Despite its unjustly negative reputation, British food is in fact very good and has improved greatly in recent decades, and many Britons are proud of their national dishes. Mid-range and upmarket restaurants and supermarkets are still of a high standard and the choice of international dishes is among the best in Europe. Unlike their continental neighbours, many Brits still eat to live rather than live to eat, and therefore the quality of food varies according to budget. As the UK is a culturally diverse nation, there are many different types of food due to the influence of immigration.
The UK can be an expensive place to eat compared to, for example, southern European countries, but relatively cheap compared to countries like Switzerland and Norway.
Many restaurants in city centres tend to be a little more expensive than those in the suburbs, and country pubs tend to be a little more expensive, but generally a three-course meal without drinks costs between £10 and £25. Chicken tikka masala with rice is sometimes considered the most popular dish in the UK, although roast beef is a more traditional national dish.
If all else fails, decent picnic food such as sandwiches, cakes, crisps, fresh fruit, cheese and drinks are readily available in supermarkets. Street markets are a good place to buy fresh fruit and local cheese at reasonable prices. Bakeries (e.g. Greggs) and supermarkets (e.g. Tesco, Sainsburys, Waitrose, Morrisons and Asda) usually sell a good range of pre-packed sandwiches, pastries and cakes, as well as a range of soft drinks, fruit juices and mineral water. In addition, most pharmacies and kiosks have a basic range of pre-packed sandwiches and bottled drinks.
Many department stores, especially department stores, have a café or restaurant.
Smoking is now prohibited in all restaurants, cafés, bars and pubs – there are no exceptions. However, some establishments have designated ‘smoking areas’ and smoking is permitted in gardens/terraces outside pubs and restaurants unless otherwise stated.
Fish and chips
Fried, breaded fish (usually cod or haddock, but in some areas there is a wider choice) with fairly thick chips, which are always made from real potato pieces rather than thin tubes of extruded mashed potato. Fish and chips are often served with rosewater peas (in England) and seasoned with salt and malt vinegar (or “gravy” in some parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland). The “real” fish and chips (authentic, for the masses) can only be bought in a “chippy” on the street, or in a restaurant specialising in fish and chips (the latter are usually by the sea, although there is a national chain, Harry Ramsden’s, which does good fish and chips, but at “tourist prices”; Mr Ramsden’s original shop, near Leeds, was a legend). However, a “real chippy” (a “fish and chip shop” or simply a “chip shop”) is the best place to buy fish and chips. In the north, you can also add peas to your order. These are rarer in the south of the country. In Scotland, especially in Glasgow, some fish and chip shops deep-fry almost everything they sell, including meat pies, pizzas and even breaded Mars or Snickers. In Northern Ireland, you can also order a pastie (not to be confused with a Cornish pasty). This is minced meat with onions, potatoes and spices, which is then breaded and fried. It can be served in a bap (a soft bread), on its own or with chips. In Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland, anything served with chips is called a “supper”, for example “a fish supper” or “a dough supper”.
The best are specialists who may serve some alternatives such as a selection of pies or sausages. They are usually located near residential buildings, but good ones, such as “sit-down” pies, can also be found in city centres. They can be recognised by the illuminated sign, which usually has a picture of a fish and a name: either puns and pools, like “Codroephenia” and “The Codfather”, or bogeymen and hosts, “Fred’s Chippy”, or even both, as in “Jack’s Golden Plaice”. In general, the fact that many people are eating or waiting is an indication of good food.
A sit down chippy is a chippy with a separate dining area. Although no real one is exactly like it, although most of the elements are present, a stereotypical sit down chippie is lit and decorated in a nautical theme with yellow or blue tables with ant wood tops. Usually a waitress will take your order for a dish of cod, haddock, plaice or some other dish, and within five minutes your meal will be served: a huge fish, a mountain of chips and rosewater peas. The posh places serve a bag of remoulade, a slice of lemon, a big plate of bread and butter and a cup of tea. Some have a separate pot of hot water, either to dilute the tea if it is too strong for your taste, or to “top up” the tea in the pot when you have poured your first cup. On the table is a large salt shaker and a plastic bottle or flask of brown malt vinegar, which most Brits put on their fish and chips. There might even be a tomato-shaped plastic container for ketchup or a container of brown sauce. Fish and chips bought in a pub, hotel or non-specialist restaurant bear little resemblance to those of a chip shop.
A ‘take-away’ is either a shop offering prepared meals for consumption elsewhere, or the meal itself. The fish and chip shop is a very British take-away; the sandwich shop is a popular choice at lunchtime; pies and cakes are also often sold there. In addition, there is a choice of fast food chains in most towns and on many main roads. Almost every city has different types of takeaway food, from fish and chips to ‘Indian’, often run by non-Indians such as Bangladeshis, and Chinese shops. Thai and Indonesian takeaways are becoming more common, and many others in the larger cities. The standard of takeaway food is generally good, but the best guide, as always, is to observe what the locals are doing.
In the cities, these places tend to open late (sometimes until about 01:00 at night) to meet the needs of the so-called “after-the-pub” clientele. They tend to be very busy and noisy at this time. To avoid queues, the best time for takeaway food is perhaps 19:00-23:00: after the tea rush, but before the dinner rush. In large city centres, takeaways can stay open for up to 3 to 4 hours for people coming out of the nightclubs; these are usually independent kebabs and chippies, as well as some fast food chains like Domino’s and Subway. This is not to be expected outside the big cities.
Eating in pubs
Pubs are generally places where you can enjoy British food. There are no British restaurants as such, so these establishments are your next chance; even if you are against drinking alcohol, you will find a more traditional and complete menu there than in a café or chip shop.
Almost all pubs (see below) offer food, although not during all operating hours. Prices for all these types vary enormously and you should seek local advice if you have any special requirements or standards. Do not sit at a table in a pub and wait for a waiter to take your food or drink order: Pubs almost always operate on the principle of “queue for drinks at the bar, order for food at the bar”. You go to the bar to ask for and pay for drinks and food. To avoid upsetting the customers behind them, groups usually order at once and “settle up” with each other later (see elsewhere for “buying rounds”). Normally you order your “entrances” and “exits” together (in catering establishments there are numbers screwed onto the tables that you can give, or they give you a number to take to your table). Etiquette dictates that if you see another customer at the bar, you ask them to order first. You then wait for your drinks and bring them to the table. When your food is ready, it is brought to you or, less frequently, you are told it is ready for collection. The person clearing your main course may ask you what dessert you would like, or you may need to re-order from the bar.
In the larger towns there are a number of restaurants to satisfy most tastes and you will find a very wide range of cuisines including Indian, Chinese, Thai, French and Italian. Waiters usually expect a 10% tip (but too often they don’t get it from the locals) and in some places this is automatically added to your bill. However, if you are not happy with the service in any way, you are not obliged to pay the service charge. The British are generally not big tippers. As a visitor, the 10% rule is more than generous and should be respected. Visitors from the United States and Canada are considered very generous tippers and even a little too gentle for some.
The usual fast food places (McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway and the local Wimpy chain) are very common in big cities, but not very common in small towns. They are usually located in large commercial areas, in or near major railway stations, in retail parks outside the city and at motorway service areas and airports (the latter two are usually more expensive). Prices are average – a hamburger, fries and a drink cost around £4-5. Most are open from 7am to about 10pm, but in larger cities some are open 24 hours a day. Fast food outlets outside the cities offer drive-through service. Delivery service is widely available.
One of the most popular types of restaurants in the UK is the Indian restaurant. They can be found in all and most towns and cities, large or small. There are now more and more quality Indian restaurants in major city centres. Indian restaurants serve a cuisine known to their customers by the generic term “curry”. The most common dishes in Indian restaurants are chicken tikka masala, biryani shrimp and the incredibly spicy vindaloo. A popular variation of curry is known as balti, probably after the metal bowl in which the food is cooked and served. Balti cuisine, as well as a number of other commonly served dishes such as the ubiquitous chicken tikka masala, originated in Britain, although they are clearly based on food from the Indian subcontinent. Birmingham, in the Midlands, is considered the Baltic capital of the UK, as this is where the dish was developed. The Curry Mile in Manchester is definitely worth a visit when you are in town.
Motorway service areas
Motorway service areas in the UK vary in quality, although most of them (like those directly on motorways and some major roads) are required by law to provide certain services 24 hours a day. Some service areas have a notoriously expensive reputation. Most contain fast food outlets and all have (free) toilets. Some services may be limited at night, such as the availability of hot and cold food, but most have a selection of these available. With few exceptions, rest stops are not necessarily the place to find food that is cheap or does not match the chain shops. For more choice, the traveller can usually find better options within a few kilometres of a junction.
Vegetarianism has become widespread in Britain in recent decades. If you are invited into a British home, it would be polite to inform your host in advance of your dietary requirements, but this is not considered rude or even particularly unusual. If you are staying in a B&B, inform the owner when you arrive and you will often find that they will prepare a special vegetarian breakfast for you.
Remember that even if you call yourself a vegetarian, some people will assume you eat fish, so tell them if you don’t. These days it is rare to find a pub or restaurant without vegetarian options.
If you are vegan, be prepared to explain exactly what you are doing and don’t eat often enough. Outside of speciality restaurants, most places are unlikely to have a vegan main course. So be prepared to hunt, order small plates or settle for the ubiquitous bowl of crisps and tomato ketchup in a pub, and even then it would be wise to check whether the chips were prepared in animal fat, a practice that is fast going out of fashion.
In general, the best places to eat vegetarian and vegan are pubs and restaurants specialising in vegetarian cuisine, as well as Indian, Chinese and Southeast Asian restaurants. Most major cities have at least one. Upscale restaurants may have fewer or no vegetarian options. If you are lucky enough to dine in one, it may be worth ringing ahead.
Children are not necessarily allowed in all pubs and restaurants unless there is a lounge area, and high chairs are not always available. Most pubs that serve food accept children and it is usually easy to tell which ones do. As a general rule, children are not allowed to sit or stand in the area where drinks are served, so if the pub only has a small room. Children are allowed in most pubs that only serve drinks, especially those with a garden, but again, they are not allowed near the bar. To be sure, ask a member of staff or call the location in advance.
- Black Pudding – a sausage made from frozen pig’s blood or, in the Western Isles of Scotland, sheep’s blood, rusk and sage or spices, cooked in a gut. Available throughout the UK but a speciality of the northern half of the country, particularly Bury, the Black Country, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In fact, it tastes much better than it looks.
- Cheese – Although the British are not as famous or as proud of their cheese as their French neighbours, a wide variety of cheeses are produced, usually bearing the name of a particular region. According to the British Cheese Board, there are over 700 types of cheese in Britain. Well-known examples include Caerphilly; Cheddar, named after the village of Cheddar in Somerset; Cheshire; Lancashire, which can be “creamy” or “crumbly”; Stilton (named after Stilton but now produced elsewhere) – a blue cheese that rivals Roquefort or Gorgonzola; and Wensleydale, named after a valley in North Yorkshire. For a more complete list of regional cheeses, see an interesting map . The quality of the cheese varies enormously depending on where it is bought; the best place is probably a local market – so you should buy your Lancashire cheese in Lancashire. Supermarkets offer a wide range of cheeses but they are often of inferior quality.
- Cornish Pastry – Beef and vegetables cooked in a folded pastry shell. Originally a Cornish speciality, it is now available throughout the UK. Generally very good in Devon and Cornwall but can be of variable quality elsewhere. The variety sold in plastic packaging in places such as petrol stations and motorways should be avoided. Cornish Pasties may only be called “Cornish” if they are made in Cornwall.
- Deep fried Mars bar – Originally from Stonehaven, Kincardineshire, but now available in other parts of Scotland and sometimes on request in fish & chip shops elsewhere in the UK. It is generally not available in the South East of England where it is sometimes thought to be an urban myth.
- Eccles cake – a popular leafy cake with sultanas from the small Lancashire town of the same name.
- Haggis – a mixture of mutton tripe, minced meat and oatmeal cooked in a sheep’s stomach. Available everywhere, but a speciality from Scotland. Also available in many supermarkets where apparently many sheep have plastic stomachs – although the contents are often quite passable – sometimes slightly spicy. Usually cut with mashed yellow turnips “neeps” and mashed potatoes “tatties”, but you can also buy it fried with chips in Scottish fish and chip shops.
- Lancashire Hotpot – a hearty stew with vegetables and meat. A Lancashire speciality, but available throughout the UK. In Lancashire it is often accompanied by pickled red cabbage or pickled beetroot.
- Laverbread (Welsh: bara lafwr or bara lawr) – Seaweed puree rolled in oatmeal, lightly fried and usually served with slices of bacon, although it can also be prepared as a vegetarian dish. Available in Swansea and West Wales.
- Oatcakes – this Stoke-on-Trent, North Staffordshire and Derbyshire speciality is a large, soft, oat-based pancake that can be eaten warm, in place of bread for breakfast or with a savoury topping. Not to be confused with Scottish oatcake, a type of sponge cake.
- The pasty specific to Northern Ireland should not be confused with the type of pasty associated with Cornwall and common throughout Britain. Recipes vary, but generally a pasty is made from minced pork with onions, potatoes and spices, in the form of a thick slice that is coated in batter and fried. Pasties are unique to Northern Ireland and are worth trying in a fish shop or chip shop.
- Pork Pie – a pie made from pork, with an outer crust made from a particularly crispy type of dough. Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire is their spiritual home, but they can be found all over the country. They are served cold or at room temperature as part of a cold meal.
- Potato bread – a mixture of potatoes, salt, butter and flour. A speciality of Northern Ireland, it is one of the main ingredients of an Ulster Fry, along with soda bread. Potato cakes sold in England and Tattie Scones in Scotland are similar, but not quite the same, as potato bread.
- Sausages – Europeans will be surprised to find that the filling contains breadcrumbs, rusks or other fillers in addition to meat (the British think of frankfurters and firm meat sausages, similar to those from Germany or France). Generic sausages are nothing special and are a “mystery meat” experience. But not all sausages are made with pork; many are now mixed with beef, game, turkey or even soy. Recipes for regional specialities such as Lincolnshire and Cumberland Ring are worth trying in a pub. Some markets and butchers still serve archaic family recipes, such as in Oxford, where the sausage is skinless and looks more like a beef patty. Remember to get your money’s worth. Bargain” 2 or 3 pence firecrackers like Walls don’t taste very good.
- Sunday Supper/Roast – this is a common meal throughout the UK. Traditionally eaten on Sundays, the meal consists of roast meat (e.g. whole roast chicken, leg of lamb, pork shoulder, etc.), roast potatoes and steamed vegetables. ), fried potatoes and steamed vegetables. Everything is served with a gravy (thick or thin, depending on the meat, prepared with the meat juices and stock). Yorkshire pudding (a pancake batter baked in a very hot oven) is traditionally served with roast beef, although some people enjoy it with any roast.
- Smoked fish – protected as a regional dish in the greater Grimsby area. Haddock is generally the most popular type of smoked fish in this particular way. In Scotland it is traditional to eat smoked kipper or even porridge for breakfast.
- Welsh Cakes – scone-shaped cakes, sprinkled with sultanas and topped with sugar. Available in bakeries across Wales and served warm on the grill at Swansea Market.
- Yorkshire pudding – a delicious side dish made from unsweetened batter. Traditionally, a plate-sized pudding and gravy was served before the main course to encourage the economical consumption of expensive meat. Slim and round in shape – often served with a roast dinner (consisting of roast potatoes, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding). Originally a speciality of the old industrial towns in Yorkshire, it is now a staple of a beef dinner throughout the UK.