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Here's What Happened When I Ate Like A Tourist In London

Table for one at the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse.

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There are six Angus Steakhouses within a four mile radius in central London.

Novelty cafés open and close on the regular but Spaghetti House continues to please its punters with the food its been serving since 1955. Peruvian flavours might come and go, but Garfunkel's stands tall.

What is about these chains that makes them so successful? Is the food that good? Are they that good value? Is the atmosphere warm and charming? And if so, why is it no Londoner ever thinks, "Yeah actually, Angus Steak House looks like a nice little spot for dinner".

So, I thought I'd spend a week trying them out.

Here's my list of destinations:

Spaghetti House: A popular know-what-you're-getting option for visitors with various locations across the city.

Hard Rock Café: An international site of pilgrimage for many fast food fans.

Rainforest Café: Shaftesbury Avenue's most remarkable restaurant that's half-zoo half-restaurant.

Garfunkel's: A proper classic West End institution.

Angus Steak House: The most ubiquitous steak house in London, and the true corner stone of Piccadilly Circus.

Here are the rules:

I'd approach each restaurant with an open mind. I'd visit for dinner after finishing a day's work, bringing my boyfriend along to help me test the menu. We'd order modestly, as we usually do when out for dinner, with probably a wine or beer each, a main each and the odd side for share.

How would we rate the restaurants? Success in our eyes is good food, enough food, and affordable food.


Sunday night calls for spaghetti, and Spaghetti House has 11 locations in London. So this seems a good place to start.

The venue is packed with a range of punters, from young couples to families. Near the door, I spot a mum with a table of three young daughters, one of whom is fast asleep with her head on the table, the others both with droopy eyes and lolling heads.

This takes me straight back to my own childhood. I remember going on holidays, tired from walking all day in a foreign city, and being delighted to finally sit down in front of a familiar dinner option: spaghetti.

I'm starving and go for a giant bowl of spaghetti with tomatoes and basil. Yes, it reminds me a little of uni dinners with housemates (flashback to fights over pinched £2 from the kitty), but it's tasty.

My boyfriend is impressed with his carbonara too. It's creamy and full of flavour, and, most importantly, has a strong ratio of bacon bits to spaghetti.

Our side, the special seasonal green salad, is disappointing. It's basically a bunch of posh vegetables – samphire, courgette and heritage tomatoes — swimming in a pool of oil. However, the garlic bread pizza looks quite good on other people's tables.


How much was it? Our total bill was £34.05; that's pretty good for two plates of spaghetti, bruschetta, salad and a bottle of sparkling water.

Spaghetti House surprised me. The food isn't the best spaghetti you're going to eat in London, but it's far from being the worst. It's affordable and it's definitely the equivalent of places I've been to on holiday when looking for a quick fix.

There are Hard Rock Cafés all over the world, and even though it's only 5.30pm on a Monday, there's a ten person queue outside the London edition.

Most of the punters in the queue are holding bags of Hard Rock memorabilia, purchased from the Rock Shop across the road.

I recognize the bags. As a kid growing up in the countryside, I always begged for a Hard Rock Café t-shirt on every city holiday we went on. My parents were never going to justify buying all four of us kids dinner there (I've always known it's expensive) so I never ended up getting one. Maybe today's the day!


We work around the queue, and opt to eat at the bar instead. No tables are free, so we perch at the bar itself. Across from us, another youngish couple are at the bar tucking into a plate of potato skins, whilst other customers wait patiently behind them to order a drink. It's all very weird.

We decide upon the Jumbo Sharing Platter. At £20.95, it seems like the most economical option. The giant platter consists of fried chicken crisps, onion rings, sticky chicken wings, bruschetta, and a parmesan and spinach dip, all served on a bed of lettuce leaves.

The onion rings have a good coating of batter, but are very greasy. The bruschetta is disappointing, though the spinach and parmesan dip is pleasant. We find ourselves struggling halfway, the platter is truly giant. We don't manage to finish it, leaving behind some wings.

How much was it? A sharing platter, a margarita and beer means that we leave £34.65 poorer.

I'm taken aback by the price. Next time I pass a Hard Rock Café in a foreign city, I won't wonder what I'm missing.


I was not prepared for the Rainforest Café. It's like walking into a zoo with a restaurant attached.

All the walls are covered with trees and leaves, there are projections of fish swimming on floor, and giant fish tanks separate areas. There's a rainstorm brewing in the speakers, and electric full-sized animals turn their heads and make breathing noises. For the kids here, it's better than Disneyland.

I'm by myself tonight as my boyfriend has to work late (let's stay in tourist character and pretend he's ventured off to Arsenal for a stadium tour). I browse the menu. A starter portion of calamari is £10.20. Prawn linguine is £19.20. A vegetarian bean burger is a crazy £16.55. No wonder people say London is expensive.

My quesadilla arrives and it's huge. Drowned in cheese and stuffed with potato and corn, it's pretty good. A waiter offers to wrap up my leftovers, but I'm in a cheese coma and turn down the offer.


How much was it? A quesadilla, chips and a Pepsi: £27.62.

That shouldn't have cost more than £15. Even if I had a small child in tow, I wouldn't go back here. I don't think it's the sort of place anyone visits twice — if nothing else because no-one can afford to.

Garfunkel's has 12 locations in London, and one in Bath. Not unlike Little Chef, it serves pub grub. Think fish pie, burgers, a pasta option, and a couple of salads.

Inside, it's cheap and cheerful with red pleather booths. There are black and white photographs of Big Ben and London Eye on the walls, and a red bus on the menu. I wonder if they have that in the Bath location?


I opt for fish and chips. Meanwhile my boyfriend eyes up the "Tower of London" – "the ultimate burger". The burger is gigantic: two burger patties, bacon, a tomato, onion rings and some sweetcorn salsa stacked tall between a shiny top bread bun. The patties are tasty, but would really shine with a delicious relish or spicy mayo.

My fish and chips are OK. The chunky chips are fluffy and the fish is light, with a crispy batter. It's let down by a tiny portion of minted mushy peas. Mushy peas are the best bit about fish and chips, gimme more!

How much was it? The bill, for two mains, a glass of house wine and a Meantime is £38.20, which isn't too bad.

Garfunkel's isn't horrible. It's just distinctly average. The two best things about it? It plays The Coral and it serves Meantime Lager.


We saved the big one for last. There's an Angus Steak House on every street corner throughout Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Covent Garden, all lighting up the streets with their glowing red signs.

We pull up at Angus Steak House on Haymarket. The place is big and packed. What's astonishing is that there's another Angus Steak House literally 50m up the road nearer Piccadilly Circus, so this is just the overflow crowd.

My boyfriend goes straight in for the 12oz New York Strip Steak. Highlighted as the "Angus Recommended" steak on the menu, it comes with a fried egg and a rasher of bacon on top. It's £25.75, and that doesn't include any chips or sauce, but instead a handful of salad leaves and a tomato. The jug of thick gravy is an optional £2.25 extra.

My salmon comes with a couple of new potatoes and green beans. We order a sharing size portion of sweet potato fries (£5, as opposed to the individual portion for £3.25). Though the fries are very crisp and delicious, they're really so small, only half-filling a cone. We have to order another portion of skinny fries, and a mac and cheese to supplement them. With risk of having to take out a loan if we order anything more, we pay up and leave.


What was the bill? Our total bill, for two mains, and sides, with a glass of wine and a beer is £65.75.

I anticipated overpriced but that doesn't cut it. We can't fault the staff, they're helpful and friendly, but nearly £70 for a Thursday night meal is something else.

What was the best thing I ate?

Judging on food alone, the Rainforest Café was the best. There's no doubt £17.90 is ludicrous for a vegetarian quesadilla, but it was large and tasty. The menu was varied and had diverse options such as sea bass and calamari. Meanwhile, Spaghetti House was decent too, we were genuinely impressed by the carbonara.

What was the worst thing I ate?

Hard Rock Café was easily the worst. Overpriced, with a noisy, chaotic atmosphere. Save your pennies and go to McDonald's, an equally legendary establishment, for far better fast food and under a fiver.

Above all, my wallet is the thing that's feeling most damaged. Eating in London is expensive for tourists. Five days of non-extravagant dining in the West End and we spent a grand total of £200.27.

I was surprised that there was also so little fresh fruit and vegetables on the menu. We're a country that grows an impressive amount of fruit and vegetables – where was all the colour? I know people don't go out for dinner in search of broccoli and carrots, but is batter really the thing we're saying we do best?

If you're looking for more affordable, and varied food week in Central London, try:

Monday: Pizza by the slice at Homeslice (£4 a slice)

Tuesday: Ramen at Tonkotsu (£10 a bowl)

Wednesday: Burgers at Patty and Bun (£7.50 for a burger)

Thursday: Bento Boxes at Taro (£6.50 a box)

Friday: Hirata buns at Beer & Buns (£7 for two buns)

As for my own future city breaks, I'm never eating on a piazza again. Locals have probably been laughing at me for years.