The kebab shop is as essential to London life as taco trucks in Los Angeles, or the bodega in New York.
Taylor Swift—and dozens of crew members—crowded into a pocket-sized kebab shop in North London over the weekend, and the internet went crazy. She's not the first celebrity to do the classic late-night kebab run, but this time, Swift was on the clock—the pocket-sized Kentish Delight on Kentish Town Road, located in a section of London that's not on most tourist to-do lists, was just one stop-off on a city-wide shoot for her latest music video.
To say the least, everyone thought this was kind of cool—after all, kebab shops to London as taco trucks are to Los Angeles, or the corner deli/bodega or slice joint are to New York. A port in a storm, a late-night friend when you need one, a place to fill up on the cheap, after a night out. A place to avoid getting into fights with strangers over nothing, after they've had a night out.
Mostly, they will never be confused with fine dining, the kebab shops, but they're just as—no, make that even more—essential to the local food culture. They are serious business, too, both in London and across the United Kingdom; the first shop opened in London in the 1960s, and it's now estimated that more than 1.3 million kebabs are sold across the country, every single day. There's even an annual ceremony—the British Kebab Awards, nicknamed the KeBAFTA's by some, with a fancy awards ceremony and everything, held at a London hotel—that spotlights the best shops, everywhere from London to Northern Ireland to Wales and Scotland.
Curious to explore? Just like pizza joints and taco trucks, kebab shops are created far from equal; in London, there are plenty of proper restaurants and takeaways specializing in kebabs—Turkish, Pakistani, Persian—but that's not necessarily what most people are looking for, late at night. What people typically mean when they say kebab shop is a brightly lit, garishly-signed, often train station (or bus stop) adjacent stop for something of the grab-and-go variety. Most places, you'll have the option of either the döner kebab (Americans will recognize this better as the Greek gyro, but don't walk into a Turkish kebab shop asking for a gyro, please) or an actual skewer, or shish kebab; the classic move is to get a pita (often not a very good one) filled with your basic vegetables ("salad"), meat and choice of sauces—just say "chilli," "garlic" or "yogurt." This is not food you eat sitting down—if there's even anywhere to sit.
Of course, this is really just the jumping off point—most casual kebab shops have extensive experience dealing with the late night trade. As such, even some of the more acclaimed spots in London will offer an impressive range of extremely elementary comfort foods, from burgers to chicken nuggets to—perhaps the most loved/reviled option of all, the massive mound of frozen french fries served up in a styrofoam container and topped with a mountain of grated cheese. Don't knock it until you've tried it—but only after a few too many pints.