Although food isn’t as inextricably linked with London as it is with Paris or Rome, visitors to London should make a point of visiting at least one of London’s marvelous gourmet food stores. Prices can be high, but you can still find thoughtful gifts for friends, or treats to remind you of your visit after you return home.
If you’re on a budget and pressed for time, the food halls at Marks & Spenser department stores have a huge selection of products, lots of affordable choices, and they’re conveniently located throughout the city. Tesco, the grocery store chain that owns Fresh & Easy in the United States, is another good source for basics.
Harrods is the indisputable grande dame of London food stores. And even if you’re not shopping for food or wine, you should add it to your must-see list.
Visiting Harrods Food Halls
In 1849, Charles Henry Harrod opened a grocery store in the Knightsbridge neighborhood of London. The store expanded but was destroyed by fire in 1883. When Harrods continued to fulfill orders promptly following the fire, their reputation for unrivaled service was sealed, a tradition that continues to this day.
Richard Burbidge took over the business, expanded again, and added many innovations, including London’s first escalator. The building we know as Harrods today was designed by Stephens and Munt and opened in 1905. The Food Halls were decorated with mosaics and freezes by W. J, Neatby, and they make up one of the best gourmet food stores in the world.
There are dozens of departments, and virtually nothing you can’t find here. On the ground floor, you’ll find charcuterie, cheese, fruits and vegetables, baked goods, candy, tea and coffee, meat, fish, and poultry. The wine shop is in the basement.
What really sets Harrods apart is the fabulous displays. Fresh foods are arranged in such an artful fashion that they look like perfect still lives. For the ultimate foodie paradise, come during the holidays.
If you’re not hungry when you arrive, you will be before long. Not to worry. In addition to all the prepared foods, there are 13 restaurants in the Food Halls, including a dim sum bar, a rotisserie, a Champagne and oyster bar, and Laduree — one of the top patisseries in Paris. The pizzeria here was the first in London to have a wood-fired oven. Don’t be surprised if the Neapolitan chef bursts into an aria while he tosses the dough.
Depending on your disposition, you may only need to see the British Museum and the Tower of London once. But you can’t help but return to Harrods every time you’re in London.
Other top London food stores
Founded in 1707, Fortnum & Mason has a long history of providing food to the British royal family and gentry. They supplied provisions to British officers during the Napoleonic Wars and were frequent caterers to the court of Queen Victoria.
In celebration of Fortnum & Mason’s 300th birthday, in 2007 the store received a $40 million renovation. Today, Fortnum’s is the place for luxury picnic hampers. These can range in price from $70 to thousands of dollars. But you can also buy a nice selection of teas, or popular items like smoked salmon, Stilton, or quail eggs. Marmelade, preserves, biscuits, curds, and chocolates also make great gifts.
The St. James Restaurant at Fortnum & Mason’s is one of the best spots in London for afternoon tea. Several menus are available. The Classic and Estate Afternoon teas include finger sandwiches, pasties, and savory canapés. The menus are seasonal, and the pastries are decorated with a nod to local events and holidays. The High Tea is a full meal with an entrée like Welsh Rarebit or fish pie. Other types of tea service are available in the other four restaurants at Fortnum’s.
One of London’s more fashionable department stores, Harvey Nichols — known as Harvey Nicks to the girls on AbFab — has been in business since 1813. Located on the fifth store of their Knightsbridge store, Harvey Nichols Foodmarket contains 600 exclusive, private-label food products, in addition to gourmet items from all over the world.
Also on the fifth floor are the Harvey Nichols restaurant — scheduled to reopen September 1, 2010 — a new Champagne bar inspired by the Art Nouveau designs of Emile Galle, a café, and roof terrace. A Strawberry Afternoon Tea is served daily and a portion of the price benefits Breast Cancer Care. Cooking classes are also given in the exhibition kitchen.