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.
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.
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 Almost all the old-fashioned chrome-and-formica coffee bars have been replaced by US-style chain outlets, such as Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero.
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.
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.
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.
The traditional English breakfast, or “Full English” – mainstay of almost every B&B and hotel – usually kicks off with a choice of cereals, followed by a plate of eggs, sausage, bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms – all of which (particularly if you’re in the north) may well be fried – plus baked beans, toast (or sometimes fried bread) and tea or coffee. Travellers in northern England may also be offered black pudding, a sausage made from pork fat, onions, oatmeal and congealed blood.
Heartiest meal of the week used to be – and for many families still is – the Sunday roast; the tradition is continued every Sunday lunchtime in pubs and restaurants across England. Expect a choice of roast beef, lamb, pork or chicken, carved from the joint, and accompanied by boiled vegetables, Yorkshire pudding (though purists say this should only be served with roast beef), roast potatoes, gravy and a sauce on the side (horseradish for beef, mint for lamb, apple for pork or bread sauce for chicken). Wash it down with a pint or two of ale and say hello to a long, lazy Sunday afternoon.
Bubble-and-squeak – fried potato and cabbage (and sometimes other veg).
Chip butty – a chip sandwich.
Crumble – an oven-baked dessert of stewed fruit with a crunchy topping made from butter, flour and sugar.
Faggots – offal meatballs.
Mushy peas – boiled marrowfat peas reduced almost to a paste, served alongside fish and chips.
Piccalilli – a mustard pickle.
Ploughman’s lunch – a plate of crusty bread, cheese, pickle and salad.
Shepherd’s pie – an oven-baked dish of minced lamb topped with mashed potato. A “cottage pie” is the same thing made with minced beef.
Spotted dick – a dessert of suet pudding with currants or sultanas.
Toad-in-the-hole – sausages baked in Yorkshire pudding.
Yorkshire pudding – baked batter, usually served to accompany a traditional Sunday roast.