What's the best bargain in London when it comes to food? Some would say it's the £46 set lunch at Le Gavroche--quite reasonable when you consider it includes a bottle of house wine. Others might nominate the fish pie at Sheekey's, which is a meal in itself and only costs £10.75. If it's inexpensive food you're after, Café Daquise in South Kensington does a very respectable set lunch for £7.50. However, according to Frommer's, which has just updated its London Travel Guide, the answer is none of the above. In their eyes, the restaurant that offers the best value for money in the capital is the Café in the Crypt at St Martin-in-the-Field.
I imagine this wasn't welcome news to the Café's loyal band of regulars, a middle-aged, music-loving crowd who pop downstairs for a nice meal after one of the 350 concerts or recitals that the church holds every year. The Café in the Crypt is one of those "hidden gems" that, once discovered, occupies a special place in the heart. Unfortunately, the secret is now out and when I went there last Tuesday it was so crowded I had to fight for a table. It wasn't hard to spot the regulars. They were the ones looking daggers at the interlopers, like embattled locals in a Cotswold village. Not a very Christian attitude, I suppose, but then the Café in the Crypt is so nice--and so cheap--it's not hard to see why they want to keep it to themselves.
You enter through a discreet doorway at the side of the church and descend a narrow set of stone steps until you find yourself in a cavernous, vaulted chamber. It's a good idea not to look down at this point because you might end up staring at the following: "Here lies the body of Mrs Elizabeth Williams of S. James who departed this life Aug 13th 1750." This is one of many reminders that, in essence, you're dining in a graveyard. For a token consideration, you can even spend half an hour in the bowels of the Crypt, making brass rubbings of the more interesting gravestones. Indeed, brass-rubbing kits are available from the gift shop, along with T-Towels (£5.50), Knight Money Boxes (£7.50) and Castle Chess Sets (£35.25).
The food is served buffet-style and the line snaked almost all the way back to the entrance on the night I went there last week. This was at 6.30pm and, in addition to a large number of European and American tourists, there were quite a few theatergoers in attendance. St-Martin-in-the-Field is in the heart of the theatre district and it's an ideal place to grab a quick bite before the curtain goes up. My wife and I were off to see The Old Country, the newly-revived Alan Bennett play at Trafalgar Studios, and we had no difficulty squeezing in two courses and a glass of wine in less than an hour.
The food is fairly basic, but then that's what you'd expect at these prices. For my main course, I had fillet of pork in a rosemary and orange sauce (£6.95), while my wife had a slice of vegetable pie with an assortment of greens and roast potatoes (£5.95). The pork was slightly tougher than I expected, though I had no complaints about the quantity, and my wife said her greens were good, but the potatoes overdone. We each finished with a small tub of Ben & Jerry's--not as good as Haagan-Dazs, but beggars can't be choosers. The total cost of our meal, including wine, was £23.80, which is about as cheap as it gets in these parts. The only competitor is Pret A Manger in the basement of the National Gallery opposite, but that's only open after 6pm on Wednesdays, whereas the Café in the Crypt stays open till 8pm every weekday--and later on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, provided there's a concert on upstairs.
It was hardly the best meal I've ever had--more like a glorified school dinner--but the atmosphere is so pleasant, it proved an ideal start to a perfect evening. (The Alan Bennett play is an absolute corker.) Actually, come to think of it, now that I've discovered this "hidden gem", I'd quite like to keep it to myself. So please don't go there. It's horrible. Worst bargain in London.