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.”