It may be known as one of the world’s most expensive cities, but London has a wealth of budget-friendly spots perfect for date night.
It’s well documented that this capital city is one of the world’s most expensive, but that doesn’t mean London can’t be affordable. We’ve rounded up our favorite restaurants where couples can easily get a dinner for two for $50 or less, giving date night plenty of more options.
1. Polpo, Soho
London’s small plates trend has improved access to high-quality, low-cost dining across the capital. At the forefront of the craze was Polpo, originally in Soho but now also in Farringdon and Notting Hill. This self-styled Venetian bar, complete with lace curtains and checked tablecloths, has been much imitated, but there’s no competing with the food. The authentic cicchetti (Italian tapas) allow you to create feasts from the pizzette bianca, pork and fennel meatballs, chilli and garlic prawns, and market greens with parmesan and basil (around $40 for everything). Wash it all down with the restaurant’s famous Negronis ($10)—you’ll be slightly over budget but too revived to care.
2. Salon at Spring, Aldwych
Spring is Skye Gingell’s beautiful (but formal) dining space in Somerset House, a gallery and cultural site on the Thames not far from Covent Garden. Inside the main restaurant is a smaller area—think of it as a diffusion line—called Salon, where a canopy of indoor trees and plants create a magical garden courtyard. The menu is short and simple, and reflects the chef’s commitment to seasonal local ingredients—small dishes of salt cod croquettes ($9) or Ortiz anchovies on toast ($6), for example. If you order sparingly, drink wine by the glass, and linger over your food, this is a surprisingly affordable way to spend an evening in one of the city’s loveliest fine dining restaurants.
3. Shotgun, Soho
The ($18) sandwiches at Shotgun (a chic and moody BBQ and cocktail joint just off Carnaby Street, run by Mississippi-born chef Brad McDonald) are written on the blackboard early evening and served until 11:30 p.m. Once they’re gone, they’re gone, so go early for full choice of fillings such as Carolina pulled pork and coleslaw, or Westcombe cheddar and pickle mayo. They make for excellent pre- or post-theater nourishment, and come with enough sides to serve as a proper, finger-lickin’ dinner, too.
4. Brick Lane, Bethnal Green
Almost every curry house along this notorious ‘curry mile’ serves a huge range of cheep and cheery dishes inspired by the Indian subcontinent. There is much debate over which one is best, but we like Aladin, which eschews sophistication in favor of bright colored lights and plastic furniture, but is always packed thanks to its moreish curries (try the sizzling lamb) and friendly service. BYO alcohol makes it easy to get change from $50; you can buy Kingfisher beer in the corner shops nearby for an authentic Indian accompaniment.
5. Dishoom, Kings Cross
For a more modish take on Indian food, Dishoom is a cavernous, three-story spot in an old rail warehouse that’s been revamped in the style of an old Iranian-Bombay café. Always buzzing with the neighborhood’s mix of media types and art students (both the Guardian and St. Martins art college are within spitting distance), the signature dish is black house daal, which you can accompany with okra fries and chicken ruby plus beer for around $24 per person. It has a great inventive cocktail bar downstairs, too.
6. Sappho Meze Bar, Clapham
Not many travellers find this unassuming neighborhood joint, tucked into the sidings off Clapham North tube station—the locals like to keep it to themselves. The restaurant, which has only 10 or so tables, is a short tube ride from the city center, but worth it for the authentic Greek extravaganza. Dish after dish of stifado, kleftiko, afelia, spanakopita, and hummus is bought out, lovingly described, and then added to in a seemingly endless array of Mediterranean-inspired treats. It’s all the better for offering no choice (apart from a vegetarian option): you have to go for the full menu ($16 per person for 20-plus dishes) and the fact that it’ll take you three or so hours to get through it. Bottles of wine start from around $12; it’s an unsung London sensation (9 Clapham High Street; 020 7498 9009; no website).
7. Brasserie Zedel, Piccadilly Circus
This huge dining room in the heart of Piccadilly Circus (owned by the accomplished team behind celebrity favorite The Wolseley) is meant to recall a Parisian brasserie. In truth, it doesn’t (the service is slicker) but it is gloriously over the top with velvet seats, gilding, and plenty of marble, plus a charming old ladyish atmosphere. The Prix Fixe menu ($18 per person for carottes rapées, coq au vin, and coffee) is the classic choice for Francophiles and is elegantly served on white linens by wasitcoated waiting staff. Next door is an affiliated (though not as affordable) cabaret club and cocktail bar.
8. Bubbledogs, Fitzrovia
There is such a thing as gourmet hot dog and you’ll find it here, in this tiny restaurant on Charlotte Street, once a clamoring foodie hotspot, but all the nicer for losing some of the braying masses to improved dining options in Soho, just the other side of Oxford street. Helmed by James Knappet and Sandia Chang (who’ve both spent time at Noma) and serving a veritable array of small-producer Champagne too, Bubbledogs is the high-low mix at its best. Choices range from the Fernando (which comes with sautéed chorizo, onion, and aioli) and the Reuben (with sauerkraut). Two dogs and a glass and a side will come to roughly $28, so it’s not unheard off to stay for two rounds.
9. Hoppers, Soho
You’ll have to queue at this new Sri Lankan restaurant in Soho, but happily they’ll take your number so you can wonder off for a drink while awaiting your table. The menu is built around one of Sri Lanka’s national dishes, the hopper, a kind of rice pancake, and includes many of the country’s most popular exports, like roti and coconut water (or arrack if you’re into the harder stuff). The look is cozy but of-the-moment—plenty of wood paneling and tiled floors with woven chairs adding a happy additional nod to the southeast Asian vernacular. Dishes start around $5.
Emily Mathieson is on the U.K. beat for Travel + Leisure. Based in London, you can follow her at @emilymtraveled.