This is the only chain in my top ten, but it’s no ordinary chain. Pie Minister is as English as English food gets–and that, friends, is a beautiful thing. The humor is English: the name, punning on Prime Minister, and the logo, a whimsically-designed affair.
The box in which a to-go pie is packaged provides “Eating Instructions: Open flap and munch.” Pie Minister’s London location is a tiny box of a place, literally nothing more than an oven, a warmer, and a counter; if you aren’t taking your pie away, you sit outside the stall at a little wooden table. In foul weather this isn’t so nice; in fair weather it’s hard to forget that you’re only a few feet from the south bank of the Thames. It’s like a picnic, but with hot pie and mash.
I’ve never had the same pie twice and have never been less than ecstatic. Each Pie Minister pie is built out of a beautiful, delicious crust, so crisp and thick that cutting it for the first time can be a challenge to new customers, and by the end you may be turning your pie on its side to better attack its miraculous shell. Inside–well, that could be one of a million things, most of them wittily named in the best English tradition. There’s the Moo & Blue, for instance: steak and blue cheese. Heidi Pie: spinach, goat’s cheese, and sweet potatoes, a thrilling combination. The Thai Pie has chicken and belly-warming green curry, the Matador is stocked with olives, chorizo and sherry, and Mr Porky Pie features pork, bacon, apples, and leeks. An awful lot of the pies contain booze: there’s steak and ale, the aforementioned chorizo and sherry, and a new Shamrock Pie with Guinness–and the pork and apple pie’s got cider in it. Maybe this is the secret that makes their fillings so rich, so explosively yummy.
You may at this point be hankering for a picture. Wish granted.
Right to left: pie, very nice mashed potatoes, and minty peas–rather an acquired taste, and I didn’t acquire it to be honest. This was the only time I ever ordered the peas, in fact; my “usual” is pie, mash, gravy, and “Victorian lemonade” (both pulpy and fizzy).
It’s just about the quintessential English experience. Delicious, filling English food with fine ingredients in a wonderful crust, and you have it on a little paper plate with (the picture above notwithstanding) fork and knife made out of balsa wood. To go to and eat at Pie Minister, you have to brave the elements. The cheery people at the counter might put an extra stamp on your frequent-customer card. “Brown sauce” is available–it’s not good, but it’s English and it’s there, and you do kind of have to try at least a drop at the tip of one fork-tine.
Pie Minister is about as close as you can get to a picnic in London without going to Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath. It’s a cheery, funny concept brilliantly executed and it’s right in the middle of the touristy bit of London–so I spent several months walking by it thinking it was a tourist trap. Oops. Missed out on one of the city center’s quirkiest, best-priced, and most delicious little food stalls. Who couldn’t love Pie Minister?
If you’ll permit me a bit of a teaser, though…
There’s a bit of a step up from here to the top two food haunts on my list. I love Pie Minister and Borough Market and like the bagel shop well, but they are roughly the same kind of thing you can find in many a city–eccentric twists on favorites, bountiful farmers’ markets, and in Pie Minister a place that really captures the local spirit. These are essential London food haunts, but they surely have their equivalents elsewhere in the globe.
The top two spots on my list are occupied by eateries the likes of which do not exist–could not exist–anywhere else on earth. They are more than unforgettable: they are unrepeatable. They are London. Read on…