting distance of the London Coliseum (and the Duke of York’s). It’s got some of the best pizza in London, and while £4 a slice seems steep, it’s so damned good (and a meal with a side salad, about £2.50) that I don’t care. In addition they have these crazy sandwiches called piadina (£5.50 ish) made with an ultra puffy, tortilla like bread that just becomes heaven with melted mozzarella inside. I’m drooling just thinking about it. Bonus: everything served in 2-5 minutes – if you arrive at Leicester Square Tube at 7 for a 7:30 show, you’re safe.
Your best option if you want to eat right in Covent Garden is the Battersea Pie Station, in the basement of Covent Garden. Why? Imagine this: you have about 15 minutes to eat before you go to your show (say, for example, Shrek the Musical at Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 10 minute walk) but don’t want a cold sandwich. If there’s no line, you can order a small pie and mash (with gravy) for 5.25 and be eating a nice hot meal in 5 minutes. I kid you not. They have veggie as well as meat options, and while I don’t want pie all the time, if you’re looking for a pleasant hot meal you just can’t beat this place for price and speed.
A favorite from 2011 is Mexican food hole-in-the-wall Lupita (13 Villiers Street, WC2N 6ND, Villiers Street exit from Charing Cross Station, London Coliseum, Noel Coward and Duke of York Theatres – 8 minutes, ROH – 12 minutes), which has totally eclipsed overpopular and loud Wahaca despite the lack of mole (a kind of Mexican curry sauce). Lupita is real Mexican style and not TexMex, with tiny flat tacos, fresh guacamole, burritos and tortas (Mexican sandwiches). One burrito or two of the small plates (tacos, tostadas, quesadillas – please eat with your hands and don’t embarrass yourself), and for about £10 you are out the door. Personal favorites: queso fundido with chorizo (God’s gift to my tummy) and quesadilla with squash blossoms (it’s just super tasty and weird, I love it!). Arrive at 6 and your dinner is secure, and you’ll even have time for a margarita – but only one: any more is NOT a good plan when you’ve got a night of opera ahead of you.
A former favorites, though still good if you haven’t eaten there weekly for a few years, is the Bedford Street Paul. Though this is a chain, the lovely French meals available in this sit-down location are well priced and tasty, the atmosphere pleasant, and service is generally fast. The bread is the best I have found in London and makes the meal extra-yummy. A friend of mine usually gets the soup of the day and then splurges on a dessert, which isn’t a bad plan. They suffer from long lines around 6:30, but even at 6:45 you may be able to eat, get out at 7:20, and make your show at the ROH provided you jog across the market and bullet your way up the stairs at the Opera House. God knows I’ve done it many times!
While I won’t recommend pubs for dinner, Chando’s Opera Room (29 St. Martins Lane, WC2N 4ER) is my preferred location for a cheap pint in the neighborhood. Since they’re a Sam Smith pub, they have the delicious Sam Smith cider on tap. If you’re going for “bringing your own,” this is a great place to have a drink to wash it down with – or wait for people before you to go a show together. (Note: be sure to go upstairs as this is where the action is. It’s a gorgeous pub with lots of windows. I love it!)
Finally, if you just want a fast, filling delicious scoop of ice cream, Gelatorino opened in May 2011 at 2 Russell Street (WC2B 5JD) between the Royal Opera House and the Theater Royal Drury Lane, and I can recommend it as an ideal cool down and cream up – speaking as a person who’s made it a life goal to find the best gelato anywhere.
Leicester Square (Wyndhams, London Hippodrome – 3 minutes; Shaftesbury Avenue – 5 minutes): this area is a diner’s wasteland. Pick one of my options nearby and add walking time, or roll the dice and go for Chinese. And I’ve finally found one I like: the Baozi Inn, on the little alley behind Shaftesbury. Cash only, £8 minimum, fantastic, traditional Chinese food. For those of you at the Palace Theater, Taro (10 Old Compton Street, W1D 4TF), a Japanese food restaurant, has cheapie prices and quickie service and a tasty, unpretentious menu. Don’t kill your wallet with sushi, get a chicken teriyaki don for £5.90. At these prices I can promise you’ll be back later.
South “West End” (Haymarket Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre – 3 minutes; Comedy Theatre – 5 minutes; Criterion Theatre – 8 minutes): my former favorite Galileo’s Locanda Toscana has been replaced by a corporate Italian joint, Assagetti, at the same address, 71 Haymarket (SW1Y 4RW). I hate the stools and the fake charm but they’ve got the speed thing down and you can get three small dishes for £11.25 and still make it to the Haymarket – or over to Shaftesbury Avenue – with time to spare. (And if you were looking for a place where you could get fifty or so people in, their basement space is huge.) However, I’m too picky about my Italian to come here again.
On the other hand if you’re feeling brave and you’re willing to plunge into the heart of Soho, walk straight up Sherwood street, past the Picadilly Theater and the back side of Whole Foods, along Golden Square until you get to Beak Street (go left!), home of the brilliant Flat Iron Steak House, my cheap eats find for 2014. £10 for a steak with a side salad and some popcorn to nibble on I KID YOU NOT (other sides £3-£4ish). Trick is you need to be there at 6 sharp (or earlier) if there’s any chance of you getting a seat as they don’t take reservations and fill up fast. But it’s SO WORTH IT as the steak is always EXCELLENT. And they usually have some other kind of special like a burger or a different cut of steak. Once you’re sat down, you can order, eat and leave in about 30 minutes, which is a kind of a dream for me but also as a theater goer gives you time to get to your show. So if you’re seeing anything on Shaftesbury or near Haymarket, just do it because this restaurant ROCKS. Book of Mormon AND STEAK! Dirty Dancing AND STEAK! Les Miserables AND STEAK! I mean, hey, if you’re working £15 tickets, why not make it £25 and say AND I HAD STEAK!
North-“West End” and Soho Square (Dominion and Shaftesbury): I will often come eat here and then make the trek further south, leaving the restaurant at 7:10 or so depending on distance. Best options are:
Enrique Tomas, a “jamon iberico” ham emporium selling fantastic cheap sarnies for about £3.50 a shot if you go for the cheap stuff. It’s not entirely a meal, but OMG ham it’s just like being in Spain. Perfectly situated for the Soho Theater and if you want a big meal you can grab one after your show, or get a cupcake from Hummingbird Bakery (across the street) or Gails (next door).
Thai Cottage, fondly known as “Five Alarm Thai” (34 D’arblay St, London, W1F 8EX) – With lunches and pre-theater dinners for around £7, and the food all made in the kitchen by granny, this one gets visits from me any time I’m near Soho Square/Tottenham Court Road.
Not exactly cheap but absolutely awesome is the Pitt Cue Co, very conveniently located near the London Palladium (1 Newburgh St, W1F 7RG near to Oxford Circus). Their barbeque is not just good, it’s world class, and I’ve had barbeque all over Kansas, Texas, and Mississippi, not to mention nearly every other state in the US I’ve been to. However, their 6 PM opening time may not give you enough time to make a 7:30 show, so perhaps you should consider it for a matinee on a Saturday, or just a dreamy night of barbeque. MMM mmm MMM!
Inamo (134 Wardour Street, W1F 8ZR) – this amusing restaurant can be very competitive to get a seat at, but with a £10.00 pre-theater menu that neither my husband nor I could finish (baby back ribs, kakiage, homemade pickles, rice and edamame), it’s utterly worth the effort. To top it off, the interior is SO cute and the “touch your table to place your order” gimmick is fun and seems to result in getting your food much faster than it would at any normal joint. No need for faffing – just tap the table and BOOM people come brink you food. You can even watch them making it on a video cam that projects in front of you!
Speaking of Thai, AVOID AT ALL COSTS the “all you can eat Vegan Thai food” joints springing up all over London like poop in a park on a sunny day. I’ve been to Tai Buffet and Tai Veg and the quality was EXCEEDINGLY poor. Frankly I would have rather not had all you can eat and just had one thing I WANTED to eat besides the dried seaweed.
Icco Pizza (46 Goodge Street, W1T 4LU) – add an extra 5 minutes for any destination but with pizzas between £4 and £5 this may be worth the hike for you.
Southbank and Waterloo (National Theatre, Old Vic, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Young Vic): while the National Theatre can actually feed you for about £5 at their downstairs cafe, clever theater goers will instead head to Culture Grub, halfway betweeen the Young and Old Vic (84 The Cut London SE1 8LW). Their ultra-discount Chinese plates are filling and served in about three minutes – a real gift if you were held up at work but still want more than a packet of crisps before the interval. Or you might want to go for some speedy Mexican at Wahaca’s Waterloo location (101 Waterloo Road SE1 8UL), cunningly located directly across the street from Waterloo’s big tube entrance. They also have a location right on the Southbank, though this location has shorter lines and is closer to the Vics. But if you’ve made it to Southwark Playhouse, it’s impossible for you to not go to Mar I Tierra, the most perfect tapas place I could ever dream of finding. It’s the kind of place that makes you pick your theater based on your food. You can rack up a big bill if you want but you can also get a bowl of gazpacho, some olives, and a cheese plate for around £10, though if you can resist a jug of sangria you’re made of stronger stuff than me. There’s a menu of daily specials and OH the garden. What a joy!
Sloane Square i.e. the Southwest “West End” (Royal Court, Cadogan Hall): Now that the Royal Court is the new Donmar (and just don’t they have great deals on tickets for their shows!), it’s important for the frugal theater-goer to have a nearby dining option. I’m delighted with the La Bottega (65 Lower Sloane Street, SW1W 8HD, 5 minutes to Royal Court, 10 minutes to Cadogan Hall), which, even though it closes at 8PM, is still open at good hours for pre-show diners. Sadly, their hours are much shorter on weekends (6 PM close Saturdays, 5 PM Sundays), but them’s the breaks.
Slightly east West End, aka Islington (Sadler’s Wells, Almeida): the obvious cheap choice for Sadler’s Wells attendees is the Garden Court Cafe, located at the Lilian Baylis entrance to the theater. The menu is limited but with hot mains around 7 quid and sandwiches for four, this is the best and closest option – and especially convenient for weekend matinees. Bonus: free wifi!
Masala Zone (80 Upper Street, N1 0NU, 8 minutes to Almeida, 15 to Sadler’s Wells) has a pre-theatre dinner combo for under £10. Oregano Pizzeria (St. Alban’s Place, N1 0NX, right around the corner from Masala Zone so same distances) makes real, Italian style pizza in a proper oven and has tasty, affordable pastas, though beef and seafood hits the over £10 mark. I’d also recommend it for a sit down and relax kind of meal if you don’t have theatre tickets hanging over your head. Finally, Banana Tree Canteen (412 St. John Street, EC1V 4NJ, 8 minutes to Sadlers, Wells, 15-20 to the Almeida) serves up nice cheap plates and bowls of Thai and Malaysian food and has an early-bird dinner deal for about £8, starter and main. They are cheap and good enough to warrant a visit to on a normal basis, since their available any time “combo plate” is only £8.95 and includes one of many mains, rice, and two sides so is a complete screaming deal. Note that it’s best if you aren’t too fussed about having really authentic Oriental food (it’s still miles above Wagamama and their Laksa rocks the house) and don’t mind the occasionally lame service.
Tenshi Japanese Restaurant and Sushi bar –
(61 Upper Street). I made it here during the Flamenco festival and wound up going three times in two weeks – the truly authentic Japanese food (almost all under £10, sushi and non-fish food both available) really worked for me. Shame they don’t have beef teriyaki but vegetarian options are available – but note they close between 3 and 6PM.
Way-out West End, aka Hammersmith (Lyric Hammersmith, Hammersmith Apollo): Akash Tandoor (177 King Street, W6 9JT). I highly recommend their 20 quid two person combo – it’s an eight minute walk to the Lyric but SUCH a better option pricewise than Chula!
Barbican and Old Street (Barbican, Silk Street Theater, etc.): If you want some really good Italian food before you go to a show at the Barbican and don’t want to break your budget, Amico Bio (44 Cloth Fair London EC1A 7JQ ) has incredibly tasty food and a price point that will make your eyes glitter. At about £7 for an entree, it’s a perfect place to show up at for an antipasto and a main and still be able to leave without having even spent a tenner. They are literally five minutes walk from the tube (but print a map out at this neighborhood is very medieval) but it will take you 15 very brisk minutes to get back on the highwalk and in the Barbican theater so leave time. HIGHLY recommended especially given how overpriced and pants the Barbican’s house restaurants are.
If you’re really going for cheap, you might also try Grab Thai food (about 5 steps south of Old Street station at 5 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4AQ), where you can get a small pot of curry and rice for under £5, but they close at 7PM on weekdays so you need to move fast. Still, if it’s sunny you can get it to go and eat it at the waterpark in the middle of the Barbican, which would be just VERY nice.
Far-east West End (Hackney Empire, Arcola): two different neighborhoods, one restaurant with locations in both: 19 Numara Bos Cirrik (Dalston branch at 34 Stoke Newington Road, Dalston, N16 7XJ, Hackney at 1-3 Amhurst Road, E8 1LL). Free starters, piles of food for cheap, occasional flying charcoal bits turning your table into a barbeque grill, YUM! In fact, this restaurant is so good, it’s made me start going to the Arcola more.
Southeast West End Docklands/Wapping/South End (Wilton’s Music Hall): “Bon Appetit” Lebanese restaurant (133 Leman Street, really very close and in a neighborhood that’s a bit of a wasteland). The food here is really good (it’s mostly reproduced here) and it’s within about six steps of Wilton’s, so if you find yourself in this tremendously underserved area and hungry, give it a try. It’s not worth a separate trip but it’s definitely tasty and can hold its head up high no matter where the location.
Far North West End (Tricycle): Small & Beautiful. About five doors up from the Tricycle, this restaurant is a tightwad’s dream come true. Most of the entrees were around 5 quid, the starters were about 2, and I was able to get a glass of decent wine for 2.50 – our total for two (with one glass of wine) was 16 quid. And the food was yummy and attractively presented. After the horrible experience I had at the African restaurant down the street, this will be my new home in Kilburn henceforth, possibly encouraging me to brave the great Northern unknown more frequently.
Greenwich (Greenwich Theater): on a corner of the Greenwich Market is the wonderful “Goddards at Greenwich,” a traditional pie and mash shop that’s been running since 1890. Like most traditional pie and mash places, you can feed yourself for under £5 and tea is less than a quid. It’s about ten minutes from the rail station but only five minutes from the theater. Highly recommended if you’re on the way to the annual panto!
Clapham North (Landor Pub Theater): NOVEMBER 2014 update: either remodeling or closed, will let you know! Directly across from the quieter street flanking the Clapham North tube station, Alba pizzeria is THE place to go for a quick and decent meal before a show at the Landor. On Mondays and Tuesdays (I think) they do a “pizza and a glass of wine” deal for 10 quid, but this isn’t the draw: it’s the fact that their pizza is good, really good. I mean, who cares about the deal? Truth is that their wine is cheaper than the Landor anyway and there’s a much better selection, so just eat here before the show and have a glass of wine to boot. The house at the Landor doesn’t open until ten minutes before curtain anyway so no reason to rush.
*Sure, you can always pack a meal, buy bread and cheese at the store, get a quick (overpriced) sandwich at Pret, find a pasty (this is actually not the worst thing to do if you want to stick under £4, and there is a Cornish Pasty shop cunningly located in Covent Garden), or go to some chain pizza joint. But I want a good meal, something I actually enjoy.
Tags: Amico Bio, Barbican, Barbican Theater, Battersea Pie Station, cheap dinners in Theatreland, cheap food Sloane Square, cheap food West End, cheap places to eat near the Barbican, cheapest Congee in London, Covent Garden, Crepe Affair, dragon, Duke of York Theatre, Goddards at Greenwich, Grab Thai street food, Green Man and French Horn, Haymarket Theatre, Her Majesty's Theatre, Inamo, landor pub theatre, Leicester Square, London Hippodrome, Masala Zone, mooli's, National Theatre, Noel Coward Theatre, Old Vic, Oregano Pizza, Paul, Pitt Cue Co, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Royal Opera House, Shaftesbury Avenue, Southbank, Thai Cottage, The Landor, the never-ending search for good Mexican food in London, Theater Royal Drury Lane, Wahaca, Wyndhams, Young Vic