Finding Good Eateries in Britain

One of my favorite challenges is to spiff up the eating sections in my guidebooks. Because I’m famously simple in my tastes among my family and friends, it seems odd that I have this power to recommend or not recommend restaurants in my guidebooks. While I would be hard-pressed to judge the yellowness of the butter or the dentition of the pasta or the glimmer of the fish eyes, I still manage to find and collect places that seem to please my traveling readers.

Having just completed my work in Edinburgh, York, Bath, and London, I am impressed by the passion of the couples (gay, straight, professional, or romantic) who run my favorite little places. Rather than big, highly advertised formula places, I like quirky little ten-table places that are the creative vision of these entrepreneurial restaurateurs.

Doing my research, I rely heavily on the advice of B&B hosts (who have no vested interest in anything other than happy guests). If they’re good, it’s impressive how quickly new little restaurants gain a huge reputation.

In Edinburgh, the Wedgwood, run by Paul and Lisa (who served me haggis with pigeon — my favorite haggis ever), is a delight. In Bath, Casanis French Bistro (run by Jill and Laurent) has been open only a couple of months, and is already on everyone’s short list. (It’s fun to see a traveler fall in love with a chef, bring him home, and start a winning restaurant.)

Not only new places are fresh. In Bath, at Tilly’s Bistro, Dave and Dawn have been at it for nearly two decades and still scamper up and down their stairs and weave through their tight tables like it was their debut. Enjoying a great cheese and port plate for dessert, I told Dave this was my idea of a fine dessert. It didn’t surprise me that he admitted his desserts suffered a bit because he also was “passionate about cheese and port.”

Going back year after year, I often find the once-magic place has ebbed, and its talent is turning on taste buds just down the street. In York, Café Concerto has long been a favorite. I dropped by Café No. 8 and was blown away — everything that charmed me about Café Concerto at its peak and more. Then, savoring my figs with local blue cheese, I learned that Martin, who runs No. 8, came from Café Concerto.

I don’t like recommending chains, but some are just too fun or too right. The pan-Asian noodle slurp-a-thon Wagamama is everywhere now…and just as great as the day its first location took London’s Soho by storm a decade ago. The Italian chain Ask seems to nab the best grand old dining hall in many towns, and fill it with happy eaters enjoying decent pasta and pizzas at good prices. And how does Starbucks get the best real estate in each city? If I’m in need of a fix, I can intuit where they’ll put a branch.

In each town, there seems to be a hot Italian place where as soon as you step inside, you know its going to be a fun evening (Martini’s in Bath, Il Positano in Edinburgh). There’s something about a gang of happy Italian waiters and cooks that makes you just want to drink red wine and slurp spaghetti.

English office workers make a routine out of getting a top-quality sandwich. When going for a budget sandwich lunch, you might as well skip the tired chain and find the deli with the line of local professionals. York Hogroast dishes out great pork sandwiches in York. In Bath, at Chandos Deli, I just lingered on my stool enjoying my wonderful sandwich and glass of tap water while watching all the yuppies swing by for their take-away meal. My son Andy reported that during his recent studies in London, each day he’d go to the same winning sandwich place that included free Wi-Fi, and enjoy his meal on a shoestring while checking email.

Chinese buffets (like Jasmine, just outside Monk Bar in York) serve all-you-can-eat meals for $12. That’s fun and cheap. But their take-away boxes (fill one up for $7) can feed two, and that has to be the best cheap, hot meal going.

In general, I found British portions huge. Rather than two appetizers, two mains, and two desserts with wine for $70 each, a couple can order two appetizers, split a main, split a dessert, and drink tap water — and probably fill up fine, enjoy the same atmosphere, and get out for $30 each. Waiters seem to sympathize with the budget traveler these days, and accommodate our cost-cutting measures with a smile.

Great budget values in any town are the cafés in the market, where you can get baked beans with your breakfast all day long. And many churches have cafés where volunteers from the congregation serve up soup and sandwich for a price that’s not particularly cheap, but you know you’re supporting a humble local congregation’s community work with your lunch money.

Good fish-and-chips joints are rare. In each town, there seems to be one that is evangelical about grease and has won the undying allegiance of a passionate local following. One thing these winning chippies seem to have in common: a guy behind the counter who’s as greasy as the fish.

I was quite frustrated to find that many pubs that once served great pub meals are backing off on their pub grub to make more money selling beer. That attracts a younger and noisier crowd, and it becomes no place to enjoy a meal. In the Victoria Station area near my favorite London B&Bs, I found my two favorite pubs were overwhelmed by drinkers. Thankfully, I found St. George’s Tavern (on Hugh Street and Belgrave Road), with famous sausages, a commitment to serving good pub meals, and three fine eating zones — scenic sidewalk tables, sloppy pub interior, and classier back room. In London now you’ll pay $25 for a good pub meal with a big glass of beer.

I’m purging my books of stupid things that, for some odd reason, are just in all the guidebooks. I just deleted the paragraph about Spotted Dick (which I can’t remember seeing on a menu in the last decade). So that Spotted Dick can rest in peace, here’s what it said:

Spotted Dick is a sponge pudding with currants. How did it get its name? Some say it looks like a spotted dog and dogs were called Dick. Another theory suggests that “Dick,” “duff,” and “dog” are all variants of the word “dough.” One thing’s for sure: the stuff isn’t selling very well today, thanks to the name’s connotation. Some are considering renaming it “Spotted Richard.”


20 Replies to “Finding Good Eateries in Britain”

  1. A big thank you to you, your B&B friends, and to anyone else who has recommended eateries to you. I often follow your suggestions (specific restaurants and general travel philosophies) in various European cities and have yet to be led astray. Even if you’re not a foodie, you seem to know what’s good and what a budget-conscious traveler needs. Well done.

  2. I normally select eating places based upon the dessert offerings. No Spotted Dick heh? I had it at a pub in Bath three years ago. Sticky toffee pudding and banoffee are my favorite English desserts. The Wife of Bath served great banoffee. Happy travels!

  3. Wow…your England posts have created a bit of a stir! Yes it is very expensive for Americans to visit UK these days, but it can be done without spending a fortune. I don’t need a beautiful hotel when I travel, what I go to see is not inside my hotel. Clean and functional is all I need at as low a price as I can find, though I do recommend using Rick’s book, or look for a Travelodge. We didn’t on our first trip to Bath and my daughter was eaten alive by bed bugs! I was just in Bath last month, second time visiting and I think it is a beautiful city. Didn’t spend any money except on food. Of course we’d already seen the Baths etc. the first trip. It’s wonderful just to go to a city for a day and walk, best way to see and get to know it. The UK bus and train systems are so good that it is easy to stay in lower priced, smaller towns and do day trips. I do understand Rick’s exasperation, have felt it myself at times, but that is not to say stay home! If you desire to see England, go. If you love history you will love it. See the cities, the small towns, don’t miss the Cotswolds, try your hand at driving down the country lanes, but get the insurance! What I want to know Rick is why you don’t visit more of Wales? It is a beautiful country with extremely friendly people who have struggled mightily over the years. More castles than anywhere else, you practically trip over them! Loads of them are just crumbly bits but some of those are my favorites! Wonderful vistas, history, and sheep everywhere. You will think of Wales every time you see sheep forever after.

  4. Re: comment on good fish and chips now being something of a rarity in the UK – Readers may be interested in this link to The Times’s piece earlier this year on the annual Fish & Chips Shop competition. I ate at the current “London and area” champion, McDermott’s in Addington (involves a train ride to East Croydon and a fun ride on the new Croydon Tramlink to Gravel Hill Station), and can report the chips were very good and the fish simply the best I’ve ever tasted at a Chippy. Many shops are now promoting sustainable stocks for their fish – imagine Fish & Chips shops “going green”!

  5. I am sorry I did not get to Rick before he went to Bath regarding eating. Eros Fish and Chips is a take out place, located very near the theatre. The park is two blocks away. Very good fish and chips AND reasonably priced. But, the Fisherman’s Fish and Chips in Conwy, England that Rick recommends on the harbor was the best fish and chips I’ve had. I don’t know what they did to it other than being very freshly cooked but the chips were quite tasty too. Overlooking the water while we ate was very delightful and yes, we did have the pesky/noisy seagulls staring at us waiting for a drop of food. I want to go back to England. Thanks to Rick and all his staff finding these great places to eat.

  6. Rick …….I sense a tone of even more honest and forthright opinions in your latest blog entries……you have always given your opinion without hesitation but even more direct lately…….I am really enjoying that……Your restaurant listings are SO MUCH BETTER than 5-7 years ago………I had stopped using due to many letdowns…… I am using again with excellent results……Thanks again

  7. Rick, Even if you are no food critic all of your suggestions are spot on! I agree with you that a restaurant owner’s passion and dedication comes across in the food. The best culinary experiences I’ve had are in hole in the wall, mom and pop joints where mostly locals eat. Thanks for blogging, it let’s us live vicariously through your experiences. Happy (and safe) travels! Garret

  8. I don’t like recommending chains… Rick, I have found that I really appreciate American chains in Europe. Where else can you brazenly use the bathroom without buying anything, and feel not an iota of shame or guilt?

  9. Can you imagine the billions of dollars spent at McDonald’s restaurants each year, by people who just stopped to use the “McDonald’s.” ==== McDonald’s seldom cooked my burger well done enough, and kept it plain. On August 28, 1983 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, I told my Sweetie, “No more.” Over the years Sweetie said, “Why not?” But I never ordered another. I said, “Who else knows when they ate their last Mikky burger?” Sweetie often ordered a Burger, and we both had Egg McMuffin, Fries, and Carmel Sundaes in most states, a couple dozen countries in Europe, across Canada, and on Islands in the Pacific. And in Europe they were always happy to furnish us a big cup or two of ice, so we could enjoy Iced Tea American Style, in our RV.

  10. I’m with you, Rick. Love those small family owned businesses. Often, the whole family works there and so it is easy to feel at home and make new friends. For years I have been packing my homemade strawberry, blackberry and huckleberry jams with me to share with these new friends. You’d be surprised at the private little family taste treasures they reciprocate with!!! It may make my luggage a good bit heavier, but it is well worth it. I haven’t kept track of all the new friends who have visited me in Oregon over the years.

  11. Hello! I’m a young single Canadian working in England and I use Rick’s guidebooks a lot in travel throughout UK and EU :) A very helpful and honest post here but I’d just like to offer a counterpoint to this statement: “I was quite frustrated to find that many pubs that once served great pub meals are backing off on their pub grub to make more money selling beer. That attracts a younger and noisier crowd, and it becomes no place to enjoy a meal”. The divide between pubs, restaurants, and, er, “gastropubs” and their respective roles is a sore point here. I appreciate that your guidebooks embrace a family perspective and so you’d be upset to lose a listed family-friendly pub/eatery. However, as a frequent solo traveller I value a good “boozer” more than a good “food pub”. Food-oriented pubs tend to be frequented by self-contained groups, with a mission for their meal, and thus it’s harder to meet people and chat (i.e. sitting or standing at the bar) compared to a boozer which individuals frequent to socialise with regular or random others! Trust me, for every city center pub scaling back food support, there’s plenty of country folk unable to pop in their (former) local simply for a pint, with their muddy boots and dog, because now it’s a high-falutin’ restaurant “destination pub”. Just one way in which traditional pub culture is vanishing FAST. My two pence :) Keep up the good work! Brian

  12. Yes! Wagamama Noodle Bar was one of our favorites when we were in London 3 years ago. Now, would we have ventured into such a named place if it was not mentioned in your guidebook…no, so thank you for its continued listing. We traveled in England in November of 2005 and found the Wagamama stop lively, delicious, and satisfying for all the members of our family. That is quite a feat. I keep teasing my husband that in our Waco, TX college town we need to start a Wagamama franchise because it was so yummy.

  13. Hi, Rick, Wagamama was one of our favorite restaurants in London. Eating in London is quite expensive, at least it was two years ago. Not to change the subject, the movie”Mamma Mia!” is quite a phenomenon here at home, well, at least with women who are over 30. Was a #2 show in the box office over the weekend. Senator Obama is heading to Western Europe, any thoughts to share with us ?

  14. I would make sure you DID say something about Yorkshire Pudding, which confused me for ages as it isn’t in any way a “pudding” but rather a sort of … cross between a pie crust and a crepe. I’d also mention a Sunday roast, which the English take as seriously as Seattleites do brunch. I don’t quite understand why on a Sunday in the early afternoon you’re supposed to have roast beef/chicken and peas/potatoes/pud (see above)/gravy, but it’s quite the thing and very filling. I personally can’t stand Wagamama (Seattle spoiled me for good Japanese and “pan-Asian”) doesn’t crank my engine), but the Cornish Pasty shop has been the one English chain that’s saved my penny-pinching wallet time and again – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve combined a pasty from their Covent Garden stall and a day seat from the Royal Opera for a ten quid night on the town!

  15. Tonnvane: LOL the British definition of “pudding” is very, very broad compared to the North American and I think it can stump us all. I’m sure Rick could write a funny piece about it :) I’ve seen everything from savoury to sweet, from small meat pies (i.e. suet “puddings” filled with meat and gravy) to chocolate bars called “pudding” here. Practically any dessert can be informally referred to as “pudding” in much the same way that “tea” covers supper :) If you like Yorkshire puddings be sure to check out “toad in the hole”! For anybody visiting the Yorkshire Museum, York, they’ve got a whole range of traditional cooking apparatus including one that roasts a joint of meat hung over a giant pudding below… meat dripping is key to traditional Yorks pudd :) “He who gets the most pudding gets the most meat”, in the old days when a joint of meat had to last ages!! Cheers, Brian

  16. This isn’t for on the blog – it’s a technical comment. I’ve now received this blog about 8 times. They’ve been sent over the last two days.

  17. We stumbled upon La Tasca near Covent Gardens, where they had Tapas for a Tenner. One night the waitress only charged us for one person (we didn’t order much); another night they charged us for two. Either way, it was a lot of very good food for not much money.

  18. Thanks for the heads up on Bath. I’m heading over in late September and after a short stay in London & Edinburgh I’m looking for a 3rd spot to spend 3 days. It WAS Bath; Now, perhaps Brighton?? I leave via cruise ship from Dover.

  19. I am in London now and i ate Fish n Chips at Old Shadys by Trafalgar Square (on the main street between Trafalgar Square and Big Ben). I am not a fan of fish, but there’s was pretty good. By the way I just joined a travel site You can review destinations and share your travel experiences with other travelers. Its pretty cool. They are in private beta, but anyone can join. Enjoy your eats in London all! Melissa

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