Navigating British Food — And Pub Etiquette

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Photo by Laurenz Kleinheider on Unsplash

British food is a joke throughout the world, and thus those who visit the islands might worry about finding anything good to eat. “Nobody goes to Britain for the food.”

You might be (pleasantly) surprised. It’s a matter of knowing how to navigate the landscape. Here are some tips.

Go Indian

If you have any tolerance for spicy food at all, then Indian food in London is reputed to be better than that in New Delhi. Whether or not this is true (and given British Indian is a very specific thing the comparison may not be valid), the fact is that London…and many other British cities…boasts a plethora of excellent curry houses.

British Indian restaurants come in two ‘levels’ in much the way Italian does in the United States. There are fine dining, sit down Indian restaurants that generally charge more, sell more authentic food and may or may not sell alcohol (depending on the religion of the people running them). These kinds of restaurants can be found in smaller towns as well as big cities, and while they aren’t “special occasion,” they’re definitely above fast casual.

The other level is the curry house. Remember that Italian comparison? They’re like your subs-pizza-pasta place. Curry houses generally sell every kind of curry there is, at all kinds of heat levels, in a relatively simple dining room. They do a lot of carryout, too. If you want curry, this is where you should go. You’ll get a big bowl for a very reasonable price and it’s excellent.

Other Ethnic Restaurants

London has a good Chinatown and a small Japantown. Bear in mind that British Chinese food is not quite the same as American Chinese food. There are also Chinatowns in Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester. Liverpool’s is the oldest.

You can often also get typical Chinese takeout (often at a place that only does takeout) in smaller towns.

In large cities and tourist towns you can also generally find any ethnic cuisine you care for. This includes American (good for a laugh) and generally mediocre Mexican. Coming from America, I’d avoid those.

You can, however, usually find good Italian in most of the UK. That’s often worth looking into. Skip the pizza — you can get better at home, esp. if you’re from a pizza city like Chicago or New York.

Now, let’s go for actual British food.

Pub Grub

“Grub” is slang for food. Pub grub rhymes and Brits love things which rhyme. So, pub grub is the food you are served in, yup, a pub.

And if you know how to navigate the menu and the etiquette, you really can have a good meal in a British pub.

First, the etiquette.

In a restaurant things work the way you are used to in the U.S. You wait to be seated, a waiter will come take drink orders, etc.

Pubs, even “gastropubs” with a full dining room are not restaurants. If it has a weird name and a sign with a picture on it, it’s a pub. If it says pub anywhere, it’s a pub. (There are restaurants which serve pub grub, just to add to the confusion).

If you are eating in a pub, you find a free table. On the table is a number. Claim the table without asking, then send one or two people (depending on the size of your party) to the bar to order. You order all food and drinks at the bar. No waiter will come to your table. You give the barkeep your table number when you order, but carry all of your drinks to the table.

The waiter will then drop off your food. Many Americans get tripped up and end up sitting at their table for a while waiting for somebody to take their order.

Pub menus vary a lot, but there are some standard things to expect to find:

  1. Fish and chips. You will get better fish and chips from a “chip shop” or “chippie,” but pubs do sell this British classic (which warrants its own section that I’ll get to).
  2. Savory pies. Steak and kidney or chicken and mushroom are classics, but any pub worth its name will have some kind of pie on the menu. To be blunt: If in doubt, order the pie. If in doubt, order the pie. I can’t repeat this enough. British people make pies. British people make good pies. You almost can’t go wrong with pie.
  3. Gammon. Gammon is a pub menu staple. Be hesitant. Gammon (traditionally served with either egg or pineapple and believe me never the twain shall meet on this front. You are an egg person or a pineapple person) is the British equivalent of country ham. It is extremely salty. It is your entire sodium allowance for the week in one meal. I love the stuff. Not everyone will. (And if you’re on a low sodium diet don’t, just don’t).
  4. Roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. You’ll probably only see this in the north and then it’s relatively rare. Try it once in your life. Yorkshire pudding is what British people ate as a primary starch before potatoes were imported. It’s kind of a dumpling thing.
  5. Bangers and mash. Bangers and mash is what your mom served you when she was in a hurry if you grew up British. It’s link style sausages, mashed potatoes, peas, and baked beans. (“Bangers” are the sausages). It’s comfort food. It’s nostalgia food. And if you like sausages, you’ll probably like it.

(Ask me about other menu items and I’ll try to answer!)

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Fish and Chips

And yup, fish and chips deserves its own section. You may have had fish and chips in America.

You have not had real fish and chips. The only other countries that do real fish and chips to my knowledge are Ireland and Iceland.

Fish and chips, bluntly, is any plain white saltwater fish fried in beer batter and accompanied by steak fries. Not French fries. Absolutely not tater tots. Nice, thick, homestyle steak fries. In huge portions.

If you order fish and chips from a chip shop, share the fries. Because they will load you up.

The US tends to use the wrong fish, use the wrong chips or simply not be able to get good cod because most of us are too far south.

As an alternative, chip shops generally sell fish cakes (more like the chicken breast patties kids love), giant sausage rolls (sausage in batter) and, guess what, pies.

Visit a proper chip shop at least once during your stay. They’re takeout only so you’ll have to eat in your room or on the street. It’s no longer legal to wrap it in newspaper, but stores use food grade paper with fake newspaper or just wrap a twist of newspaper around the outside.

Oh, and there is only one acceptable condiment with fish and chips: Malt vinegar. No ketchup! No tartar sauce either…

Breakfast

Go to a bed and breakfast or many hotels and “full English breakfast” will be one of the perks of your stay.

You may not want lunch.

If they’re doing it right, you won’t want lunch.

“Continental” breakfast means croissants and juice and maybe cereal, just so you know.

A full English includes any/all of the following: Sausage links, (Canadian) bacon, hash browns, fried mushrooms, stewed tomatoes, fried bread, black pudding (blood sausage), baked beans, and fried eggs. It’s served with tea (a requirement) and toast that often, sadly, manages to be both burned and cold. The toast is the bad part. You can always ask them to hold or give extra of an ingredient and it is acceptable to have poached eggs instead of fried. And yes, baked beans are breakfast food. And dinner food. And lunch food. And basically any time food. Most hotels and B&Bs will also provide some kind of juice. Avoid orange juice; it’s shipped from Greece or Spain and is generally not the best quality. Pick apple instead, which is likely local.

A full Scottish breakfast is much the same but haggis shows up as one of the options. This is a good way to try it risk-free.

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Snacks and Lunch

Here are some snacks and lunches that are worth trying:

  1. Scotch eggs. These are a staple of British picnics and come in full size and bite size version. A scotch egg is a hardboiled egg with the shell removed, cooked with pork sausage meat and breadcrumbs, then chilled. (They can be served hot, but that’s not how they’re best).
  2. Seafood cups. British seaside resorts often have little stalls selling paper cups full of either tiny shrimp or whatever the local mollusk is. Cockles are common. This is cooked, chilled seafood. Kids love it. Just don’t go anywhere near if you’re allergic.
  3. Welsh rarebit. This is toast with cheese sauce. If you like a grilled cheese sandwich you’ll probably like Welsh rarebit.
  4. Butties. A “butty” is a sandwich, but the term is generally used to refer to two specific sandwiches. A “bacon butty” is a BLT without the lettuce or tomatoes. A “chip butty” is a sandwich with chips/fries in it. The latter’s rather an acquired taste. (Along similar lines, in parts of England a “cob” is a roll. So a cheese cob is a cheese sandwich with a roll not sliced bread. A “toastie” is a toasted sandwich, and is close to a grilled cheese).
  5. Pasties. Versatile! Traditionally you eat pasties for lunch, but it’s perfectly fine to eat them for dinner. The Cornish pasty was invented as a miners’ lunch that was easy to take “Down th’hole” or “down th’pit.” They’re tasty hot or cold. Modern pasty shops generally offer a variety of fillings and also sell, you guessed it…pies. (No, Brits aren’t obsessed with pies. We’re obsessed with tea).
  6. Scones. Scones are a British specialty. Served with jam and, yup, tea. Scones come in a variety of flavors, but traditionally have currents or raisins.

Dessert

Last, but not least: Dessert. “Pudding” in Britain means dessert. Unless it’s black (blood sausage) or Yorkshire (dumpling). Because English.

Desserts or sweet snacks worth trying:

  1. Jaffa cakes. You can sometimes find these in the U.S. They show up on the cookie plate, but they aren’t cookies…they’re little sponge cakes with jam and chocolate on top.
  2. Treacle pud(ding). My favorite British dessert. Sponge cake soaked in light molasses and served with British custard, which is the thin runny variety.
  3. Toffee pud(ding). Same as above, but made with sticky toffee instead of the molasses.
  4. Spotted dick. I’m actually not a huge spotted dick fan, but the name will always get a snicker. “Dick” is a corruption of “dough” and the spots are raisins or currants. Also served with custard.
  5. Arctic roll. A sponge cake roll with vanilla ice cream in the center. The kind without ice cream is a jam roly-poly. If it’s a Swiss roll it has frosting.
  6. Bread pudding. We love our bread pudding. Traditional British bread pudding is the kind with currants/raisins, but in the modern world you may find other options. Alcohol is often involved.
  7. Ice cream. British ice cream is another thing that’s always been notoriously bad, although a proper 99 is made with “Mr Whippy” soft-serve, which basically isn’t even ice cream. (Get a 99 at an ice cream truck. Another thing kids love and adults who didn’t grow up with one are uncertain of). However, there is good British ice cream, even if it often still comes in the Only Four Flavors (Vanilla, strawberry, chocolate or all four). Look for Cornish ice cream. It’s generally vanilla flavored, but is made with higher quality clotted cream. And there are also gelato stores.

And…there you go. I’m not going to talk about tea because that would take an entire other article.

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades. https://www.jenniferrpovey.com/

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