When I last visited London, five years ago, I went to a vegetarian dinner group meeting that I found on the net. When I asked how to find other vegetarian places, one of the diners produced a small paperback titled Vegetarian London. It was no wonder he had a copy with him; he was the book's co-author, Paul Gaynor. The 4" x 6" book listed places to eat, shop and visit by district, and it opened a whole new world to me.
When I planned a three-week visit for June 2003, I checked on the net to find a new edition available, but Paul was no longer a co-author. The new 4th edition (2002) is 160 pages thicker and lists the places one can buy vegetarian foods and take outs, as well as omnivore restaurants that offer some vegetarian dishes. The book is available in the US through Seven Hills Books (800-545-2005), but I found it at a discount ($10 including shipping) on the web.
There are 120 restaurants serving vegetarian dishes in London, 15 of them within a 10 minute walk of the busy shopping area of Oxford Street. And over 20 all-you-can-eat buffets for $10 or less (one of the very few truly affordable deals in England). The book lists them all. Of the two dozen I planned to visit, only two were no longer operating, but because restaurants everywhere seem to come and go rapidly, it's a good idea to phone each one before setting out
One of the cleanest, brightest and most flavorful places is County Life, 3-4 Warwick Street, near Piccadilly Circus. A buffet, it charges by weight at lunch, with a maximum of $10, and a flat $11.50 at dinner. All the food is vegan. This is a no smoking, no alcohol establishment operated by Seventh Day Adventists. There's a food shop upstairs.
The best Asian buffet I found was the Tai Vegan Restaurant at 10 Greek Street in Soho. That's Tai, not Thai -- the food is Chinese. All you can eat for $8.50 for lunch, $10 for dinner. Tea or other beverages are $1.50 extra. Or you can fill a large take-out box for $5.
For a quick veggie burger, try Red Veg at 95 Dean Street, just off Oxford Street in Soho. They also have falafel, oriental noodles, noname nuggets and more, all under $5.
For veggie groceries and eat-in deli items, Fresh and Wild has one of the best selections. They have branches in a number of locations. In the West End, try the one at 75 Brewery Lane (Brewer Street), also close to Piccadilly Circus. It's one of the few places open late in the evening and all weekend.
Covent Garden's Neal Street used to be the center of veggie food, but the place has been taken over by fashion boutiques. There are still a few of the old places left, and Food for Thought is the best of them. A crowded downstairs counter lets you see the food and have it put on your plate, with vegan items clearly labeled. Tiny Neal's Yard has three places, but they seem more like tourist stops than veggie restaurants. Chi, at 55 St. Martin's Lane, is a branch of Tai Vegan, with the same offerings and prices.
For authentic Indian food, try Woodlands, part of the largest chain of vegetarian Indian restaurants in the world, with three in London. Set meals are about $23, but the ala carte menu will fill two stomachs for less. Try the one at 777 Marylebone Lane, just off Marylebone High Street, not far from Sherlock Holmes' famous Baker Street and Madame Toussaud's.
Although it also serves meat and fish, Wagamama, a Japanese fast food and noodle house, has ten locations and serves some excellent vegetarian food. There's one at John Lewis, near the Knightsbridge tube station and Harrods.
The financial district, called The City, has one of London's better known places in the crypt of St. Mary-le-Bow Church, called The Place Below. I found it overpriced and lacking in flavor. There are a number of much better places in the district, including Carnevale, Futures, a number of Crazy Salads (with 40 dishes including pasta and other treats for $5) and CTB, a Chinese buffet.
Probably the best value is the Indian Vegetarian Bhelpuri House at 92 Chapel Market near the Angel tube station. One of the first places to serve organic brown rice, they have 3 kinds of curries, three rice dishes, many sauces and lentil dishes, all you can eat for less than $6. And it's open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., much later than most places.
If you go to the overcrowded Portabello Road market on Saturday, you'll find a good vegetarian restaurant and bakery near the bottom of the road. But for best shopping bargains on Sundays, visit Petticoat Lane and nearby Spittlefields, a huge covered market, where organic vegetarian and vegan foods and wonderful baked goods are available.
I was taken to a unique and very interesting restaurant on West Hamstead. VitaOrganic, at 279c Finchley Road (close to the Finchley Road tube station), is a buffet of Malaysian, Thai, Chinese and Japanese foods, as well as many Japanese a la carte items. The owner-chef is a raw foodist, but many of the dishes have been at least partially cooked. All the food was delicious, and it was the only place where very low fat food could be found.
This brings me to a caution for those who may be following an Ornish or McDougall plan to reverse heart disease. Almost all the food I found was between very high fat and floating-in-oil. I rented a small flat with a complete kitchen (often less expensive than even a modest hotel) and was able to make breakfast and one meal a day without added oils. The vegetarian and vegan prepared foods in the markets is nearly always made with hydrogenated oils, often the first or second ingredient. It pays to read labels carefully.
That caution aside, London is one of the most exciting cities in the world and the number of musicals, plays, concerts, international music offerings and exotic films is almost without limit. Buy a copy of TimeOut as soon as you arrive for detailed information on everything that is happening that week (and give yourself a few hours just to see what's on).
A few money-saving tips: The best transportation bargain is a Visitor's Travelpass for unlimited travel in zones 1 & 2 on the underground, all buses anywhere in London and the Docklands Rail. It also allows you discounts on rail travel in the UK and 20% on most tourist attractions. The pass must be bought on the internet, at least three weeks prior to leaving home. At Heathrow, show the card at the tube station and ask for an extension to central London, and you'll save half the fare. http://www.londontravelpass.com
Places to change dollars to pounds are everywhere, but rates vary widely and most charge a hefty commission. The best place to exchange money is in any Marks & Spencers store, with one in almost every neighborhood. They have the best exchange rate and charge no commission. Most of their stores have a food section with many vegetarian items and some of the best jams and marmalades in Britain.
Britain has a 17.5% VAT (value added tax) included in everything you'll buy. For large purchases ask for a VAT rebate receipt, save them and collect a 15% rebate at the airport when you leave.
I've quoted prices in dollars, rounded off to the nearest 50 cents, based on an exchange rate of $1.60 to a pound.
Enjoy your stay in the U.K. and cheerio!