Wherever you travel in England, for every greasy spoon or fast-food joint, there's a local pub or speciality restaurant serving enticing homemade meals. For decades most towns have boasted Italian, Chinese and Indian restaurants, so spaghetti carbonara, chow mein and vindaloo are no longer considered exotic. London is now regarded as a global gastronomic capital, and it's increasingly easy to find decent food options in other cities, towns and villages across the country.
The Full English
For the locals, the English culinary day is punctuated by the three traditional main meals of breakfast, lunch and dinner (also known as tea or supper, depending on which side of the class divide you come from).
Many people in England make do with toast or a bowl of cereal before dashing to work, but visitors staying in hotels and B&Bs will undoubtedly encounter a phenomenon called the 'Full English Breakfast'. This usually consists of fried bacon, sausages, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans and fried bread. If you don't feel like eating half a farmyard first thing in the morning, it's OK to ask for just the eggs and tomatoes, for example. Some B&Bs offer other alternatives such as kippers (smoked fish) or a 'continental breakfast', which completely omits the cooked stuff and may even add something exotic like croissants.
One of the many great inventions that England gave the world is the sandwich, often eaten as a midday meal. Slapping a slice of cheese or ham between two bits of bread may seem a simple concept, but no one apparently thought of it until the 18th century: the Earl of Sandwich (his title comes from a town in southeast England that originally got its name from the Viking word for 'sandy beach') ordered his servants to bring cold meat between bread so he could keep working at his desk or, as some historians claim, keep playing cards late at night.
Another English classic is the ploughman's lunch. Basically it's bread, cheese and pickles, and although hearty yokels probably did carry such food to the fields in the days of yore, the meal was actually invented in the 1960s by the national cheesemakers' organisation to boost consumption, neatly cashing in on public nostalgia and fondness for tradition.
You can still find a basic ploughman’s lunch offered in some pubs – and it undeniably goes well with a pint or two of local ale at lunchtime – but these days the meal has usually been smartened up to include butter, salad and dressings. At some pubs you get a selection of cheeses. You’ll also find other variations, such as a farmer’s lunch (bread and chicken), stockman’s lunch (bread and ham), Frenchman’s lunch (Brie and baguette) and fisherman’s lunch (you guessed it, with fish).
Depending on where you are in England, the evening meal is variously described as dinner, supper or often (and rather confusingly) – tea, but regardless it’s generally the main meal of the day. While the traditional idea of 'meat and two veg' was an evening staple for many decades, the English have embraced global cuisine with gusto, and you're just as likely to find a curry, a pizza or a bowl of pasta on the dinner table as you are a serving of chops, chips and peas. The popularity of TV cooking shows and the profusion of celebrity chef cookbooks has helped expand England's culinary repertoire exponentially in recent years, and these days most English people are pretty cosmopolitan in their tastes.
One tradition that hasn't changed all that much is the roast dinner, customarily eaten for Sunday lunch. The classic is roast beef (always roast, never ‘roasted’) accompanied by Yorkshire pudding (portions of crispy baked batter). Another classic English dish brings Yorkshire pudding and sausages together, with the delightful name of 'toad-in-the-hole'.
Yorkshire pudding also turns up in another guise, especially in pubs and cafes in northern England, where a big bowl-shaped pudding is filled with stew, gravy or vegetables. You can even find multicultural crossover Yorkshire puddings filled with curry.
Perhaps the best-known classic English meal is fish and chips, often bought from the 'chippie' as a takeaway wrapped in paper to eat on the spot or enjoy at home. For visitors, English fish and chips can be an acquired taste. Sometimes the chips can be limp and the fish tasteless, especially once you get away from the sea, but in towns with salt in the air this classic deep-fried delight is always worth trying.
After the main course – usually at an evening meal, or if you're enjoying a hearty lunch – comes dessert or 'pudding'. A classic English pudding is apple or rhubarb crumble, in which the baked fruit is topped with a crunchy 'crumble' made with flour, butter and sugar. It's usually served with custard or ice cream. Other favourites include treacle sponge (sponge cake in a sweet, sticky, caramel-like sauce), sticky toffee (made with dates and a toffee sauce), bread-and-butter pudding (slices of buttered bread cooked with raisins and custard – nicer than it sounds) and plum pudding (a dome-shaped cake with fruit, nuts and brandy or rum, traditionally eaten at Christmas).
With the country’s large coastline, it's no surprise that seafood is a speciality in many English regions. Yorkshire's seaside resorts are particularly famous for huge servings of cod – certified as sustainable after years of decline – while restaurants in Devon and Cornwall conjure up prawns, oysters, mussels, crab, lobster and scallops. Other local seafood you may encounter elsewhere on your travels include Norfolk crab and Northumberland kippers.
In northern and central England you’ll find Cumberland sausage – a tasty mix of minced pork and herbs, so large it has to be spiralled to fit on your plate. Look out too for Melton Mowbray pork pies – cooked ham in a casing of pastry, eaten cold. A legal victory in 2005 ensured that only pies from the eponymous Midlands town could carry the Melton Mowbray moniker, in the same way that only fizzy wine from the Champagne region of France can carry that name. Another English speciality that enjoys the same protection is Stilton – a strong white cheese, either plain or in a blue-vein variety. Only five dairies in all of England are allowed to produce cheese with this name.
Perhaps less appealing is black pudding, a large sausage made with pig's blood and oatmeal, and traditionally served for breakfast in northern England.
In England, 'eating out' means simply going to a restaurant or cafe – anywhere away from home. There's a huge choice across the country.
Picnics & Self-Catering
When shopping for food, as well as the more obvious chain stores and corner shops, markets can be a great place for bargains – everything from dented tins of tomatoes to home-baked cakes and organic goats cheese. Farmers markets are always worth a visit; they're a great way for producers to sell good food direct to consumers, with both sides avoiding the grip of the supermarkets.
Cafes & Teashops
The traditional English cafe is nothing like its continental European namesake. Most are basic, no-frills establishments serving simple meals, such as pies, beans on toast, baked potato or omelette with chips (costing around £3 to £6), and stuff like sandwiches, cakes and other snacks (£2 to £3). Quality varies enormously: some cafes definitely earn their 'greasy spoon' handle, while others are neat and clean.
In London and some other cities, a rearguard of classic cafes – with Formica tables, seats in booths and decor unchanged from their 1950s glory days – stand against the onslaught of the international chains. In rural areas, many market towns and villages have cafes catering to tourists, walkers, cyclists and other outdoor types, and in summer they're open every day. Whether you're in town or country, good English cafes are a wonderful institution and always worth a stop during your travels.
Smarter cafes are called teashops or tearooms (generally found in rural areas) where you pay a bit more for extras such as neat decor and table service.
As well as the traditional establishments, in most cities and towns you'll also find a growing number of specialist coffee shops (both chain and independent), serving cappuccinos, lattes and espressos, and offering bagels or ciabattas rather than beans on toast.
We've taken great pleasure in seeking out some of the best and best-value restaurants in England. Prices vary considerably across the country, with a main course in a straightforward restaurant costing around £10 or less, and anywhere between £10 and £20 at midrange places. Excellent food, service and surroundings can be enjoyed for £20 to £50 – although in London you can, if you want, pay double this.
For vegetarians, England is not too bad. Many restaurants and pubs have at least one token vegetarian dish, while better places offer much more imaginative choices. Vegans will find the going trickier, except of course at dedicated veggie/vegan restaurants.
Pubs & Gastropubs
Not so many years ago, a pub was the place to go for a drink. And that was it. If you felt peckish, your choice might be a ham or cheese sandwich, with pickled onions if you were lucky. Today many pubs serve a wide range of food, and it’s usually a good-value option, whether you want a toasted sandwich between museum visits in London, or a three-course meal in the evening after touring castles and stately homes in Yorkshire.
While the food in many pubs is good quality and good value, some places raised the bar to such a degree that a whole new genre of eatery – the gastropub – was born. The finest gastropubs are effectively restaurants (with smart decor, neat menus and uniformed table service; a few have won Michelin stars). For visitors relaxing after a hard day’s sightseeing, nothing beats the luxury of a wholesome shepherd's pie washed down with a decent ale without the worry of guessing which fork to use.
It’s wise to book ahead for midrange restaurants, especially at weekends. Top-end restaurants should be booked at least a couple of weeks in advance.
- Restaurants England’s restaurants range from cheap-and-cheerful to Michelin-starred, and cover every cuisine you can imagine.
- Cafes Open during daytime (rarely after 6pm), cafes are good for a casual breakfast or lunch, or simply for a cup of coffee.
- Pubs Most of England's pubs serve reasonably priced meals, and many can compete with restaurants on quality.
aubergine – large purple-skinned vegetable; 'eggplant' in the USA and Australia
bangers – sausages (colloquial)
bap – a large, wide, flat, soft bread roll
bevvy – drink (slang; originally from northern England)
bill – the total you need to pay after eating in a restaurant ('check' to Americans)
bitter – ale; a type of beer
black pudding – a type of sausage made from dried blood and other ingredients
bun – bread roll, usually sweet, eg currant bun, cream bun
BYO – bring your own (usually in the context of bringing your own drink to a restaurant)
caff – abbreviated form of cafe
candy floss – light sugar-based confectionery; called 'cotton candy' in the USA, 'fairy floss' in Australia
chips – sliced, deep-fried potatoes, eaten hot (what Americans call 'fries')
cider – beer made from apples
clotted cream – cream so heavy or rich that it's become almost solid (but not sour)
corkage – a small charge levied by the restaurant when you BYO (bring your own)
courgette – green vegetable ('zucchini' to Americans and Australians)
cream cracker – white unsalted savoury biscuit
cream tea – cup of tea and a scone loaded with jam and cream
crisps – thin slices of fried potato bought in a packet, eaten cold; called 'chips' or 'potato chips' in the USA and Australia
crumpet – circular piece of doughy bread, toasted before eating, usually covered with butter
double cream – heavy or thick cream
dram – whisky measure
fish fingers – strips of fish pieces covered in breadcrumbs, usually bought frozen and cooked by frying or grilling
greasy spoon – cheap cafe (colloquial)
ice lolly – flavoured ice on a stick; called 'popsicle' in the USA, 'icy pole' in Australia
icing – thick, sweet and solid covering on a cake
jam – fruit conserve often spread on bread
jelly – sweet dessert of flavoured gelatine; called 'jello' in the USA
joint – cut of meat used for roasting
kippers – salted and smoked fish, traditionally herring
pickle – food, usually vegetables (eg onions or beetroot), preserved in vinegar
Pimm's – popular English spirit mixed with lemonade, mint and fresh fruit
pint – beer (as in 'let me buy you a pint')
pop – fizzy drink
salad cream – creamy vinegary salad dressing, much sharper than mayonnaise
scrumpy – a type of strong dry cider
shandy – beer and lemonade mixed together in equal quantities
shepherd's pie – two-layered dish with a ground beef and onion mixture on the bottom and mashed potato on the top, cooked in an oven
shout – to buy a group of people drinks, usually reciprocated (colloquial)
single cream – light cream (to distinguish from double cream and clotted cream)
snug – a small room in a pub, usually just inside the door
squash – fruit-drink concentrate mixed with water
stout – dark, full-bodied beer made from malt; Guinness is the most famous variety
swede – large root vegetable; sometimes called 'yellow turnip' or 'rutabaga' in the USA
sweets – what Americans call 'candy' and Australians call 'lollies'
treacle – dark treacle is molasses, but in England treacle often means golden syrup