You’re not not friends, but the fact remains that you only seem to talk or make dinner plans when there are shots and a heated smoking area involved. Now, after several fictitious birthday excuses and a recurring stomach bug that may or may not be anxiety, you’ve finally run out of reasons to swerve dinner. Don’t panic though. Seriously, put your passport down. Our guide has got you covered. From casual restaurants where you’ll be done in under an hour, to station-adjacent spots perfect for a quick getaway, here are 15 affordable and inoffensive options for a meal with that mate you actually call ‘mate’.
Green Papaya is one of our go-to choices when we need a quick and casual meal around Shoreditch. It serves a mixture of classic Vietnamese and Chinese dishes - think bun, pho, and dan dan noodles priced around a tenner - in a room that’s comfortable enough to spend an hour or so in, but bright enough to mean you’re unlikely to find yourself there hours later, telling the person opposite about your completely passionate and just-found feelings on deforestation.
Suggesting a restaurant connected to a train station could come across as rude, or even anti-social. But the beauty of Coal Rooms, next to Peckham Rye, is that the homely food and stylishly understated room will make your ‘friend’ think that you suggested it for those reasons, rather than the 21:07 train that will have you snug in under a half hour. Logistics aside, Coal Rooms is actually a very practical and tasty option. It’s open from breakfast until dinner, and it serves things likes kedgeree, brisket buns, and raspberry mille-feuille, alongside a decent selection of drinks.
Clerkenwell is the ideal area for a mid-week dinner that screams ‘home by 10pm, comfy socks on by five past’. It’s quiet and full of a broad range of restaurants that will, if chosen correctly, work perfectly for a lunch or dinner that’s equal parts tasty and efficient. Which is where Berber and Q comes in. This Middle Eastern-inspired mezze and grill restaurant on Exmouth Market serves small plates like babaganoush or fried aubergine hummus, alongside kebabs, and rice bowls, all at a reasonable price. And it’s got bar seating, which is perfect for a snappy meal.
You don’t really know a great deal about this person, apart from that theirs is a lager and a pack of ready salted. In that case, going to the pub makes the most sense for all involved. The Canton Arms is an old school feeling gastropub in Stockwell that makes homely, Mediterranean-influenced food in it’s casual dining room, and killer toasties upfront in the bar area. You know what you’re getting in a place like this, which is helpful when you don’t know the person you’re with all that well.
Nothing says ‘we’re here for a good time, not a long time’ like an eff-off sandwich filled with ham hock, piccalilli, and shoestring fries, alongside a couple of beers and a stroll back to Finsbury Park. That’s what will happen if you go to Max’s Sandwich Shop in Stroud Green, an ideal focaccia-and-fun-filled venue for someone you think could be a second-tier or more friend. Now you just need to break some bread (and a few glasses) with them to find out.
If you’re going for a meal with someone that you’d actively get on a random bus to avoid bumping into on the street, then you may as well make it worthwhile for yourself. Bao Borough is full of things - like Taiwanese fried chicken, a deep fried curry cheese bao, spicy aged beef in butter rice - that do just that. It’s also a pretty buzzing, in-and-out space, meaning that once you’re finished, losing each other in the crowds of Borough Market is a definite possibility.
Sure, time flies when you’re having fun. But it has a way of dragging like a four-hour root canal when you’re meeting up with that friend of a friend of your friend’s cousin, who happens to work in the same industry as you. That’s why you should head to great little Japanese spot Okan in Brixton Village. Not only is almost everything here under a tenner but they’ll also feed you quicker than you can say “oh look! We’re finished, better be heading off”. When it comes to your order, you’re definitely going to want to get involved in their signature king prawn and squid yaki soba, the pork belly okonomiyaki, and a cheeky £5.50 glass of plum wine. Job done.
Morty and Bob’s is a grilled cheese specialist in King’s Cross that also serves thing like burrata and focaccia, and parmesan truffle fries in the evening. It’s the ideal combination of middle-ground location and restaurant that doesn’t say you don’t care, but it doesn’t say you care that much either. The space is pretty big, easy to get into, and as long as whoever you’re with isn’t lactose intolerant, then it’s impossible not to enjoy their gooey cheese toasties. But you’ll know what they can and can’t eat anyway, right?
We’re 99% certain that the first ever public house was invented because some blacksmith wasn’t sure where to hang out with his third-tier stonemason. And we would like to personally thank them, because Islington pub, The Compton Arms, is casual enough for a low-key pint, but also serves a changing menu of small plates like whipped cod’s roe on toast and squid with green sauce and sweetcorn, but really you’re here for the burger. It’s the kind of beefy, buttery, cheesy piece of craftsmanship that blacksmith would have seriously respected, and it will make up for having to spend dinner with someone that starts 90% of their anecdotes with “I had the weirdest dream last night”. Golden.
You know the saying. A best friend is just a stranger you haven’t got pissed over a bottle of sauvignon blanc and macarons with yet. Okay, we made that up - you’re welcome Hallmark - but this all-day French brasserie is a pretty great place to do both of the above. And if you’re really feeling wild, have some decent steak tartare as well. Despite being on Sloane Square, this place is very committed to feeling like you’re stopping by for a café crème in a terraced bistro in the Marais. Basically, all of the black and white French film posters, dapper waiters, and rattan table sets outside will give you something to chat about once you’ve covered any and all gossip about your mutual friends within five minutes of meeting.
Chick ‘N’ Sours is one of those casual restaurants that’s perfect for almost any meeting with friends. Including those friends you met at your mate’s ironic Dirty Dancing party two years ago, who has somehow made this meet-up a reality despite your 86 ‘busy this week, but let’s definitely do next week!’ texts. This cheap and cheerful Covent Garden spot has a proper crowd-pleaser of a menu with Korean fried chicken sandwiches, disco wings, bang bang cucumbers, and beef dripping fries. As the name suggests there are also plenty of sour cocktails that will hopefully take the sting out of the fact you end this meal by saying “this next month is chaos, but you know, see you soon”.
You tried to check out what kind of food this person likes on their Facebook, but all it really told you is that they’re a pisces with a penchant for Elizabeth Gilbert quotes. Luckily, whether you’re vegetarian, desperate for a dressed-up burger, or just in need of something that’s kind of healthy, Granger And Co. in Clerkenwell has got you covered. Expect big windows, entirely inoffensive art, lots of banquette seating, and a cold drip negroni that’s a very solid way of getting a conversation going. Even if that conversation relies heavily on you pretending to know why mercury being in retrograde is playing havoc with their hair.
Let’s be honest, 80% of this friendship is just sending each other the heart eyes instant reaction to each other’s Instagram stories. The good news is that when you’re heading for a meal with someone you potentially won’t recognise without the bunny ears filter, a menu with plenty of options is key to ensuring you both find something you actually want to eat. Bento Ramen is a Japanese spot in Camden that not only has over 130 items on its menu, but it also has plenty of seating, small prices, quick turnover, and most importantly, great dim sum. Although you could share one of their sumo bento boxes, if you’re just after something lighter we’d recommend the dragon maki, tonkotsu ramen, or the £12.80 mixed dim sum selection that’s as tasty as it is affordable.
The £7.50 cocktails at Fare Bar and Canteen are an excellent consolation prize for having to spend your evening pretending to care about this pseudo-stranger’s brother’s love life. After all ‘Bitter Orange Spritz’ is pretty close to what you once called this person when you lived together in the first year of uni - such fun. Be warned, the downstairs restaurant at this Farringdon spot is a little more on the serious side, but the big laidback oval bar is perfect for a quick catch-up over a pizza. In case you’ve limited this person to daylight hours only - seriously, you can’t unsee the things you saw them do during Freshers’ Week - then it’s good to know that this place is also great for a lunchtime coffee and a light bite situation.
You’re ready to take this to the next level. You think. Depending, of course, on whether or not they pass the Brigadiers test. This lively Indian restaurant and good-times playground in the City specialises in barbecued meats, big biryanis, and generally having a blast. Realistically, they don’t deserve to be upgraded from third tier if they’re not entirely hyped by the fact that this place has a whisky vending machine, a pool room, a bar we could accidentally stay at for the next decade, and the kind of excellent lamb chops you’ll consider getting tattooed on your chest after a couple of on-tap old fashioneds. If they look as happy as you do, then welcome to second-tier status pal. Hope you enjoy your Paperchase card and cheap bottle of ’secco for your birthday.