The late British humorist George Mikes wrote that "the Continentals have good food; the English have good table manners." But the British no longer deserve their reputation for soggy cabbage and tasteless dishes. Contemporary London -- and the country as a whole -- boasts fine restaurants and sophisticated cuisine.
If you want to see what Britain is eating today, just drop in at Harvey Nichol's Fifth Floor, in London's Knightsbridge, for its dazzling display of produce from all over the globe.
The buzzword for British cuisine is magpie, meaning borrowing ideas from global travels, taking them home, and improving on the original.
A pundit once noted that to dine out in London today requires a knowledge of foreign languages. Increasingly, that is true for the rest of England, and, to a lesser degree, Wales. Foreign restaurants, especially Indian or Chinese, seem to flourish in almost every village.
All major towns and most definitely all English cities have their immigrant communities, bringing the food of their native lands. In addition to Chinese, Thai and Indonesian restaurants are popping up more and more. Spanish tapas bars (or restaurants) are all the rage, and Japanese cuisine is going over big time with the Brits who flock to sushi places.
For decades now, French and Italian restaurants have been the dining rooms of choice by those who like to dine out. The ranks of British gastronomic restaurants continue to grow, and now even small towns seem to have at least one gastronomic shrine.
Be aware that many of the trendiest, most innovative restaurants are mind-blowingly expensive, especially in London. We've pointed out some innovative but affordable choices in this guide, but if you're really trying to save on dining costs, you'll no doubt find yourself falling back on the traditional pub favorites (or better still, turning to an increasingly good selection of ethnic restaurants).
Taxes & Tipping -- All restaurants and cafes are required to display the prices of their food and drink in a place visible from outside. Charges for service, as well as any minimums or cover charges, must also be made clear. The prices shown must include 17.5% VAT, the so-called "value-added" tax. Most restaurants add a 15% service charge to your bill, but check to make sure. If nothing has been added, leave a 10% to 15% tip. It is by no means considered rude to tip, so feel free to leave something extra if service was good.
What You'll Find on the Menu in England
Of course, many who visit England want to sample the local cuisine. English cooking has been ridiculed for years (those long-boiled Brussels sprouts, for example), but the food is better than ever. The country has wonderful produce, from its Cotswold lamb to its Scottish salmon. You don't always have to dine foreign for a true gastronomic experience. English chefs, many of whom have trained on the Continent, have returned to put more flavor and flair in their native recipes.
On any pub menu, you're likely to encounter such dishes as the Cornish pasty (past-ee) and shepherd's pie. The first, traditionally made from Sunday-meal leftovers and taken by West Country fishermen for Monday lunch, consists of chopped potatoes, carrots, and onions mixed with seasoning and put into a pastry envelope. The second is a deep dish of chopped cooked beef mixed with onions and seasoning, covered with a layer of mashed potatoes, and served hot. Another version is cottage pie, which is minced beef covered with potatoes and also served hot. Of course, these beef dishes are subject to availability. In addition to a pasty, Cornwall also gives us Stargazy Pie -- a deep-dish fish pie with a crisp crust covering a creamy concoction of freshly caught herring and vegetables.
The most common pub meal, though, is the ploughman's lunch, traditional farm-worker's fare, consisting of a good chunk of local cheese, a hunk of homemade crusty white or brown bread, some butter, and a pickled onion or two, washed down with ale. You'll now find such variations as pâté and chutney occasionally replacing the onions and cheese. Or you might find Lancashire hot pot, a stew of mutton, potatoes, kidneys, and onions (sometimes carrots). This concoction was originally put into a deep dish and set on the edge of the stove to cook slowly while the workers spent the day at the local mill.
Among the best-known traditional English meals is roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (the pudding is made with a flour base and cooked under the roast, allowing the fat from the meat to drop onto it). The beef could easily be a large sirloin (rolled loin), which, so the story goes, was named by James I when he was a guest at Houghton Tower, Lancashire. "Arise, Sir Loin," he cried, as he knighted the leg of beef before him with his dagger. Another dish that makes use of a flour base is toad-in-the-hole, in which sausages are cooked in batter. Game, especially pheasant and grouse, is also a staple on British tables.
On any menu, you'll find fresh seafood: cod, haddock, herring, plaice, and Dover sole, the aristocrat of flatfish. Cod and haddock are used in making British fish and chips (chips are fried potatoes or thick french fries), which the true Briton covers with salt and vinegar. If you like oysters, try some of the famous Colchester variety. On the west coast, you'll find a not-to-be-missed delicacy: Morecambe Bay shrimp. Every region of England has its seafood specialties. In Ely, lying in the marshy fen district of East Anglia, it might be fenland eel pie with a twiggy seaweed as your green vegetable. Amphire also grows here in the salt marshes and along the Norfolk Coast. It's pickled in May and June and appears as a delicacy on many summer menus.
The East End of London has quite a few intriguing old dishes, among them tripe and onions. In winter, the Cheshire Cheese tavern on Fleet Street offers a beefsteak, kidney, mushroom, and game pudding in a suet case; in summer, there's a pastry case. East Enders can still be seen on Sunday at the Jellied Eel stall by Petticoat Lane, eating eel, cockles (small clams), mussels, whelks, and winkles -- all with a touch of vinegar.
The British call desserts sweets, though some people still refer to any dessert as pudding. Trifle is the most famous English dessert, consisting of sponge cake soaked in brandy or sherry, coated with fruit or jam, and topped with cream custard. A fool, such as gooseberry fool, is a light cream dessert whipped up from seasonal fruits. Regional sweets include the northern flitting dumpling (dates, walnuts, and syrup mixed with other ingredients and made into a pudding that is easily sliced and carried along when you're "flitting" from place to place). Similarly, hasty pudding, a Newcastle dish, is supposed to have been invented by people in a hurry to avoid the bailiff. It consists of stale bread, to which some dried fruit and milk are added before it is put into the oven.
Cheese is traditionally served after dessert as a savory. There are many regional cheeses, the best known being cheddar, a good, solid, mature cheese. Others are the semismooth Caerphilly, from a beautiful part of Wales, and Stilton, a blue-veined crumbly cheese that's often enjoyed with a glass of port.
A Taste of Wales -- The food served in Wales is often indistinguishable from that in England, but there are a number of specialties you should try that you won't find elsewhere.
The leek is one of the national emblems of Wales and is used in a number of dishes. The selection of the leek for this national honor is lost in the dim past, although it is associated with St. David, patron saint of Wales. Today the leek is worn on St. David's Day, March 1, a national holiday.
Among dishes in which the leek is used is cawl mamgu, a rich soup or stew. The most commonly used recipe calls for lamb or mutton, turnips (the Welsh call them Swedes), carrots, potatoes, parsnips, onions, and leeks. The leek pasty, usually made in the shape of a little leek, is a popular appetizer or side dish.
The potato became a dietary staple of Wales in the 18th century. Anglesey eggs feature potatoes and leeks as well as cheese. Punchnep is a combination of potatoes and turnips served with heavy cream. Teisen nionod, or onion cake, is a tasty, slow-baked potato-and-onion dish.
Most people are familiar with Welsh rarebit (or rabbit, if you prefer), but another cheese dish you should try that is not found elsewhere is Glamorgan sausage, a meatless concoction of onion, cheese, bread crumbs, and seasonings, shaped like sausages, dipped in bread crumbs, and fried. Another good dish, skirettes, is sort of a mashed-potato pancake with a difference. The difference is supplied by grated walnuts, prawns, hard-boiled eggs, onion, cheddar cheese, and spices. It's all given a bread-crumb coating and baked or deep-fried.
Faggots used to be made of meat fragments left over after pig slaughter, wrapped in membrane that covers the pig's abdominal organs, and shaped like sausages. Today it's all a little more palatable sounding, being made of liver, bacon, onions, bread crumbs, and sage, then cooked and served cold.
Rabbit, chicken, turkey, duckling, game, even pheasant appear on the menus, and a rabbit casserole is offered in some restaurants as a Taste of Wales, so popular is the meat. Special dishes include a poacher's pie (containing beef, rabbit, chicken, and game) and Welsh salt duck, which rivals any offered on Asian menus. Predominant on the list of what to eat while in Wales are freshwater fish and seafood. Trout and salmon prevail among the products of rivers and lakes, tumbling practically from the fisherman's creel to your plate, with a little detour through the kitchen. Perhaps you'll get to taste a rare salmon, gwyniad, which is found only in Bala Lake. Baked trout with bacon is a favorite.
From the ocean and coastal waters come crabs, lobsters, sewin (sea trout), crayfish, mackerel, herring, Pollack, bass, hake, ling, whiting, and flatfish, as well as cockles, limpets, scallops, and mussels. The Romans were great cockle eaters, as revealed by huge mounds of the shells found in excavating the sites occupied by the long-ago conquerors. You may enjoy the cockle-and-bacon pie offered on some menus, or Gower scallops and bacon. Mussel stew and mussel and queenie (scallop) cawl, which is like a bouillabaisse, are popular dishes.
The Welsh word for bread is bara. At least once, you should try laverbread (bara lawr), which has probably been part of the Welsh diet since prehistoric times. It's made of laver weed, a parchmentlike seaweed, which is boiled and mixed with oatmeal, shaped into laverbread cakes, and fried like pancakes. It's full of vitamins and minerals. You'll find it on all Taste of Wales menus, so take a nibble at least. Bara ceirch, a flat oatcake, is rolled very thin and cooked on a griddle. A rich, currant bread, bara brith, is found all over the country, although the ingredients may vary. It's baked in a loaf, and some cooks use raisins and candied citrus peel along with the currants.
Perhaps you'll get a chance to sample Welsh cakes made with currants. You may want to buy some at Dylan Thomas's boathouse at Laugharne and munch them with your tea as you look across the wide estuary where the poet had much the same view as his Iron Age predecessors. Oat biscuits are another treat, much like the oatmeal cookies you may have had back home. Desserts (puddings they're called here, whatever their form) seem to be mainly fruit crumbles -- blackberry, apple, what have you -- topped with custard and/or thick cream.
English Breakfasts & Afternoon Tea -- Britain is famous for its enormous breakfast of bacon, eggs, grilled tomato, and fried bread. Some places have replaced this cholesterol festival with a continental breakfast, but you'll still find the traditional morning meal available.
Kipper, or smoked herring, is also a popular breakfast dish. The finest come from the Isle of Man, Whitby, or Loch Fyne, in Scotland. The herrings are split open, placed over oak chips, and slowly cooked to produce a nice pale-brown smoked fish.
Many people still enjoy afternoon tea, which may consist of a simple cup of tea or a formal tea, and starts with tiny crustless sandwiches filled with cucumber or watercress. It then proceeds through scones and crumpets with jam or clotted cream, and is followed by cakes and tarts -- all accompanied by a proper pot of tea. The tea at Brown's, in London, is quintessentially English, whereas the Ritz's tea is an elaborate affair, complete with orchestra and dancing.
In the country, tea shops abound, and in Devon, Cornwall, and the West Country, you'll find the best cream teas, along with scones spread with jam and thick, clotted Devonshire cream. It's a delicious treat, indeed. People in Britain drink an average of four cups of tea a day, though many younger people prefer coffee.
What to Wash it All Down With
English pubs serve a variety of cocktails, but their stock in trade is beer: brown beer, or bitter; blond beer, or lager; and very dark beer, or stout. The standard English draft beer is much stronger than American beer and is served "with the chill off," because it doesn't taste good cold. Lager is always chilled, whereas stout can be served either way. Beer is always served straight from the tap, in two sizes: half pint (10 oz.) and pint (20 oz.).
Note that a British pint is 20 oz, not America's 16.
One of the most significant changes in English drinking habits has been the popularity of wine bars, and you will find many to try, including some that turn into discos late at night. Britain isn't known for its wine, though it does produce some medium-sweet fruity whites. Its cider, though, is famous -- and mighty potent in contrast to the American variety.
Whisky (spelled without the e) refers to Scotch. Canadian and Irish whiskey (spelled with the e) are also available, but only the very best stocked bars have American bourbon and rye.
While you're in England, you may want to try the very English drink called Pimm's, a mixture developed by James Pimm, owner of a popular London oyster house in the 1840s. Though it can be consumed on the rocks, it's usually served as a Pimm's Cup -- a drink that will have any number and variety of ingredients, depending on which part of the world (or empire) you're in. Here, just for fun, is a typical recipe: Take a very tall glass and fill it with ice. Add a thin slice of lemon (or orange), a cucumber spike (or a curl of cucumber rind), and 2 ounces of Pimm's liquor. Then finish with a splash of either lemon or club soda, 7-Up, or Tom Collins mix.
The English tend to drink everything at a warmer temperature than Americans are used to. So if you like ice in your soda, be sure to ask for lots of it, or you're likely to end up with a measly, quickly melting cube or two.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.