The UK shed its reputation for bland, stodgy food a long time ago. Modern British twists on international cuisine have ignited the UK's food scene with colour and flavour.
Exotic herbs and spices have long been part of British cooking, with chicken tikka masala regarded by many as the national dish. At the same time, the focus on seasonal, locally grown, and freshly caught produce means that even the ubiquitous fish and chips has won culinary awards in seaside towns like Whitby and Exeter.
Pubs still serve up the ‘meat and two veg’ variety of food that has kept the UK fed for generations, but the menu now often includes fusion food, vegetarian goodness, and many alternatives to a roast dinner. For lunch, just about anything can be wrapped in pastry, or appear between two slices of bread - the small town of Sandwich in Kent has a lot to answer for…
Though the English table manners of Downton-Abbey-fame are well and truly in the past, there are some useful tips for eating out in the UK.
No one should start eating until everyone's food has been served - even if they say it’s fine.
On special occasions, there will usually be a ‘cheers’ or a toast of some sort. Always make sure to look everyone in the eye when clinking glasses and know that it’s terribly bad form to ‘cheers’ on an empty drink.
Water is usually bottled if ordered, so make sure to ask for ‘tap’ or ‘water for the table’ in restaurants. Bread that's brought to the table and bar snacks like peanuts and crisps are free, but anything that has to be ordered will be added to the bill.
Many restaurants now have time slots, so make sure not to linger for too long on busy evenings and weekends.
When asking for the bill, a charades-like scribble in the air usually does the trick. But many pubs and cafes will ask you to pay at the counter - a rule that helps to avoid arguments over who is paying!
Tipping is commonplace in the UK; it’s vital income for low-paid hospitality staff. Servers at a sit-down restaurant would usually be given a tip of around 10-15% of the bill. Fast food and drinks don’t usually require a tip. Some higher-end restaurants will include a service charge, so tipping is not necessary.
The act of ‘buying rounds’ in the pub comes with strict social rules. Everyone must take their turn. If you are no longer drinking, simply offer to buy a drink to whoever has bought you one.
Breakfast, or ‘brekkie’, is a big meal in the UK served anywhere between 7:00 AM and noon, and is especially indulgent on weekends. While in England you can expect to find a ‘Full English’ complete with black pudding, Northern Ireland has the ‘Full Irish’ with both white and black pudding.
The ‘Full Welsh’ adds in cockles and laverbread cake, while Scotland goes all out with tattie scones, Lorne sausage, and sliced haggis in the ‘Full Scottish’. But wherever you are, it’s obligatory to wash it all down with a steaming mug of tea or coffee.
Visit local butchers and bakeries to buy a sausage roll - a cheap and convenient lunch enjoyed by people from all over the UK (there was even a Christmas number one about them).
Cafes and pubs usually serve lunch between noon and 3:00 PM, it can be hard to find anywhere open in rural areas between the end of lunch and the start of dinner service at around 5:30 PM. Some local cafes, hotels, and more touristy areas may offer afternoon tea, a time-honoured tradition consisting of bitesize sandwiches, scones, cream and jam.
Locals generally enjoy an early dinner or ‘tea’ by European standards, but evening meals can get later in the summertime, with most places stopping food service at around 10:00 PM. Gastro pubs can be found all over the UK, and combine high-quality food with a traditional atmosphere, while Greek, Italian and Thai restaurants are also very popular.
Brits love a good takeaway, many locals can be seen ‘down the chippy’ on a Friday night or heading to the local kebab or pizza shop. It’s often an integral part of a night out on the town. Chinese and Indian takeaways also have a big part in British food culture, with fusion dishes like tikka masala, and sweet and sour - the Asian sauce has been used in England since the Middle Ages.
There are many regional variations when it comes to staple foods in England. In Liverpool, scouse (a hearty beef stew) is a family recipe passed from parent to child - it’s the reason why locals are referred to as “Scousers”.
The Cornish pasty was created for the miners of Cornwall. Sweet on one end and savoury on the other, it was an all-in-one meal in a parcel that could be eaten in the dark, dirty conditions of the mine.
The Yorkshire pudding, usually an accompaniment of the traditional roast dinner, is more of a takeaway lunch in York. A plate-sized battered pudding is filled with meat, veg, potatoes and gravy - it’s as messy and delicious as it sounds.
The North of England serves up some of the best steak, chicken, or veggie pies, usually accompanied by mash and gravy - though many ‘northerners’ will tell you that it’s acceptable to put gravy on your chips as well.
One of the most well-known dishes of Wales is Welsh rarebit - a luxury take on cheese on toast. Another favourite, Glamorgan cheese rolls, are a great vegetarian alternative to their sausage cousins, hailing from the South Coast of Wales.
There’s also bara brith (fruit cake), lamb cawl (a slow-cooked lamb and leek broth), laverbread, and Welsh cakes. As far as produce goes, Wales is best known for its fine salt marsh lamb, leeks, and fresh Conwy mussels.
Scotland’s national dish of haggis, tatties and neeps (potatoes and parsnips) is a must try for travellers. Though the ingredient list doesn’t seem appetising, the flavour of haggis more than makes up for it.
For those with a sweet tooth, try a lump of sugar-rush-inducing ‘tablet’, while the nationally popular Scotch eggs are more of a savoury snack.
It’s also the home of Scotch whisky, so make sure to try a dram or two if visiting a pub or distillery. Irn-Bru is Scotland's other national drink, while locally-loved deep-fried Mars bars push the limits of even the most gluttonous traveller.
In Northern Ireland, try the brown soda bread known as wheaten bread smeared with butter and jam. There’s also the tasty Irish hash called ‘potato bread farl’ made with mashed potatoes, butter, flour, and salt.
Another local dish is the slightly misleadingly named ‘vegetable roll’, which is actually a well-seasoned beef sausage. If visiting a pub try a deep-fried ‘pastie’ with chips, typically made with ground pork or beef, potatoes, onions, and various seasonings.
Expect to pay more in cities like London, but here’s a quick guide to some typical costs of UK foods that visitors may want to try;
A sausage roll for lunch: £1.00 - £3.50
Dinner for two with drinks at a mid-range restaurant: £35 - £50
Beer / glass of wine out: £5
Chinese takeaway for two: £20
While it’s true that each area has its own specialities, like Cartmel sticky toffee pudding in the Lake District and the famed tarts of Bakewell in the Peak District, there are some destinations in the UK that are unmissable for food lovers.
Though many of the biggest UK cities have a diverse food scene, London is without doubt the culinary capital. On a single London street you can get Brazilian for breakfast, Japanese for lunch and a Sri Lankan curry with an English Ale for dinner. Covent Garden, Camden Market, and Brixton are some of the best places to find independent food outlets.
There is also an abundance of fine dining options, Michelin Star restaurants, and fantastic foodie experiences in the central boroughs. While the East End is full of markets and pop-up eateries like Spitalfields Market, Shoreditch Box Park, and Brick Lane - known as London's ‘Curry Mile’.
Further north, Manchester is not just worth a visit for its football prowess. Home of the official Curry Mile, Wilmslow Road is filled with South Asian and Middle Eastern restaurants, takeaways and kebab houses. It is thought to have the most diverse selection of curry houses in the United Kingdom.
There has been a recent surge in microbreweries in the UK, with almost every pub providing their signature brew. Though you can find a great pint all over the UK, Newcastle sits at the forefront of the craft beer scene.
Visit one of its brewpubs, combining a microbrewery and bar-restaurant, like the welcoming Tap Room at Wylam Brewery, or the industrial-style Tyne Bank Brewery.
There has also been a modern gin revival with over 800 gin distilleries popping up all over the UK. Even remote islands like the Isle of Mull are providing ‘gin retreats’ for weary travellers.
But head to Yorkshire, of tea and pudding fame, for one of the best gin-making experiences. Tinker with copper stills at Spirit of Masham, selecting from over 100 different botanicals to blend your very own concoction.
When it comes to eating sustainably, small-scale farm-to-table businesses are leading the way in kilometre zero food. But for something a little more participation based, there’s also a growing scene in wild foraging in the UK.
Operators like Gourmet Gatherings in Monmouthshire are offering visitors the chance to learn about the edibles that are naturally occurring in the Welsh countryside, as well as how to prepare and eat them. These lush hills lie between the Brecon Beacons and the Wye Valley, and are home to everything from field mushrooms to wild alpine strawberries.