What’s Happening To British Food?

Great Britain

First Great Britain had a brilliant national cuisine utilising all of the colours and flavours of a country with four distinct seasons (and you could eat a swan).

Then it was wrecked by two devastating wars and the arrival of bullying supermarkets. Americans teased us about our national food, forgetting that rationing rules shuttered restaurants and limited food supply (conversely, it made everyone healthier because they ate less meat). Postwar, the government opened Associated British Cafeterias (ABCs) to provide cheap meals for those on drastic budgets, because they were concerned about malnourishment. The culinary ground could not be regained for years.

Then in the eighties a revolution occurred. British restaurants rediscovered their rich culinary history. Forgotten cuts returned. People learned how to cook pork again (it’s okay to have it a bit pink). Meat and shellfish were mixed; I have a great recipe for oxtails stewed with scallops and oranges. Oyster water was added to stews and we still have beef and oyster pies. Seasonal  and forgotten vegetables like samphire and salsify reappeared. Turnips are still awful.

And a chainstore massacre occurred, with cheaper, better quality European supermarkets taking the lead from Tesco, whose profits went into freefall.

Meanwhile, the US ambassador complained that he had eaten too much lamb in the UK and was looking forward to hamburgers. (This wasn’t as funny as the New York Jets NFL team having 350 rolls of toilet paper sent to the UK for their visit, for reasons we can only guess at.) We started looking down at American food – all that orange under-spiced stuff was out. And the portion sizes? How gauche !

But something was happening here. Outside of trendy craft-beer/ hipster foodie London the high street chains returned, delivering huge portions of boring, bland food. In Leeds last week I tried in vain to find a non-chain restaurant. Oxford is even worse.

Split-shifting between the UK and the Mediterranean does my head in. This is what I get served in the UK if I ask for prawns – insipid cotton-woolly boiled things that taste like sucking a salty ice lolly.


This is the same dish in the rest of Europe, rich, crunchy, garlicky, hot, sticky and wonderful.


They’re working from the same main ingredient, so why can’t someone create a chain that does dishes properly? There are some great reasonably-priced gastro chains in London – look for venues that have no more than two cousins. I especially like Islington’s the Albion, the Draper’s Arms and the Pig and Butcher, in Bloomsbury check out the Lady Ottoline, and in the West End the excellent Newman Street Tavern (a rare reversal of trend that has replaced a lousy branch of Thai chain Ping Pong with an indie pub).

Meanwhile the city still caters for vulgar oligarchs, with the opening of a truffle ‘n’ Wagyu joint where burgers start at a ludicrous £38 and a hideous-looking under-the-sea-style restaurant for Russians called Crazy Fish.

So what the hell is happening to British food? And can anyone recommend a UK chain that’s actually good?

9 comments on “What’s Happening To British Food?”

  1. Mim says:

    Sorry – I avoid chains. In the UK it’s because indies are more likely to pay their taxes and not swipe their staff tips, and overseas it’s because I like to be somewhere distinctive on my holiday.

  2. Vivienne says:

    Are there any English chains? Isn’t it only ‘gastropubs’ that serve what might be called British food? All the rest are Italian, pizza or otherwise, Indian, Vietnamese, Thai, mixed Asian like Wagamama, or burgers. Looking for a place to eat recently for a birthday meal, found is a plethora of places selling endless sea bass, with or without beetroot concoctions (beetroot seems to have taken over from broad beans of late), but nothing with a very wide selection of dishes.

  3. Anchovee says:

    I’m with Mim – independents all the way. Varied, innovative menus using local produce, in my experience better service than a chain – I always feel like a valued customer. I recently visited a Carluccio’s and found the menu was almost the same as it was a year ago. Different restaurant too but with the same identikit style and layout. I suppose that appeals to some – you know what you’re going to get but then you’ll never end up pleasantly surprised.

    We live near Shrewsbury – a quietish town but whatever sort of cuisine you’re after you’re well set – and it’s all top quality stuff.

  4. JackieHayles says:

    Hastings has the largest off-beach fishing fleet in Europe and many local restaurants serve seasonal fish which is bought every morning from the fish market, just after it is caught. There is a cookery school and a small factory on the Stade, a part of the beach where the boats land their catch and nets are hung to dry in tall wooden huts. There is an annual Seafood & Wine Festival, where the produce is showcased, along with local wines and ciders. You wouldn’t realise there was such an embarrassment of riches from the sea, however, once you walk the few yards into Hastings itself rather than the Old Town, and hit the fast food chains.

  5. Vivienne says:

    For Anchovee I had been walking in Norfolk and hadn’t found anywhere open to eat at all, so walking 15-20 miles for a day or two and needing food, when I got back to London I headed straight for Carluccio’s just for lasagne just to keep me alive. But that’s not a usual scenario I know. My only recommendation for chains is that, out in the sticks, they are at least obliged to seem to stay open later than7.30. Even then I have had to negotiate for the ‘ computer’ to be turned back on.

  6. keith page says:

    If you’re eating in Oxford I’d suggest Pierre Victoire in Jericho

  7. chris hughes says:

    Should you ever find yourself eating in Herne Bay (I know! – what am I thinking?), the fish restaurant at the entrance to the pier does lovely food…..fish, of course……

  8. chazza says:

    And to add to JackieHayles, there is an annual herring festival where all things herring are worshipped and adored – quite right too!,

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    Chain restaurants are all pretty much crap, but at least they are consistently and reliably crap.

    The best thing to do is go on line and look for awards – a Michelin ‘Bib’ is for a good quality, reasonably priced eatery that won’t break the bank but should serve excellent and imaginative food.

    Or have a look on Trip Advisor where you should get a good spread of opinions.

    Of course, the best British cuisine is curry and you can find excellent curry houses everywhere.

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