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Vegan Vacation in London
by Dr. Neal Pinckney

Winston Churchill said that Britain and America were two countries separated only by a common language. I was reminded of that for the last three weeks as a vegan visitor to London.

Dr. Pinckney

With over 120 places serving vegetarian food, most with vegan dishes, London may lead the world in vegetarian choices. Fortunately, there's an easy way to find them in the 4th edition (2002) of a small but thick (384 pages) paperback called Vegetarian London. The book lists for $10, but one can find it, including shipping for less on the net. It may well be the most important guide book a vegan can carry. You'll also find when and where vegetarians meet. Make a point of trying to attend one of their gatherings. You won't find a warmer welcome anywhere

It seems vegetarian food is everywhere. I saw separate vegetarian entrees in well over half of the restaurants and pubs that weren't listed. But vegetarian in England means lots of dairy, especially cheese, and eggs in many items. fortunately, most vegetarian places carefully label their vegan items, and they do know what vegan means. I found 15 vegetarian places within a 10 minute walk of one of London's busiest shopping areas, Oxford Street. And over 20 all-you-can-eat buffets, most charging $10 or less (one of the very few truly affordable deals in England). Of the two dozen places I planned to visit, two were no longer operating, so it's a good idea to phone each one before setting out.

One of the cleanest, brightest and most flavorful places is Country Life, 3-4 Warwick Street, near Piccadilly Circus. A buffet, it charges by weight at lunch, with a maximum of $10, and a flat $11.50 at dinner. All the food is vegan. This is a no smoking, no alcohol establishment operated by Adventists. There's a vegan food shop upstairs.

The best Asian buffet I found was the Tai Vegan Restaurant at 10 Greek Street in Soho. That's Tai, not Thai - the food is Chinese. All you can eat for $8.50 for lunch, $10 for dinner. Tea or other beverages are about $1.50 extra. Or you can fill a large take-out box for $5.

For a quick veggie burger, try Red Veg at 95 Dean Street, just off Oxford Street in Soho. They also have falafel, oriental noodles, noname nuggets and more, all under $5.

For veggie groceries and eat-in deli items, Fresh and Wild has one of the best selections. They have branches in a number of locations. In the West End, try the one at 75 Brewery Lane (Brewer Street), also close to Piccadilly Circus. It's one of the few places open late in the evening and all weekend.

Covent Garden's Neal Street used to be the center of veggie food, but the place been taken over with fashion boutiques. There are still a few of the old places left, and Food for Thought is the best of them. A crowded downstairs counter lets you see the food and have it put on your plate, with vegan items clearly labeled. Tiny Neal's Yard has three places, but they seem more like tourist stops than veggie restaurants. Chi, at 55 St. Martin's Lane, is a branch of Tai Vegan, with the same offerings and prices.

For authentic Indian food, try Woodlands, part of the largest chain of vegetarian Indian restaurants in the world, with three in London. Set meals are about $23, but an ala carte menu will fill two stomachs for less. Try the one at 777 Marylebone Lane, just off Marylebone High Street, not far from Sherlock Holmes' famous Baker Street and Madame Toussaud's.

Although it also serves meat and fish, Wagamama, a Japanese fast food and noodle house, has ten London locations and serves some excellent vegetarian food. There's one at John Lewis, near the Knightsbridge tube station and Harrods.

The financial district, called The City, has one of London's better known places in the crypt of St. Mary-le-Bow Church, called The Place Below. I found it overpriced and lacking in flavor. And only two dishes were vegan. There are a number of much better places in the district, including Carnevale, Futures, a number of Crazy Salads (with 40 dishes including pasta and other treats for $5) and CTB, a vegan Chinese buffet.

Probably the best value is the Indian Vegetarian Bhelpuri House at 92 Chapel Market near the Angel tube station. One of the first places to serve organic brown rice, they have 3 kinds of curries, three rice dishes, many sauces and lentil dishes, all you can eat for less than $6. And it's open from 11 am to 11 pm, much later than most places. Not all dishes are vegan, but there's enough to satisfy a hungry traveler.

If you go to the overcrowded and touristy Portabello Road market on Saturday, you'll find a good vegetarian restaurant and bakery near the bottom of the road. But for best shopping bargains is Sundays at Pettycoat Lane and nearby Spittlefields, a huge covered market, where organic vegetarian and vegan foods and wonderful baked goods are available.

I was taken by a group of vegans to a unique and very interesting vegan restaurant in West Hamstead. VitaOrganic, at 279c Finchley Road (close to the Finchley Road tube station), is a buffet of Malaysian, Thai, Chinese and Japanese foods, as well as many Japanese ala carte items. The owner-chef is a raw foodist, but many of the dishes have been at least partially cooked. All the food was delicious, and it was the only place where very low fat food was the rule.

For those following an Ornish or McDougall plan to reverse heart disease, beware. Almost all the food was somewhere between very high fat and floating-in-oil. I rented a small flat with a complete kitchen (often much less expensive than even a modest hotel ) and was able to make breakfast and one meal a day without added oils. The vegetarian and vegan prepared foods in the markets is nearly always made with hydrogenated oils, often the first or second ingredient. It pays to read labels carefully.

That caution aside, London is one of the most exciting cities in the world and the number of musicals, plays, concerts, international music offerings and exotic films is almost without limit. Buy a copy of TimeOut as soon as you arrive for detailed information on everything that it happening that week (and give yourself a few hours just to read all that's on).

The best transportation bargain is a Visitor's Travelpass for unlimited travel in zones 1 & 2 on the underground, all buses anywhere in London and the Docklands Rail. It also allows you discounts on rail travel in the UK and 20% most tourist attractions. The pass must be bought on the internet, at least three weeks prior to leaving home. At Heathrow, show the card at the tube station and ask for an extension to central London, and you'll save half the fare.

Places to change Dollars to Pounds are everywhere, but rates vary widely and most charge a hefty commission. The best place to exchange money is in any Marks & Spencers store, with one in almost every neighborhood. The have the best exchange rate and charge no commission. Most of M&S stores have a food section with many vegetarian items and some of the best jams and marmalades in Britain.

If you're looking for a vegan gift for someone special, get a copy of Vegan Stories, edited by Julie Rosenfield. Published by the Vegan Society, it contains 95 stories and poems from around the world. And visit Julie and Brian's VeganLondon website for lots more information.

Britain has a 17.5% VAT (value added tax) included in everything you'll buy. For large purchases ask for a VAT rebate receipt, save them and collect a 15% rebate at the airport when you leave.

I've quoted prices in dollars, rounded off to the nearest 50 cents, based on an exchange rate of $1.60 to a Pound.

You may not be able to understand the language, but you should never go hungry in this vegan paradise.