Changing tastes have transformed England’s food and drink over the last decade. Much importance is being placed on “ethical” eating – notably sourcing products locally, but also using organic, humanely produced, quality ingredients. Good, moderately priced restaurants can now be found everywhere: increasingly, England’s best meals are being served in otherwise modest, independently owned establishments, frequently lying off the beaten track. The old-fashioned English pub – seemingly impervious to fashion – remains an enduring social institution, often the best introduction to town or village life.
England’s best-known traditional dish is fish and chips – a plate-sized fillet of cod or haddock, battered and deep-fried until crispy, served with freshly fried chips (thick-cut French fries) and doused in malt vinegar and salt. Restaurants will add a wedge of lemon and a blob of tartare sauce; at a takeaway counter you’ll be asked whether you want it “open” – served in a paper cone for eating on the hoof – or “wrapped”, for eating later. At its best, fish and chips is a light and succulent treat, but quality is very variable; too often it ends up as just more limp, greasy fast food. Local knowledge is the key: most towns, cities and resorts have at least one standout “chip shop”. Some – like Whitby’s Magpie Café or Stein’s Fish & Chips in Padstow – are destinations in themselves. See wwww
.seafish.org for regional listings of quality-assured outlets.
Other traditional English dishes are just as ubiquitous – steak and kidney pie, lamb chops and others (for more, see box below) figure on menu after menu in cafés, pubs and restaurants across the land, but regional specialities are increasingly important. As always, quality varies, but for every dismal meal being churned out, there’s invariably a café or restaurant somewhere nearby serving up excellent, local food at reasonable prices. Even in fashionable fine-dining restaurants you’ll find a revival of traditional English cuisine, with creative takes on the classics entering the realms of haute cuisine.
Breakfast remains sacrosanct: the gut-busting “Full English” (see box below) is still hugely popular. If you don’t fancy a big fry-up first thing, you can generally ask for scrambled, boiled or poached eggs instead, while better establishments might offer dishes like muesli and yoghurt, fresh fruit salad, pancakes, kippers (smoked herring) and other delights. “Continental” breakfasts, of orange juice, croissants and coffee, are also widely available.
Cafés and tearooms
Every town, city and resort has dozens of cafés, characteristically unassuming places offering nonalcoholic drinks, all-day breakfasts, snacks and meals. Most are only open during the daytime (roughly 8am–5pm), and tend to be cash-only establishments with few airs and graces. Teashops or tearooms are more genteel, and serve a range of sandwiches, cakes and light meals as well as, of course, tea. Almost all the old-fashioned chrome-and-formica coffee bars have been replaced by US-style chain outlets, such as Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero.
Café-bars and gastropubs
Licensed (that is, alcohol-serving) café-bars on the European model are increasingly common. Although primarily places to drink, many serve reasonably priced food. Many pubs – if they serve food at all – still rely on their microwave and deep-fat fryer, but others have embraced the change in British tastes. The term “gastropub” – implying a pub that serves restaurant-quality food – is an urban affectation, but nonetheless reflects the fact you can often find great, affordable, high-quality “pub grub” in unlikely-looking rural hostelries and city drinking dens alike.
Chip shops aside, it’s surprisingly hard to find a restaurant that serves traditional English food, though many showcase “Modern British” cuisine. At its best this inventive style marries local, seasonal produce with ingredients and techniques from the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and further afield. It’s an often idiosyncratic fusion that, these days, frequently relies upon “Slow Food” ideals (wwww.slowfood.org.uk).
More common are restaurants serving Indian (more properly Bangladeshi or Pakistani, in most cases) and Chinese (mostly Cantonese) cuisine: in many ways, the “curry house” now offers the quintessential English dining experience. Most of these places are authentic and inexpensive – the best are to be found within their home communities in parts of London and the post-industrial cities of the Midlands (Birmingham, Leicester), the north (Leeds, Bradford) and the northwest (Manchester, Liverpool). Otherwise, other than Thai food – another Asian cuisine which has caught the British imagination and is widely represented – reliable budget stand-bys are ubiquitous Italian pizza/pasta joints and French chain bistros.
London has the best selection of top-
class restaurants, and the widest choice of cuisines, but wherever you are you’re rarely more than half an hour’s drive from a really good meal – and some of the very best dining experiences are just as likely to be found in a suburban backstreet or quiet village as in a metropolitan hot-spot.
Costs and opening hours
The biggest deterrent to enjoying England’s gastronomic delights is the expense. While a great curry in Birmingham’s Balti Triangle or a Cantonese feast in Manchester’s Chinatown can be had for well under £15 a head, the going rate for a full meal with drinks in most modest restaurants is more like £20–25 per person. Even in a pub, with main courses averaging £8–10, the price soon mounts up. If a restaurant has any sort of reputation, you can expect to be spending £30–40 each, while tasting menus at Michelin-starred restaurants cost upwards of £80 per person.
Restaurants usually open for lunch (generally noon to 2 or 3pm) and dinner (7 to 10 or 11pm); in our reviews we’ve stated any significant variations. Pub kitchens tend to close between 2.30 or 3pm and 6pm, often on Sunday and/or Monday evenings as well, and will stop serving around 9pm. Reservations are recommended everywhere, especially at weekends; the most celebrated places will require advance reservations weeks (or months) in advance.
Specialist vegetarian places are rare outside the cities, but most restaurants and pubs have at least one veggie option on their menus, while Italian, Indian and Chinese restaurants usually provide a decent choice of meat-free dishes. Veg Dining (wwww
.vegdining.com) has good nationwide listings.
Pubs and bars
Originating as wayfarers’ hostelries and coaching inns, pubs have outlived the church and marketplace as the focal points of many English towns and villages. They are as varied as the country’s townscapes: in larger market towns you’ll find huge oak-beamed inns with open fires and polished brass fittings; in remoter upland villages there are stone-built pubs no larger than a two-bedroomed cottage. At its best, the pub can be as welcoming as the full name – “public house” – suggests. Sometimes, particularly in the more inward-looking parts of post-industrial England, you might have to dig deeper for a welcome: in such places, the public bar is where working men bond over a pint while the plusher saloon bar is the preferred haunt of couples and women.
In many urban areas, especially with a younger population, traditional pubs face a challenge from contemporary café-bars. Most are chain properties – All Bar One, Pitcher & Piano and others – but we’ve highlighted some more characterful independent places in relevant city accounts.
Most pubs and bars keep opening hours of 11am to 11pm (usually 10.30pm on Sundays), though cities and popular resorts host many places open into the small hours.
Beer and wine
Although lager – pale, industrially produced, infused with bubbles and served chilled – is most popular by far (leading brands include Carling, Foster’s, Kronenbourg and Stella Artois), the classic English beer is known as bitter. It should be physically pumped by hand from a barrel in the cellar and served at ambient temperature: if what’s in your glass is ice-cold, fizzy or came out of an electric pump, it isn’t the real McCoy.
The big brewing conglomerates still distribute some good bitters but the real glory of English beer is in the local detail. Dozens of regional breweries, many of them with long histories, and contemporary microbreweries produce nuanced, highly flavourful and distinctive styles of bitter, known as “real ale”, to traditional recipes. The West Country’s other favourite tipples are cider and perry.
Large breweries own most of England’s fifty thousand pubs – and naturally favour their own beers for sale, though generally alongside one or two “guest ales”. For the best choice, though, try to find a pub labelled as a “free house” – these are independently run, and therefore able to sell whichever brands of beer they like, often including idiosyncratic, locally brewed gems. Depending on the pub (and how busy it is), you could legitimately ask the bar staff for a bit of guidance – or even for a sample of one or two beers before buying – to find out what’s to your taste. CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale; wwww.camra.org.uk) produces a Good Beer Guide which rates 4500 quality pubs nationwide.
The English also consume an ever-increasing quantity of wine, but although restaurants (and supermarkets) commonly stock an excellent range, wine sold in pubs can vary in quality. Although a few English wines make it onto menus and pub boards, they’re a rarity in among the welter of French, Italian, German, Spanish, Bulgarian, Chilean, Australian and Californian wines which dominate.