True, there are many thriving restaurants, cafés and fast food establishments whose fare would be condemned as unfit for human consumption in more discriminating countries. However, a revolution has occurred in the last decade or so and there’s now also a plethora of excellent restaurants offering a quality and variety of culinary delights hardly bettered anywhere in the world. In fact, top class restaurants are usually excellent and sometimes outstanding. You need only to open the pages of the latest Michelin red guides to realise that British food doesn’t always live up (or down) to its dreadful reputation. On the negative side, prices for good food are often astronomical (wine is also very expensive) and even modest food can be costly.
Despite being synonymous with junk food, ‘fast’ or ‘take-away’ (take out) food can be very good, and comes in amazing variety. Most take-away establishments accept telephone orders and an increasing number make home deliveries (e.g. pizzas). And more Chinese and Indian restaurants providing a take-away service now offer deliveries. (There may be no reduction for a take-away meal, but you save on VAT). A take-away and free delivery service is becoming generally more commonplace among restaurants offering national cuisines. An exception are shops selling the traditional British take-away meal of fried fish and chips, the quality of which is variable (i.e. often terrible). You must usually go out of your way to find a good fish and chip shop, although it’s well worth the effort.
Self-service restaurants and cafés are also commonplace in towns. Many should be avoided like the plague (although they’re inexpensive, the food can be terrible and the coffee’s even worse). Cyber cafés, where you can access the internet, and American-style coffee shops, such as Starbucks and the Seattle Coffee Co, have blossomed in profusion over the past decade. Some fast food and ‘cheap’ restaurants in tourist areas are a rip-off, particularly in London, and motorway service stations have a well-earned reputation for everything that’s worst about British food (although standards are improving).
The best bets for those wishing to eat well and cheaply are British pubs (pub grub or bar food, is usually served at lunchtime only, e.g. noon to 2pm) and ethnic restaurants, particularly Chinese, Indian, Greek or Turkish and Italian ones, where the standard of food, although not uniform, is usually high and a meal costs around £10 to £18 a head (without wine). A medium-priced restaurant sets you back around £30 to £50 a head. Some restaurants, particularly those in hotels, provide separate vegetarian and diabetic menus (some even provide healthy low-fat meals). Jewish kosher restaurants are also fairly common in major centres. In some areas, you may find restaurant clubs, where two people can eat for the price of one. Ask at local restaurants if there’s one in your area.
An eating capital
London is now one of the world’s great eating capitals, rivalling Paris and New York for quality and ethnic variety, although not good value. For its residents, the Time Out London Eating and Drinking Guide is invaluable, listing over 1,500 restaurants, cafés and bars. When you do find really good food, it’s often outrageously expensive (it’s far cheaper to eat out in France, Italy, Portugal or Spain). Paying £90 to £150 (or more) a head for a meal isn’t unusual if you want the very best, although many people think the prices charged by top restaurants are unjustified. The UK still has a lot to learn from the continent about good food that doesn’t cost the earth.
Most restaurants are licensed to serve alcohol, but only with meals. The cost of wine can also be astronomical, with a mark-up of 200 per cent plus VAT. Many restaurants charge up to three times the shop price for branded wine or offer cheap plonk in make-believe, own-label bottles or in carafes (restaurant wines are usually rendered as obscure as possible so that customers won’t realise the mark-up they’re paying). Champagne is the biggest rip-off of all, with customers being charged £50 or £60 or more (or £10 a glass) for the privilege of drinking it in a restaurant. Unfortunately ‘bring your own’ (BYO) restaurants are almost unheard of in the UK (where are all the enterprising Aussies?).
Many restaurants offer ‘tourist’ or set-price menus at lunch time (usually from noon to 2pm), which include a choice of meals, maybe with soup and sometimes a dessert, from around £12. Some offer half-portions for children or have a children’s menu. McDonalds (the American chain of hamburger restaurants) has branches in most towns and often organises special events and children’s parties. Children of all ages are usually admitted to licensed restaurants, although few restaurants cater particularly for children (without their own credit cards). Cafés in the UK, unlike those in most continent countries, aren’t licensed to sell alcohol.
Many department stores, galleries and museums have excellent value-for-money restaurants, often providing breakfast and lunch menus. Cheap meals are also provided by the YWCA and YMCA, the YHA, community centres and leisure centres. It’s advisable to make a reservation for more expensive or popular restaurants, particularly for lunch, on Friday and Saturday evenings and at anytime for parties of four or more people. Most restaurants close on one or two days a week (opening times are usually posted outside). Because restaurants may serve alcohol outside licensing hours provided it’s served with food, many get particularly busy after 11pm when the drunks are thrown out of the pubs (it’s amazing the number of people who eat dinner in the early hours of the morning). Restaurants are often open until the early hours, particularly in cities such as London where you can eat until 3am or later.
All restaurants and cafés are obliged by law to display their tariffs where customers can see them before entering. If an establishment has an extensive à la carte menu, the prices of a representative selection of food and drink currently available must be displayed, in addition to any table d’hôte menu. All service or cover charges must also be clearly stated and prices shown must be inclusive of VAT. If a restaurant attempts to include any charges that aren’t listed on the menu (which is a common practice in tourist areas), you should refuse to pay.
If you have a complaint regarding anything stated (or not stated) in a menu, or there’s a big difference between what’s stated and what you’re served or charged, you can make a complaint to your local Trading Standards Officer. Your best bet is to reach a compromise with the manager or owner and negotiate a reduction to take into account your complaint. You can legally refuse to pay for anything inedible and insist on leaving, but should leave your name and address (and show proof of identity). If you do this, the management cannot prevent you leaving or call the police, as you’ve committed no offence.
Many restaurants and hotel bills include a service charge (around 10 per cent), designed to reduce tipping (and increase profits). Most British people still feel obliged to leave a tip of around 10 to 15 per cent, a practice which is encouraged or even expected in many establishments (most employees would find it difficult to survive on their meagre salaries without tips).
There are plenty of good restaurant guides published in the UK. However many (like most hotel guides) charge restaurants for entry, including Les Routiers, the AA and the RAC, which has led people to question their impartiality. Even motorway service stations (renowned for their awful food) are included in Les Routiers! Among those that don’t charge for inclusion are the Michelin Red Guide, Harden’s London Restaurants and Harden’s UK Restaurants (Harden Ltd), the Good Food Guide (Which? Books) and the Which? Pub Guide.
This article is an extract from Living and working in Britain. Click here to get a copy now.