Lunchtime in London

You’ll see cafe and restaurant chains all over the city, but how do you choose where to grab a quick bite to eat?

The UK lunch market is worth £16 billion to the economy. “Which lunch market? Greenwich, Spitalfields, Borough?” I hear you ask. Actually, I’m taking about the sector of the food industry. And as fewer and fewer people in Britain bring homemade lunches to work, the lunch market is growing by about 3% each year.

According to the BBC, we are more likely to dash to the nearest takeaway to grab something quick and then bring it back to their desk. On average, we spend £670 a year on takeaway lunches, with those of us in London spending at least £830 each year.

I first noticed this when I tried to explain chains like Pret a Manger, Itsu, and Vital Ingredient to my family back in the United States. Now, I will be the first to admit that cities like New York, Chicago, Austin and my hometown of Seattle have plenty of great takeaway lunch options. However, I’m unaware of any widespread chains that aren’t blatantly in the “fast food” category. While Americans have plenty of burger and chicken places, I wouldn’t consider Pret to be like MacDonalds (despite the latter being the parent company).

Londoners especially have mercurial food tastes: we move seamlessly between cuisines and formats. So what do I recommend for lunch when you’re in the Big Smoke? If I’m in need of something cheap and cheerful, usually head for one of the following chains.

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Best for Soups and Sandwiches – Pret
Pret offers Sandwiches, baguettes, desserts, fruit cups, crisps and bakery items, as well as sushi, salads, soups, and cakes. They also have hot and cold drinks, including smoothies. There really is something for everyone at Pret. The company emphasises the use of natural ingredients and advertises all sandwiches are made on the day of purchase.
Budget £5 for a sandwich or salad with a can of fizzy drink or bottled water.

Runner up – EAT.
EAT offers a really good rotation of weekly hot food, like chicken pot pie and macaroni and cheese. They also have sandwiches that you can toast – toasties!
Budget £5 for a sandwich or salad with a can of fizzy drink or bottled water.

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Best for Healthier Hot Food – Pod  
Pod offers really nice pots of Thai curries and other unique lunch boxes. It’s certainly a go-to choice for gym bunnies, not least because they offer breakfasts which are heavy on proteins and healthy fat, and low(er) in carbs. I really like their Thai Green Curry. Although this post is about lunch and not breakfasts, it’s worth mentioning that Pod do excellent scrambled egg boxes in the mornings until 11am.
Budget £6 for a rice and meat pot with fizzy drink.

Runner up – LEON
In all honesty,  I think LEON is just as good as Pod. Perhaps I prefer Pod’s lunches, but only slightly, as it rather depends on my mood. Both offer interesting (in a good way) and flavourful breakfast and lunchtime options. LEON has a more Mediterranean and north African vibe to their dishes, whereas Pod is more influenced by Thai flavours, but this varies from season to season.

 

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Best for Salads – Vital Ingredient
I would happily eat at Vital Ingredient every day. They have a respectable range of salad bases, ranging from spinach to mixed leaf to brown rice. You can customise your salad with a variety of toppings including chicken, tomatoes, feta cheese, peppers, green beans, tuna, olives… the list goes on. If you’re not in the mood to customise from scratch, choose one of their recommended salads like the cobb salad or the nachos grande. I particularly like the walnut, pear and maple salad.
Budget £7 for a salad with a can of fizzy drink or bottled water.

Runner up – tossed
tossed is just as good as Vital Ingredient, and perhaps even has a wider range of ingredients to choose from. The only downside perhaps is how the queue is set up: you place your order, and then they call you forward to customise only at the mixing and dressing “final phase.”
Budget £7 for a salad with a can of fizzy drink or bottled water.

 

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Best for CaliMex – Chilango
In my opinion, Chilango beats out the American chain Chipotle hands down. While you can also find Chipotle restaurants in London, I prefer Chilango’s vibe and what I consider to be superior quality of ingredients. I usually go for their salad topped with steak, guacamole, grilled peppers and a beer.
Budget £8 for a large burrito salad with a can of fizzy drink or bottled water.

 

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Best for Sushi – Itsu
Itsu is a great option if you’re craving Japanese. You can get pre-packaged sushi boxes and sashimi platters, as well as hot noodles and soups. The focus seems to be on the more health-conscious among us, so you’ll always find a breakdown of calories and macronutrients on the packaging.
Budget £9 for a large sashimi and sushi collection with a can of fizzy drink or bottled water.

Runner up – Wasabi
Wasabi feels more anglicised than Itsu. You can get sweet and sour chicken on a scoop of white rice, in addition to a good range of sushi. They also offer chow mein noodles. It reminds me a bit of Panda Express, and is therefore perhaps a bit more similar to American-style chains than Itsu is, but I still recommend it as an option.

 

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Best for Elevenses – Paul
“elevenses” is a short break taken at around 11 o’clock in the morning, usually with tea, coffee, and a pastry or biscuit. Similar to Swedish fika.

I’m partial to Paul because there’s one in the lobby of my office building in the City. A Boulangerie (bakery) and Patisserie (pastry shop), even though it’s not really, really French, I appreciate that it feels somewhat authentic to the shop you’d expect to see in Paris. The coffee is really nice, as are the mini croissants! Paul also does a nice selection of sandwiches.

Runner up – Cafe Nero
Second runner up – Costa

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