Food critics Adam Withnall, Emily Kent Smith and Oliver Duggan pick the top restaurants under a tenner for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Breakfast: The Breakfast club @ £8.30
The burrito craze has hit Islington with some force, but the American penchant for a fry up in a wrap has taken a while to cross the pond.
Tortilla, Chilangos, Chipotle – the big floury three that line upper street – don’t open until around midday. When they do, it’s all pulled pork and steak.
For a breakfast burrito, you have to go all-American. The Diner on Essex Road offers one, but our first choice is The Breakfast Club in Camden Passage. The restaurant is trendy, with a young media-professional clientele, and queues extend far out of the door for weekend brunch.
Mid-week, though, the place is lively without being packed, the odd tourist dotted between chatting twenty-somethings taking their time with coffee and hash browns.
The service is fast and friendly, with the burrito coming quick on the heels of an excellent cappuccino. Creamy guacamole, hot peppers, salsa and cheddar top a generous amount of chorizo and scrambled egg.
It’s all handily encased in a lightly griddled tortilla, and though the cheese is a little too much and the egg slightly overcooked, the salsa is perfectly spiced for the time of day and the guacamole is excellent. Extra dollops of both are given as a garnish on the side, as well as plenty of sour cream.
This is not a practical breakfast. The portion size is distinctively American, leaving you desperate for a nap but disinclined to make the trip towards a suitable sofa. Coupled with The Breakfast Club’s 9am opening time this makes for a less than productive morning and afternoon.
If you want to get any work done, save the Mexican breakfast experience for a day off, but expect to queue at weekends.
31 Camden Passage, 0207 226 5454
Lunch: Pasha @ £9.95
With a £9.95 two-course menu, Pasha instantly fits the bill for a quick midday bite.
Start your order with a juice from the long list of flavours: pomegranate, mango and cucumber or kiwi and ginger to refresh your palate in true Turkish style.
The prix fix is a little uninspiring, but you can do a mezze mix and match for under £12, including samples of a delicious minced lamb hummus, falafel, courgette fritters and tabouleh.
The tzatziki is a must; the perfect combination of garlic and cucumber topped off with warm pita that is regularly replenished.
Mains are more sophisticated than your average Turkish joint. The lamb on olive oil mash offers a welcome diversion from rice and the salad of feta, pomegranates, walnuts and spinach was faultless.
The staff are a little pushy, perhaps an indication of their lunchtime credentials, and they return at least once too often in search of a drinks order.
It’s hard to have a problem with Pasha’s food and at £9.95 you’d be a fool not to give it a try. If ambience is high on your list, however, this may not be the place for you.
301 Upper Street, 020 7226 1454
Dinner: Le Mercury @£8.95
The original Mercury bistro has been joined in recent months by a sister establishment, Le Mercury Deuxiéme. It is plusher than its older sibling, there are more pillows on the chairs and the stained oak tables are chunkier.
Both restaurants offer the same ludicrously reasonable menu. Starters are £3.95, main courses £8.95. There are no supplements, no added tax; no catches of any kind. It is honest French fare, served briskly and with love.
For a first date, the new offering a few doors further north is probably the better bet. As I say, it’s plusher, which means it doesn’t look half as thrifty as you might expect.
But for the regulars, the original will always be better than the reboot. Over three floors, the Mercury’s tower of tiny dining rooms packs in hungry pilgrims every night of the week; book early to avoid disappointment.
The food is everything you might expect of a stripped down bistro menu. The portions aren’t overly generous, but it is all plated with care. The moules are perfectly seasoned, the duck perfectly cooked, and there isn’t a single dish that doesn’t come with a pleasing aroma produced by a chef who knows his business.
The food lands just short of delicious. There are some finer touches missing – the sauces could be deeper and the accompaniments more exciting – but you get the feeling there was a deliberate choice to draw a line in the sand. As a business, Le Mercury aims for ‘good eating’, and it delivers.
The staff are welcoming, which is surprising given how often they are forced to tell eager passers-by that they have no chance of a table before nine when, most dishes will have sold out.
140A Upper Street, 0207 354 4088