Pie and Mash with Liquor Sauce
While we're fans of the gourmet, free-range, responsibly sourced meat pies (like those from Pieminister) you can find around town, you cannot visit London and not hit up one of the ever-shrinking handful of traditional, cash-only pie-and-eel shops. You'll recognize them by their odd hours and lines of old-timers extending out the door at lunch. The thing to order, and there's not a whole lot of choice, is pie and mash with liquor sauce: a minced-beef meat pie and mashed potatoes ladled with a (nonalcoholic) thin green parsley sauce. (Also try the jellied eels, if you dare—they're actually good; mild and slightly salty, not at all fishy.)
Once a staple of London's poor working class, this is traditional cockney comfort food served in century-old restaurants that instantly transport you to another era.
Olympics tip: Find this dish at M. Manze, the oldest pie shop in London, dating to 1902, near Potter's Field (big-screen viewing at Tower Bridge).
Clark's: 46 Exmouth Market; 071-837-1974
It may not be as quintessential a breakfast as, say, a traditional fry-up or beans on toast, but don't underestimate the power of the bacon butty—this is, unapologetically, a sandwich of bacon and white bread. Depending on the type of bread used, it may go by other names—on a large roll, for example, it's a "bacon bap"—but in any case, the building blocks of this salty, satisfying sandwich are quite simple. Thick, meaty back bacon, white bread, and the condiment of your choice (English mustard, HP sauce, ketchup). It's more than just acceptable to dine on this; it's a pretty common on-the-go budget breakfast among many a London office worker. You can't go wrong—it's a bacon sandwich! Also in this category is the chip (French fry) butty and the ever-popular fish finger sandwich.
Olympics tip: Try a refined take on this dish, the Old Spot bacon sandwich, at St. John Bread & Wine, less than five miles from Olympic Park.
Bar Centrale: 4 Bernard Street; 020-7278-5249
There's a long tradition of bread-baking in England, and thankfully a few bakeries in London, most notably The Flour Station, have made it their business to handcraft delicious classic breads with the highest level of quality. The Chelsea bun—originating from the Chelsea area of West London in the 18th century—is one particularly tasty example, made from a spiced yeast dough that's rolled out and topped with currants, sugar, cinnamon, and butter. Coiled, sliced, baked, and coated in a sticky sugar glaze, it's not so far removed from what many of us know as a cinnamon roll. And like that treat, it's a sweet, buttery, dense nostalgia trigger. Also try an Eccles cake, another historic currant-studded sweet.
Olympics tip:Find this bread at The Flour Station's Borough Market stall, near Potter's Field (big-screen viewing at Tower Bridge).
The Flour Station: Jubilee Market area of Borough Market, 8 Southwark Street
Sticky Toffee Pudding
In the big murky world of English puddings, this one is a personal favorite. Sticky toffee pudding consists of a dark sponge cake (with the key ingredient of chopped dates) soaked with sweet toffee sauce, a concoction of butter, sugar, and cream that's impossible not to love. This one in particular, from a great little pub in pretty Hampstead, also comes topped with a buttery dollop of Cornish clotted cream, adding a cooling, extra-creamy contrast to the rich, dark, syrupy cake. It's a perfect end to a meal here, which might also include flaky pork and sage sausage rolls, smoked wood pigeon, and calves' liver, depending upon the season.
Olympics tip: Find this dish at The Greenwich Union, another terrific pub, near Greenwich Park (equestrian events) and the North Greenwich Arena (gymnastics, trampoline, basketball).
The Holly Bush: 22 Holly Mount
Toasted Cheese Sandwich
Also called a "Cheese Toastie," this is, simply, a grilled cheese sandwich. But this particular toastie, from a stall called Kappacasein in Borough Market, isn't just any grilled cheese, of course, but the one once famously called "the platonic ideal of grilled cheese" by superfan Ruth Reichl.
Kappacasein's sandwich combines shredded Montgomery's cheddar—the king of British cheddars, a nutty, earthy cheese handmade in Somerset—with chopped leeks, onions, and garlic, all melted together between slices of sourdough bread baked by Poilâne, the world-renowned Parisian bakery (which has a London outlet). The sandwich also uses some Ogleshield, a pungent cheese likewise produced by Somerset's Montgomery family, and occasionally a few other local cheeses. Crunchy, gooey, and deeply flavorful, it's living, oozy proof that simplicity triumphs when high-quality ingredients are invited to the party. For more cheesy goodness, try the raclette too.
Olympics tip: Sneak over to Kappacasein's stall at Borough Market (Thursday-Saturday), or its headquarters at the Maltby Street market (Saturday only), near Potter's Field (big-screen viewing at Tower Bridge).
Kappacasein: at Borough Market, 8 Southwark Street.
Scotch eggs: brilliant bar snacks in which shelled hard-boiled eggs are wrapped in sausage, covered in breadcrumbs, and deep-fried. And they don't appear to have anything to do with Scotland. In fact, it's generally accepted that they either evolved from northern India's nargisi kofta dish, which pairs minced-meat-covered eggs with curry, or they were invented by London's venerable department store Fortnum & Mason in 1738, as portable sustenance for well-heeled travelers on long carriage rides. Either way, they fell out of fashion for a while but have fully made a comeback among British-food-embracing gastropubs, where they're served cold, with green salad and, I hope, a beer. Follow it up at a good pub with a traditional Sunday roast lunch, with Yorkshire pudding.
Olympics tip: Find this dish at its (potential) source at Fortnum & Mason, near the spectator area on The Mall near St. James's Park (road cycling, triathlon, marathon, race walking). Or try the venison Scotch egg at The Harwood Arms, near Earls Court in Kensington (volleyball).
The Carpenter's Arms: 73 Cheshire Street.
For all the talk of herring in other European cities (looking at you, Amsterdam), the UK's own kippers (herring that have been cured via kippering—split open, cleaned, salted, and smoked, then usually grilled/broiled or sautéed) are relatively overlooked. Don't make that mistake: this iconic British breakfast dish is delicious.
The best kippers hail from the Isle of Man and Scotland, but they've long been sent down to London, where they enjoyed popularity on Victorian breakfast tables. The fish is strong and oily, as herring will be, but with a little butter and lemon—and maybe a poached egg—it's brilliant. Look for kippers from the Isle of Man, or Manx kippers, served like these smoky, buttery fish from posh Dean Street Townhouse: grilled, with some butter on top and lemon on the side. No frills, and none needed.
Olympics tip: Find this dish at The Wolseley, near the Horse Guards Parade (beach volleyball) and spectator area on The Mall near St. James's Park (road cycling, triathlon, marathon, race walking).
Dean Street Townhouse: 72-74 Dean Street.
Roast Bone Marrow
It's a more recent addition to the London dining scene, but this dish harks back to the old days of no-waste, nose-to-tail dining—an approach that's been brought back in a big way to London (and plenty of cities across the pond) thanks to the man who first dared to plate this boldly simple dish, Fergus Henderson. His restaurants are no hidden gems these days, but dining at one remains essential, both for the quality of his food and for the understanding of why all those seasonal gastropubs serving roasted pigeon and lamb tongue have become so popular.
St. John is the motherlode. Whatever you order, start with this primal, indulgent signature dish, one of the few always available here: four roasted veal bones, their melty marrow meant to be spread on the toasted sourdough and topped with a pinch of sea salt and lemony parsley salad.
Olympics tip: Find this dish at St. John, about three miles from Victoria Park (big-screen viewing).
St. John: 26 St. John Street.
Potted foods date to about the 16th century, when people realized they could preserve fish and meat by placing them in small pots, covering them in melted clarified butter (or animal fat), and allowing them to set, effectively sealing out air and preventing bacteria growth. At London restaurants today, everything from smoked mackerel to pork is standard "potted" fare, but potted shrimps is the only dish to achieve heritage status by the British Food Trust—and an old-school restaurant like Rules (est. 1798), all antique mirrors, chandeliers, and mounted deer heads, is an ideal place to try it. The small, sweet brown shrimp, from Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, are coated in a rich mixture of prawn butter cooked with garlic, ginger, and shallots; other flavors come courtesy of lemon, mace, white pepper, and cayenne. The cold mound is topped with paprika and served with greens and toasted bread. It's like a sweet, smooth, buttery, shrimpy spread. A great appetizer for a heavier main course here, like steak and kidney pudding.
Olympics tip: Find this dish at The Greenwich Union, near Greenwich Park (equestrian events) and the North Greenwich Arena (gymnastics, trampoline, basketball). Or find it at Rules, near Trafalgar Square (big-screen viewing during Paralympic Games, Aug. 29-Sept. 9).
Rules: 35 Maiden Lane
Meat fruit is one of the signature historic dishes dreamed up by chef Heston Blumenthal at his latest restaurant Dinner, inside the Mandarin Oriental hotel. Like everything else on the menu, it takes inspiration from a forgotten, centuries-old tradition—in this case, when the hosts of circa-1500 dinner parties would serve something called "illusion fruit," a basket of fruit with one or two pieces cheekily filled with minced meat. Blumenthal's modernist update is an elegant meat-stuffed "mandarin": a dreamy, mousse-like parfait of chicken liver, foie gras, cream, and brandy, molded and frozen and dipped into mandarin gelatin, served with buttered grilled bread. Light as air, with subtle mandarin sweetness, it's fantastically delicious. Another must-try dish here is the salamagundy, a wonderful "hodgepodge" warm salad, dating from circa 1720, of sweet chicken oysters, bone marrow, greens, roasted salsify, and horseradish puree.
Olympics tip: Find this dish (make a reservation) at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, located right on Hyde Park (triathlon, swimming, big-screen viewing). Save a few pounds and book for lunch.
Dinner by Heston Blumenthal: Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge.