Where to eat in London with kids

Thanks to all of the subscribers who are emailing me with questions!  Keep those coming.  Some of the most common questions have been about where to eat in London with kids.  So I thought that I’d put together a Guide to Eating in London with Kids!  This is by no means meant to be a definitive guide on the best places to eat. There are thousands of restaurants in London, and hundreds of amazing ones!  The best places will depend on your tastes and also where you’re staying.  But this post is meant to give a family several recommendations for options that will be reasonably accessible from most anywhere in Central London or day-trip destinations like Oxford, Cambridge or Windsor.  This is the first of two parts. Part II will be posted next week.  It will cover Afternoon Tea and nicer restaurants, as well as more general tips.

When we moved to London, one of the questions that all of our American friends would ask is how to manage a budget with kids when everything was so expensive.  This is something that scares many people off from visiting, as they worry that normal expenses will make a family trip to London unreasonably expensive.  The fact is that London is expensive, relative to most American cities.  We would typically tell our friends that the prices in London are the same as they are in the US… it’s just that the price is in British pounds instead of dollars! (which means that it costs about 50% more).

So while you want to keep to a reasonable budget, you also don’t want to skimp so much that you don’t enjoy your vacation!  Counter to it’s reputation, one of the best things about London is the food!  Maybe not the British food so much (although it’s tough to beat a good fish n’ chips in a pub!) – but the sheer variety and quality of ethnic food in London is absolutely a highlight for most visitors.  So here are 7 ways / places that you can eat with kids, while staying on a reasonable budget and also sampling the wider variety of cuisines that London has to offer.

1. London “fast food”

This is not the fast food that you’re used to in America.  It’s soooo much better!  Sure – they have McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC and Subway (which is, for reasons that I cannot fathom, popular all throughout Europe).  But you’ll quickly find a new type of fresh and fast food restaurant that is ubiquitous – I’m talking about Pret a Manger and EAT (the two most common), as well as other similar places such as Leon, Pod, and my favorite, Wasabi (fast, fresh, affordable, sushi and noodles!).  

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These places have pre-packaged cold food that you grab off of a shelf – as well as some warm stuff behind the counter.  In America when we think of a pre-packaged sandwich, you probably think of a couple of soggy pieces of bread with some sketchy lunch meat.  But this is different.  These are made fresh throughout the day – and they’re really good.  Each place has some great options for kids – mine always liked the egg salad sandwich.  They also have simple turkey and cheese, ham and cheese, and sometimes peanut butter and jelly (they call it jam).  You can get a fruit cup, a banana or apple, as well as chips (crisps) and something for dessert if you’d like.  And they always have great coffee (at Pret or EAT try the flat white).  M&S is a department store (kind of like Target, but nicer), and they also have smaller food shops in Central London, and transit hubs like airports or train stations.  The packaged food here is generally pretty good too.  A great option before a train journey!

2.  Ethnic Restaurant Chains

London is truly the crossroads of the world, and it shows in the cuisine.  You can get authentic food from almost any part of the world in London – and this type of exploration can be a wonderful part of your London experience, and these options should be high on your list when considering where to eat in London with kids.  Indian and Thai are probably the most popular ethnic cuisines.  Lebanese, French and Italian are also fantastic.  If you like Ethiopian, Japanese, Chinese or Moroccan, you’ll find those too.  One thing that London (and the UK in general excels at) are ethnic chain restaurants that are actually really tasty, and are good for kids.  These include Italian, Indian, Thai, Japanese, and French. Two cuisines that we wouldn’t recommend in London: Mexican (with the exception of Wahaca, which is actually really good) and pizza.  But there are so many other good options that you shouldn’t miss them too much.

Here’s a breakdown of chains for several different types of food.  Always look for small local places near where you’re staying, as you’re likely to find several great options that are even better than these chains. But these places provide tasty, reasonable choices that you can find relatively close by almost anywhere in London.  I didn’t include a map to these places, because it would be too crowded.  If you think one of these sounds good, check near where you’re staying, or in a particular part of town, and you’ll likely find several within walking distance!

  • Italian: The pasta at the places below is really good, and great for kids.  I think that the pizza in London is generally pretty terrible.  Local kids love Pizza Express and Pizza Hut, but I’d stay clear of
    MasalaZone

    MasalaZone

    those as a tourist.  This won’t be amazing Italian – which certainly exists in London – but they’ll be good, and the kids will be happy.

    • Carluccios
    • Zizzi
  • Indian: Might be the best ethnic food in London

    • MasalaZone – This is the “chain” indian place – and it’s delicious.  Plus it has a colorful atmosphere that will be engaging for the kids.
  • Thai: Some of the best food in London is Thai.  Delicious.  My kids are big fans of pad thai and massaman.
    • Thai Square – a little bit on the nicer side, sit-down service.
    • Wagamama – shared tables, quick, great for kids and parents alike
  • Japanese / Sushi – These places are like Pret but with sushi and noodles.  Really good for about £7-£12 for lunch.
    • Wasabi – delicious!

      WasabiSushi

      Fresh boxed sushi at Wasabi

    • Itsu – The one in Covent Garden is similar to Wasabi. The one in Notting Hill is more of a sit down joint, but also with sushi on conveyor belts.  Save your plates and pay based on the color of the plates!
    • Yo! Sushi – conveyor belt sushi!
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Conveyor belt sushi at Yo! Sushi

  • French

    • Côte – tasty and not too expensive (for French)
    • Patisserie Valerie – coffee, pastries.  Yum.
  • Portuguese

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      Nando’s Chicken

      Nandos – This place serves Portuguese chicken, and it’s very popular with locals young and old!  I really liked the chicken here, but my kids found it a bit too spicy.  It’s a good spot to try if your kids don’t mind food with a little bit of kick!

  • Other places
    • Giraffe – also a great place to take kids.  They call it “world food”, and it doesn’t really fit into a specific genre – but my kids love this place and it certainly caters to families.
    • Bill’s – This is a chain coffee place/restaurant, that’s made to look more like a local joint.  They have nice variety on the menu for kids and parents.  And great coffee, tea and crumpets!
  • Bonus: Lebanese – if your kids like hummus, you should try to find a Lebanese place while you’re in London.  Our kids loved this type of food – especially chicken or lamb shawarma sandwiches (kind of like chopped beef bbq, but with different meats).  Also great veggie options.  I’m not aware of any Lebanese chain, but there are many small Lebanese places that are good, so try to seek one out while you’re in London.

3.  Pubs

Many pubs are great options for dinner in London with kids!  At a classic pub, you’ll usually have a few good options that kids will like.  However a word of caution, at some pubs, the food is pretty bad.  In fact, I think that this post on an excellent family travel blog called My Little Nomads sums it up best when it recommends to avoid places that simply use a widely distributed, generic menu that says “Great British Pub Food”.  You can be fairly certain that that food will, in fact, not be great.  

So where can you find pub food in London that actually is great?   As opposed to the recommendations for ethnic chains above, it’s not in the chain pubs that you’ll find good food, but usually it’s the independent neighborhood pubs that will have the best options – and many of them have been around for a long time.  If there’s a pub that’s near a top tourist attraction, that’s usually not the one to go to.  Instead look for a well-reviewed pub that’s in a residential neighborhood.  Many of the good ones will actually take reservations, so call ahead if you’re planning to bring a group for dinner.  A good trick when searching for a good pub nearby is to search Google for “gastropub” – this will usually give you a set of options that are independent and focused on serving good food, in addition to drink.

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The Duke of Kent in Ealing – nothing beats a pub with a great beer garden in the summer.

There are a few stand-bys that most pubs will serve, and that our kids loved.  Choice #1 was the classic fish and chips.  This is also often offered on a kids menu – but we found that the standard serving is often enormous, and can be easily shared between two, or even three kids.  An adult can also share with a kid (and will usually be happy to have not eaten such an enormous meal).  As suggested in the name, this dish comes with thick cut chips (french fries), which are usually eaten with malt vinegar.  If your kids are like mine they’ll prefer just ketchup.  It will also often come with “mushy peas”.  These are exactly what they sound like – mushed up peas!  We never developed a taste for them, but many people like them.

Some other classic London options that are best eaten in pubs, and that you and/or your kids may like include:

  • Pies  – savory pastries filled with meat – as opposed to the sweet dessert variety.  Steak & Ale, and Shepard’s pie are two of the most popular options.
  • Bangers & Mash – mashed potatoes and sausage
  • Bubble & Squeak – this is traditionally a dish made of leftovers from the night before – with veggies and sometimes meat all thrown together in a frying pan.  But if it’s offered as a specialty at a pub, it’s often delicious!  Not necessarily the best option for kids – but something to try, especially if you’re vegetarian.
  • Sunday Roast – This is a classic British pub meal, served as you can probably guess, only on Sunday.  It’s typically a late lunch / early dinner meal – and consists of roast meat and veggies, Yorkshire pudding (which isn’t like an American pudding, but is instead a puff pastry served on top of the meat), all covered in gravy.
SundayRoast

Sunday Roast (Jackson opted for the hamburger)

And if they don’t like the British classics, many family-oriented pubs will have kids menus with chicken fingers and hamburgers.

Americans may hesitate to bring their kids to a pub – as most don’t frequent bars with their kids in the US.  However a good pub is oftentimes a family institution, and children are often welcomed – especially if there’s a beer garden where you can all eat outside.  One of our very favorite spots when we lived in London was the Duke of Kent, in Ealing.  Not only were children welcomed here – but the pub had an enormous back garden with a playset for kids!  Talk about family-friendly!!  Unless you’re staying in the West London suburbs, it will be a trek to get to the Duke.  But search for a gastropub with a beer garden near where you’re staying and you might find something close.  Or email me and I’m happy to help!  (Want to go to Duke of Kent?  Take the Central, District or Circle Lines to Ealing Broadway, then take the E2 or E9 Bus – postcode W13 8DL – it’s about 45 mins from Central London)

Pub with a playground? Yes, please!

On a sunny day in London in the summer, the answer is "Pimm's O'clock!"

On a sunny day in London in the summer, the answer is “Pimm’s O’clock!”

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Sticky toffee pudding for pudding! Get a few spoons

But perhaps the best reason to dine with kids at a pub is dessert.  Pubs typically have deliciously decadent desserts, with the granddaddy of them all being the traditional sticky toffee pudding.  Pudding is one of those words (like biscuit or boot) that we in the US use to mean something totally different than what’s meant when it’s said by our British cousins.  In the UK, pudding simply means dessert.  You can have cookies (biscuits) or cake for pudding – but ideally you’ll have sticky toffee pudding!  You and your kids will love it, and you shouldn’t leave the UK without trying it.

4.  Afternoon tea

I frequently get questions about where to get Afternoon Tea in London with kids.  The “classic” places – like Fortnum & Mason and the Ritz – are both super posh (fancy), and super expensive (£40+/adult, and £20/kid).  So for many it’s not the ideal choice with kids.  That said, one of my readers, Michelle, recently took her crew to F&M and had this to say: 

“We had no problems eating here with the kids – in fact they have a children’s menu for 20 pounds which was perfect for my girls, and they let us wheel the stroller right up to the table and gave us hot water to warm up the baby’s bottle.”

For families who want afternoon tea on a smaller budget, I would suggest two options.  If you want to make it casual, try Patisserie Valerie. They also offer a very reasonably priced afternoon tea, and you can find these all over London.  

Or, if you want to go somewhere that’s nicer, to experience a proper posh tea that won’t cost a whole day’s worth meal budget, you could check out The Wolseley.  It’s a nice place with a great atmosphere (it’s in an old car showroom).  It’s on Piccadilly – just down the block from The Ritz.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s fairly pricey, and it’s definitely a nicer restaurant.  So it’s not a place for unruly three year olds or screaming babies. But if your crew can manage to keep it together for an hour without the outing turning into a stressful ordeal, then give this place a shot.  I didn’t realize until I started looking into it that there are actually strong opinions on this matter.  On the one hand, some would advise against taking kids to the Wolseley – while others rate it as one of the best spots to dine with kids!  What I take from the divergent public sentiment is that it’s a good option for older kids (maybe 5 or 6+) – and not so much for little ones.  If you go for tea, you’ll be there mid afternoon when it’s not so crowded.

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The Wolseley at tea time

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London fruit stand

5.  Eat breakfast in your flat

If you’re trying to do London on a reasonable budget with kids, and you’re staying in a flat, eating a few meals in the flat is a great way to save money.  There’s usually a Tesco express not to far away, and you can pick up some basic groceries.  You’ll find the grocery stores to be not too different from what’s in an American store – but usually just with less selection in London.  Breakfasts in the flat are a great option for three reasons: 1) it’s cheap; 2) it’s easy and saves time in the morning; and 3) London breakfasts will not be the most exciting part of your vacation.  It’s worth trying a “full English” breakfast at some point just to say you’ve had it – but if you’re like me you’ll find that while the eggs over easy are just fine, the fatty bacon bears a closer resemblance to Canadian bacon than to crispy American bacon, and the baked beans from a can, and grilled tomato and mushroom aren’t the tastiest way to start your day.  It’s not awful, but it’s nothing to write home (or update your Facebook status) about!  So get some cereal, fruit, bread and eggs, and have breakfast in your flat.  You’ll probably save at least GBP 100 if you do that 5 out of 7 days rather than having breakfast out.  Also keep an eye out for a local fruit stand.  They’re usually near the major train stations, and they’re cheap and fresh.  If you’re there from mid-June through mid-Aug, get lots of strawberries.  They’re amazing!  And lastly, another advantage of having a flat is that you can bring leftovers home – although you won’t usually have as much leftover, since the portions are smaller than what you’re used to in American restaurants.

6.  Kid-friendly nicer restaurants

In a town known for its restaurants, it would be a shame to visit London and not experience anything other than what we’ve mentioned so far.  Here are a few restaurants which are great options for families with older kids, or kids who are used to eating out.  Most are not specifically intended for little ones, but they won’t look at you funny when you show up asking for a table with kids.  Of course, these are also a bit pricerier than those listed above for eating in London with kids .

  • Souk Medina

    Souk Medina

    Souk Medina – If you want to try something different, this place is great.  Morroccan cuisine and decor.  Fun place that’s near the Theatre District in Soho.  Good pre-show.

  • Opera Tavern – Spanish / Italian small plates.  Perfect place for lunch before a matinee in the West End.
  • Mildred’s Vegetarian (Covent Garden / Soho)  – my wife is vegetarian, and I’m not – but we both love this place.  If your family is vegetarian (or your kids will eat veggie food), then this is a great place to try.
  • Blueprint Cafe – Fantastic view of Tower Bridge! It’s South of the river and east of Tower Bridge – so it’s a little bit out of the way if you’re staying in West or Central London, but you can’t beat the view.  Call ahead and make a reservation – and ask for a table by the window.

Blueprint Cafe with a view of the Tower Bridge

  • Dishoom – fun, delicious, Indian-fusion.  It’s always crowded at dinner, but there’s not as much of a wait for lunch – especially if you go before or after peak time (between 12:30-1:30 PM)
  • Inamo: Though you can’t tell from her expression, she loved it!

    Inamo – Our kids love this place.  It’s sort of Japanese / Pan-asian.  But they have a cool system where the menu is projected on the table, and you order via touch screen.  Then you can change the color of the tablecloth, and play games on the table.  It’s a bit gimmicky, but fun if your family likes that sort of thing.

  • Brasserie Zédel – French restaurant near Piccadilly Circus.  Unlike most places in London, it’s huge!  So it’s usually not too hard to get a table if it’s not a peak time.  It’s also underground – but with a cavernous space and high ceilings, it’s not in the least bit claustrophobic.

7.  Don’t just stick with what’s familiar, and try to avoid tourist traps!  

You’re in London, not your local shopping mall.  You may be drawn to familiar signs.  Places like Subway, TGIFridays and the Rainforest Cafe.  Please do yourself a favor and don’t waste a London meal at one of these places.  There are so many wonderful options to choose from in London!  The official Visit London Tourist guide publishes a list of the “Best Family Restaurants in London“, which shares a few entries with this list.  But it also includes tourist traps such Planet Hollywood, Hardrock Cafe, and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.  Because nothing says “international travel experience” like imitation corporate cajun!  To that list’s credit though, Belgo offers great Belgian-style “frites” (french fries) for the kids, as well as “moules” (mussels) for parents – and if you do need an American Diner fix, it’s tough to beat Ed’s Easy Diner!  

But with so many authentic options in London, there’s no shortage of great local options! Bon appetit!

Bonus:  BYO-Lunch to the museums.  

London’s many free museums are one of the best ways for families to enjoy a day out without spending a ton of cash.  But as with museums in any country, the food options are typically mediocre and expensive.  It’s worth noting that you can bring your own food to the Science Museum, the V&A and the British Museum – but you can not bring food to the Natural History Museum.

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