Pret a Manger is a terrible lunch. Arrest me and throw away the key for heresy against a duck and hoisin wrap-obsessed nation. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place. An almond croissant at the Eurostar terminal waiting for an inconveniently early train. A sandwich consumed on the way to a Soho boozer, post-work and pre-drink. Compared to its contemporary – the £3 meal deal – Pret may even seem like a good option. But we are much better than this.
We’ve become woke on the environment, mental health and everyday sexism so it’s time we take a stand against the sad lunch. My heart drops when I see a bland katsu from Wasabi and nothing is as depressing as the office canteen; can the institution that is fish & chip Fridays die the slow death that befitted Pizza Express?
Below are my favourite lunches that have kept me on the straight and narrow when the clock strikes 12, out of the greedy clutches of bland conglomerates. These are biased to my office location and by no means extensive, just some notes on the world beyond the sad lunch.
Falafel is everywhere. Kebab shops, market stalls and supermarket shelves all stock the moreish balls of fried chickpea. Pilpel sells what might be the best in London.
The stores are a whirlwind. Fast-talking, energetic servers put together a container or pitta– with salad, hummus, tahini, chili and bread – in under a minute. If you smile extra wide, they hand you a fresh falafel to munch while waiting.
This is not the place to be indecisive or hungover as the questions come fast: All the salads: yes. Brown or white bread: brown. Tahini and chili: yes, extra spicy. It costs £5.99 for a container and £4.99 for a pitta. This includes, for no extra charge, the experience of being flung through a falafel assembly line at warp speed.
One day at my old company I stepped into the elevator with the distinctive white and red bag of Kurumaya. A director from the business pointed at my goods and said “the guys running the Japanese Equity Fund, the ones actually from Japan, they like that place”.
He was, naturally, carrying an egg and cress salad sandwich from Pret but the opinion of the Japanese analysts was sufficient. I always thought the sushi was good, but now Kurumaya had a gold star of approval. Kurumaya was verified, authentic.
They are located at St. Paul’s and the format is simple. There are two fridges in the front, one hot food container and a till. The fridges are full of mixed rolls and sashimi boxes. The hot food container has noodle and rice dishes. The till also serves as front of house for their restaurant.
Behind the take-out queue is a twenty seat sushi go-round. Those with a more time can sit, drink miso and select plates at a respectable pace. I celebrated a new job there with a finance friend once and the atmosphere was excellent. The best people from the city were there: well-travelled, quiet and humble. The type of people who value a lunch out alone. Yeah there were also three Australian sales traders unable to use chopsticks, bathing their California Rolls in soy sauce, but they were easily ignored.
If you’re taking it away, the salmon jyu is probably the best. Punchy at £9.50 but it’s what they’re serving in the restaurant and stands up to its price.
Leather Lane Food Market
Leather lane is a food mecca but also home to a lot of rubbish. Those boringly repetitive stalls that feature in every market are represented here: the German bratwurst, the Greek halloumi wrap, whatever the hell comprises a “Ramen Burger”.
My four favourite stalls all serve a vegan or vegetarian lunch which is one quick way to find quality on a market. Stalls often get away selling mediocre grilled meats, punters lured by the smell not the quality. If you can find somewhere vegetarian on a market that makes you go back then you’ve found something good. If it has a queue, the notoriously picky plant-based eater will be voting with their feet and they should be trusted.
My favourite is Gebeta Ethiopian Kitchen. The vegan option is a rice box with lentils three ways, cabbage, spinach and green bean. You get a roll of injera – Ethiopian sourdough flatbread – to soak up the curries. All this for the meagre sum of £5. Tang from the injera and spice from the chili sauce keep it fresh and the lentils make it filling.
On the North end of Leather lane is The Tempeh Man. Normally I avoid stalls with such nomenclature. The Burrito Guy. The Falafel Dude. In 2019 it should probably be The Tempeh He/She/They.
Regardless of pronoun, The Tempeh Man serves a good fare. Two types of Indonesian curry with rice and flatbread plus a dollop of yoghurt and chili for £6. This is a hefty lunch and I would reserve it for a Friday. The rice is a bit cheap but the curry you soak it with is spicy and hearty.
In between Gebeta Ethiopian Cuisine and The Tempeh Guy are two honourable mentions. Astro Vegan serves a grilled polenta box with sides of bean stew, broccoli and salad. It’s on the pricier side of the market at £6.95 but the portion is large.
Curry Zone is also worthy of patronage. In the most aesthetically unappealing stall on leather lane – literally a plastic shed on wheels – a duo serve made-to-order curry and rice boxes from £4. The queue is predominantly of the ethnicity you would hope it to be and when the menu says spicy it means it.
Where do you go when you realise that the overcooked and oily pasta at Coco di Mama is making thousands of Italian nonnas roll in their graves? Guido’s.
Argument No. 1: they use Rummo which is probably the best pasta you can buy in a packet. You can chose between a decent range of shapes which they cook al dente.
Argument No.2: each pasta sauce is cooked from scratch in front of you using the right ingredients. The Amatriciana uses guanciale, pork jowl. The Carbonara uses pecorino, sheep’s milk cheese.
Argument No.3: there is a sauce-soaked slice of bread placed at the bottom of each portion.
This is a fantasy. One day – through fat-cat business success or being fired for thinking too much about food – I will eat a long lunch at St. John with my closest friends.
It will be the antithesis of all the lunches I’ve eaten at my desk. The times, myself not immune to poor choice, I have eaten overpriced Chilango burritos or insubstantial Tossed salads.
It was more than reassuring when Lunch with the FT featured the legendary founder of St. John, Fergus Henderson. Or should I say Lunch with the FT and then a Trip to The Groucho to Drink Champagne. The lunch interviews in recent years have become as sober as a Fed policy meeting. So my glass is raised to the author Natalie Whittle for bringing a proper lunch back into the pink pages.
St. John has recently turned 25. I will have reached the same age next year and hope by then to sit at one of their tables and stuff myself silly. Belly full of food and Beaujolais I will order a half-dozen warm Madeleines, lean back in my chair and pop open the top button of my shirt. Boss buzzing on my phone, number of emails ticking up into the hundreds. I will be already gone. Lost in that hazy time that is too late to call afternoon, but too early to be evening, without a care in the world.
Pilpel, Leather Lane and Guido’s can keep me going for now.