Potted shrimps, jellied eels and rib-sticking pie'n'mash – Duncan JD Smith is your guide to the no frills but oh so good historic eateries of London
These days Britain’s national dish is no longer roast beef and nor is it fish and chips. It is Chicken Tikka Masala, a dry and spicy Indian dish with added sauce to satisfy the nation’s craving for gravy. It’s a good illustration of the way in which Britain has absorbed and adapted external influences since the days of empire and is available at Veeraswamy, Britain’s first Indian restaurant established in 1926 at 99 Regent Street (W1).
That’s not to say that roasts and fried fish have disappeared from London’s culinary map. Far from it. Simpson’s Tavern at 38 Ball Court (EC3), London’s first chophouse, has been serving pies and roasts since 1757, whilst Rules at 35 Maiden Lane (WC2) has specialised in game since opening in 1798. Meanwhile since 1889, Sweetings at 39 Queen Victoria Street (EC4) has been bracketing its fresh fish lunches with the likes of potted shrimps and Spotted Dick pudding. Modest by comparison is the Regency Café at 17–19 Regency Street (SW1), which has provided the best full English breakfasts since 1946, and the family-run Golden Hind at 73 Marylebone Lane (W1), which has been serving excellent fish and chips since 1914.
Two delicacies unique to London are pie’n’mash and eels. Steeped in Cockney culture these honest, no-frills dishes have been enjoyed since the mid-1800s and are still available in more than 80 eel and pie shops around the capital. One of the best – and certainly the oldest – is M. Manze at 87 Tower Bridge Road (SE1). It is considered important enough to warrant its very own Blue Plaque, which is displayed inside the shop rather than being fixed to the wall outside because of the building’s Grade 2 listed status.
Established in 1892 and taken over in 1902 by the Italian Manze family, the premises and the recipes remain exactly as they were a century ago. Behind the old-fashioned façade and green awning there is a single dining room lined neatly with green and white tiles. To one side a row of booths contain dark wooden benches and marble-top tables, where customers can enjoy their food sitting down. Those with less time queue at the take-away counter and enjoy this most original of fast foods outside. Either way the product is the same: a traditional beef pie with mashed potatoes served with a topping of parsley sauce, known as liquor. A splash of vinegar with a side helping of jellied or stewed eels completes the experience. For devotees of the dish there is the Pie & Mash Club, which meets regularly at different restaurants and grades them accordingly.
Those in need of a stroll after eating should head north from Manze’s to 11 Bermondsey Square (SE1), where the shadowy 11th-century remains of Bermondsey Abbey can be seen beneath a glass floor in the Del’Aziz restaurant. Around the corner at the junction of Mandela Way and Page’s Walk is a decommissioned Soviet T-34 tank placed here in 1995 by local property developer Russell Gray after his plans to develop the site were refused by Southwark Council!
M. Manze at 87 Tower Bridge Road, Mon 11am–2pm, Tue–Thu 10.30am–2pm, Fri 10am–2.30pm, Sat 10am–2.45pm
Getting there: Jubilee, Northern lines to London Bridge, then bus or walk down Bermondsey Street