Despite the negative reputation it unjustly has, British food is actually very good, with many British people being proud of their native dishes and regional specialities. Restaurants and supermarkets in the middle and upper range have consistently high standards, and the choice of international dishes is among the best in Europe. Unlike their continental neighbours, many Britons still eat to live rather than living to eat, and as a result, food quality is variable at the budget end of the market. Moreover, as the UK is a culturally diverse nation, many different kinds of food are available due to the influence of immigration.
The United Kingdom can be an expensive place to eat out compared to, say, the more southern European countries, but relatively cheap in comparison with countries such as Switzerland and Norway.
Many restaurants in city centres tend to be a little more expensive than ones in the suburbs, and pubs do tend to be slightly more expensive in the countryside, but generally, a three-course meal without drinks will cost anywhere between £10 and £25. Chicken tikka masala with rice is sometimes claimed as the UK’s most popular dish, though roast beef is a more traditional national dish.
Picnics are also fairly popular in the United Kingdom, along with coffee shops. Smoking is not allowed in bars, pubs, cafés and restaurants.
Allergy awareness in the UK is good, with both labelling on shop-bought products and printed menus typically including some kind of message about potential allergens. Most outlets will also be able to advise as to the suitability of specific dishes in relation to a given allergy. Some mid-range and upward restaurants even have specific menus for ‘gluten-free’ diets.
Standards in food safety in the United Kingdom are exceptionally high, a matter of pride for outlets, and the traveller is unlikely to encounter major issues. The Food Standards Agency runs a “Scores on the Doors” scheme where individual outlets can also be checked out online. Retailed food with a clear expiry date, such as meat or fish, is labelled with a ‘use by’ date, but food which may be less appetising but still safe, such as fruit, may be labelled with a ‘best before’ date.
A ‘takeaway’ is either a shop supplying prepared meals for people to eat elsewhere, or the meal itself. A very British takeaway is the fish and chip shop; the sandwich shop is a popular choice at lunchtimes; they often also sell pies and cakes. Alternatively, most towns and many main routes have a selection of fast-food chains. Various types of takeaways are present in nearly all towns, ranging from fish and chips to “Indian”, which can often be operated by non-Indians like Bangladeshis, and Chinese shops. Thai and Indonesian takeaways are becoming quite common, and lots of others in bigger towns. Generally the standard of takeaways is good, but the best guide is, as always, to observe what the locals are doing.
In towns and cities these places tend to open late (sometimes until about 01:00) to cater for the so-called after-the-pub crowd. At this time they tend to be busy and rowdy so, to avoid the queues the best time for a takeaway may be 19:00-23:00: after the teatime rush but before the supper crowds. Takeaways in larger city centres may stay open until 03:00 or 04:00 to cater for people coming out of nightclubs; typically these will be independent kebab shops and chippies, as well as some fast food chains such as Domino’s and Subway. This isn’t to be expected outside large cities.
Food in pubs:
Most pubs serve food, so these will be your next best option for sampling British cuisine. Even if you are against drinking alcohol, you may find a more traditional and full menu than a cafe or chippy. Some more comments on pubs will be found under the Drink heading.
However, the opening hours, times food is served, prices and booking requirements (especially for groups) can vary considerably. Contacting a specific venue in advance or seeking local advice if you have particular requirements or standards, is recommended . Do not sit at a table in a pub expecting a waiter to take your order for food or drinks: pubs nearly always work on a “queue at the bar for drinks: order at the bar for food” basis. You go to the bar to request and pay for drinks and food. To avoid annoying customers behind them, groups usually order as one, and “settle up” between themselves later (see elsewhere for “buying rounds”). You normally order your “starters” and “mains” together (food-oriented places have numbers screwed to the tables for you to quote, or will give you a number to take to your table). There is an etiquette that if you see another patron at the bar, you should invite them to order first. You then wait for your drinks to be poured and carry them to the table. When your meal is ready, it is either brought to you or, less commonly now, announced when it is ready for you to collect. The person who tidies away your main course may ask you what dessert you would like, or you may have to order at the bar again.
Larger towns have a range of restaurants to suit most tastes and on top of places specialising in British food, you will find a very broad range of international cuisines, including Indian, Chinese, Thai, French and Italian. Waiters generally expect a 10% tip (but all too often do not get it from the native population) and in some places this is automatically listed on your bill. However, if you are dissatisfied with the service in any way, you are under no obligation to pay the service charge. Generally British people are not great tippers. As a visitor the 10% rule is more than generous and worth sticking to. Visitors from The U.S. and Canada are seen as very generous tippers and even a bit of a soft touch by some.
The usual fast-food restaurants (McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway and local chain Wimpy) are widespread in larger towns and cities but uncommon in smaller towns. They are typically in major shopping areas, in or around major train stations, in out-of-town retail parks and in motorway service stations and airports (the latter 2 are usually more expensive). Prices are average – a burger, chips and drink meal will cost about £4-5. Most are open 7AM-10PM although some in large cities are 24-hours. Fast-food restaurants in out-of-town locations offer drive-through service. Delivery service is widely offered.
Chinese cuisine in the UK is generally of the Westernised takeaway variety. That said, good, authentic Chinese food can be found in London, Manchester, and Sheffield, which have large Chinese communities.
One of the most popular types of restaurant in the UK is the Indian restaurant. They can be found in every city and most towns, large and small. There are now more and more upmarket Indian restaurants in the larger urban centres.
Motorway service areas:
Motorway service areas in the United Kingdom are of variable quality, even if the majority are required to provide certain services 24 hours a day by law. All offer up to 2 hours’ free parking, but beyond this point charge an expensive hourly rate. Some service areas have a notorious reputation as being expensive. Most contain fast-food outlets, chain coffee shops and indoor and outdoor seating; the latter are ostensibly provided for picnickers, but are often occupied by people smoking cigarettes. All have free toilets, some of which you will notice have “best loo of the year” industry awards proudly displayed. The range of hot and cold food in some services is limited overnight, although most keep a selection available. With some exceptions, service areas are not necessarily the place to find inexpensive dining options or food which is not reflective of chain outlets. For more choice the traveller can typically find better options within a few miles of a junction.
Vegetarianism has become more widespread in the UK over the last few decades. If you are staying as a guest in a British home it would be considered courteous to inform your host beforehand as to any dietary requirements, but this will not be considered rude or even particularly unusual. If you are staying in a B&B, let the owner know when you arrive, and you’ll often find that they will cook up a special vegetarian breakfast for you.
Even if you call yourself vegetarian some people will assume you eat fish, so if you don’t, then tell them so. Nowadays, it is rare to find a pub or restaurant with no vegetarian options, and most have a selection.
If you are a vegan, be prepared to explain precisely what you do and don’t eat on a fairly frequent basis. Outside of specialist restaurants, most places probably won’t have a vegan-friendly main meal, so be prepared to hunt around, order bits and bobs, or in a pub make do with the ubiquitous bowl of chips and tomato ketchup and even then it would be wise to check whether the chips have been cooked in animal fat, a practice quickly falling out of fashion. Recognition of veganism and vegan options at food outlets is slowly getting better, however.
In general, the best places for vegetarian and vegan food are specialist veggie restaurants and Indian, Chinese and South-East Asian restaurants. Most major cities and towns will have at least one. Expensive upscale restaurants may have more limited vegetarian options, and sometimes none at all. If you’re fortunate enough to be dining in such a place, it may be worth ringing ahead.
The legal age to buy alcohol or consume it in a pub is 18, and there are consequences for the bar staff if they serve under-age customers. If you are having a meal in a restaurant, you nominally only have to be 16 to order alcohol (for consumption with the meal), and although this is also technically applicable in a pub if you are having a table meal (typical bar snacks like crisps or nuts don’t count), it’s often at the discretion of the venue or staff. Some venues (pubs and restaurants) apply a strict “Over 18 only” policy regardless.
Nevertheless, if you’re over 18 but lucky enough to look younger, expect to be asked to prove your age when purchasing alcohol (also, in certain places if you look under 21 or 25, you have to prove you’re over 18, known as “Challenge 21(25)”), especially in popular city spots. Do not be confused into thinking the drinking age is actually raised to 21 or 25 in these establishments, it is simply a ‘safety net’ system to ensure more young people get positively ID’d as being over 18. Some premises will require proof of age for all drinks after a certain time of night due to restrictions on the age of people who can be on the premises. The most trustworthy form of ID is a passport or EU driving licence which shows both your photograph and date of birth. ID cards are likely to be accepted (providing there is a photograph), as will proof of age cards which are available, but must be applied for by post and take several weeks to issue. Any other form of ID will not be accepted. In private residences the minimum age to drink alcohol is 5 years old, although it is likely that if a 5- or 6-year-old, etc. were getting drunk, the matter would be brought before the courts as child neglect.
Whilst getting drunk is often the objective of a party or some social gatherings, and is often considered socially acceptable amongst close friends, the police take a dim view on those causing alcohol-related trouble, or using it is as justification for anti-social acts, irrespective of social standing. In regions where there is a legacy of active temperance traditions (notably in rural parts of Wales and Yorkshire), local attitudes to drunkenness may be less favourable than the UK as a whole but the traveller is unlikely to encounter strong views, if they drink sensibly. Nevertheless, most Britons have a great sense of humour and everything is forgotten after a hangover, at least until the next time. Drinking is an important part of the British culture and, even though it is frequently complained about, it is as popular as ever.
Although being drunk is (of itself) not illegal, many venues and retail premises will stop (or will refuse to continue) serving those starting to show the signs of obvious drunkenness. This is because in the UK, the person serving the drinks has certain legal obligations as a condition of them being allowed to operate the venue or premises.
Urinating in public is illegal, anti-social and quite difficult to explain when applying for a visa. You should try to use the facilities where you are drinking.
Drink driving is illegal, and whilst (as of 2016) the maximum limits are 50 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (0.05%) in Scotland, and 80 mg of alcohol per 100 ml of blood (0.08%) in England and Wales, most advice is that there is no ‘safe’ level. It’s easier to get a taxi home than an ambulance!
Recreational boaters under the influence can also face prosecution, as can drunk cyclists and horse-riders, especially if they are seen to be endangering others. The legal upper limit for persons in charge of a boat is 25 mg.
The pub (or public house) is the most popular place to get a drink in the UK, though types of pubs can vary dramatically. They range from ‘local’ pubs, usually quiet places consisting of one or two rooms, to chain pubs such as J.D. Wetherspoons, which are very large rooms capable of holding hundreds of people. Even small villages will often have a pub, serving spirits, wines, beers, cider, ‘alcopops’ and non-alcoholic drinks, accompanied by crisps, nuts and pork scratchings. Many serve snacks or meals. The greater volume of drinks served are various kinds of beer, mainly lagers, bitters, and porter/stout (i.e. Guinness). People not looking to drink real ale are free to choose a pub just on the basis of location and character, because most national “smooth” bitters or TV-advertised lagers are available in any non-real-ale pub; however, even non-real-ale drinkers often find that they prefer the types of pubs with a range of real ales, because they tend to be more “traditional”, with a more individual character and less oriented to juke boxes, games machines, fruit machines and large crowds.
Across the whole of the UK there is a blanket ban on smoking inside pubs and restaurants, though many pubs have areas outside, often known as “beer gardens”, where smoking is usually permissible. However if you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to be able to stay after the formal closing hours this is called a “lock-in” and smoking may be ok if the pub landlord allows it. This will often occur only in the later hours after 23:00 and these lock-ins can last any amount of time. As they are classed as a private party, they happen in only a few pubs, and often only pubs with more regular customers, although this is not always the case. Once at a lock-in, you cannot leave and come back in again.
British real ales, championed by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), are among the best in the world – though people used to colder, fizzier beers may find that the taste needs to be acquired. People looking for real ale will need to select the right pubs, because although a wide range of pubs serve one or two real ales, only a “real ale pub” will have a wide selection. British ale has a limited shelf life compared to most foreign beers, and as some pubs have only a “token” cask with low turnover, it’s often well past its prime and has a strange vinegary taste. If you do receive an ‘off’ pint, ask for a replacement at the bar, which will usually be forthcoming.
The phrase “free house” was usually the main indicator for people looking for a good choice of beer, because this indicated that the pub was not owned by a particular brewery and served whatever beer its landlord thought would appeal to their customers. However, this is no longer a significant factor, because most national pub chains are now owned by large conglomerates who deal centrally with brewers and serve the same mass-market brands in all their pubs: these conglomerates (not being breweries) can still call their pubs “free houses”.
Many pubs are very old and have traditional names, such as the “Red Lion” or “King’s Arms”; before widespread literacy, pubs would be identified by most customers solely by their signs. There has been a trend, strongly resisted in some quarters, towards chain-pubs such as the Hogshead, Slug and Lettuce and those owned by the JD Wetherspoon company. Another trend is the gastro pub, a smartened-up traditional pub with a selection of high-quality food (often at restaurant prices).
Beer in pubs is served in pint and half-pint measures, or in bottles. A pint is 568 ml. Simply ordering a beer on tap (‘draught beer’) will be interpreted as a request for a pint, e.g. ‘a lager, please’. Alternatively ‘half a lager, please’ will get you a half-pint. If you ask for a “half-pint of lager” in a noisy pub, you will almost certainly get a pint, because no-one asks for a “half-pint” and the bar person will have thought you said “I’ll have a pint of lager, please”. Prices vary widely based on the city, the pub and the beer, but generally pints will be £3-4. Bottled beers often cost almost the same, although they hold much less than a pint (330 ml being standard).
Spirits and shorts are normally 25 ml although some pubs use a standard 35 ml measure; in all cases it will be clearly indicated on the optic, in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland, the standard measure is a 35 ml measure. A dram in Scotland was traditionally a quarter of a gill measure now 25 ml.
Wine in pubs generally comes in 125 ml (small) or 175 ml (large) measures, although unless the pub specialises in wine, it’s often low quality.
Food in pubs can range from nothing except crisps and nuts, through basic ‘pub food’ (normally with chips) to restaurant-standard and beyond (a few pubs even have Michelin stars). Pubs that specialise in food often have a separate area set aside for eating. Food service often stops well before the pub closes, however.
When applying for a licence, pubs can specify any opening times they wish; this can be challenged by neighbours, etc. Closing times are typically the ‘last order’ time – the pub can sell drinks before this and customers have to drink up and leave within 20 minutes of the licensing hours. The staff will normally call out 10 minutes before last orders and again when the bar closes.
Closing times used to be 23:00 and 22:30 on a Sunday by law, and this is still quite common. The most common closing times at the weekends in towns are between midnight and 01:00 and some larger pubs may apply for a licence until 02:00 and clubs 03:00 or 04:00. It is not unheard-of that some bars have licences until the early hours (06:00) although this is rare as many who are out until this time are likely to go to nightclubs and then home. Theoretically, a pub can ask for a 24-hour licence, though few have done so.
In cities, as well as traditional pubs, there are more modern wine-bars and café-bars (often known simply as bars), though the variable weather means that there is not as much of a ‘street scene’ as in other European cities. However, depending on the weather, there are more and more pavement cafés in the UK than in the past. Parts of London, Manchester and other up-and-coming cities are good examples of this change of scene.
Prices in bars tend to be higher than in pubs, with less focus on beer, and more on wine, spirits and cocktails. Customers are often younger than those of traditional pubs, though there is much crossover and some bars are more “pubby” than others.
Clubbing is popular in most large towns and cities, and many have world-renowned venues as well as many alternative venues. Great clubs can be found in London, Glasgow, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Brighton and other places. Prices in clubs tend to be considerably higher than those charged in pubs, and opening hours may not be the attraction they once were, as pubs can now open late too. Most clubs will not admit anyone under 18. ID may be asked for at the door, but ID checks at bars are less common. Dress codes are sometimes applied by doormen or bouncers before entry, sometimes none-too-consistently. Common dress codes are simply to dress smartly and avoid wearing sports wear, including trainers. However “fashion” trainers, especially dark coloured ones are increasingly accepted when part of smart attire. That said, some upmarket clubs will still insist on shoes and if in doubt, wear shoes to avoid being turned away.
Clubs are often cheaper during the week (M-Th) as many of these nights are designed to cater for students; however, you usually have to pay an entrance fee. For a club in a small town (capacity 250-300) this will usually be £1-2 on week night, £2-3 on weekends, and seldom more than £5 on special occasions. Conventional clubs in bigger towns and alternative clubs in cities will cost £5-10. Large clubs, especially those in cities, that cater for a “dance” crowd will almost certainly cost over £10, though seldom more than £15. For towns with a large student population, it is often much cheaper to go clubbing during week nights (Monday-Thursday), as many clubs advertise towards students on these nights, offering discounted drinks and cheaper entry.
Tea is widely drunk in the UK, most British people drink black tea with milk and/or sugar. Tea drinking is common in the UK because India, which is one country where tea trees are found, was a British territory until 1947. Whilst most budget to mid-range venues will offer a generic brand, more upmarket (and higher priced) venues, will have a selection, Earl Grey being a well known blend, but by no means the only one. Herbal teas are also available from specialists, lemon may also be offered as an alternative to milk.
Coffee is also popular in the UK, and in some popularity polls it has beaten tea. Starbucks has a number of branches in the UK, although it has strong competition from other chains like Costa, and numerous independent coffee shops.
An unusual ‘drink’ more akin to soup is Bovril, a kind of reconstituted beef broth. Offered by a small number of independent outlets. It’s a tradition in the UK for spectators at cold-weather sporting events to bring a flask of Bovril.
In Scotland, Irn-Bru is highly regarded and has near legendary status. It is a fizzy, caffeinated drink of a vivid orange colour, with a unique taste widely regarded as indescribable, some calling it metallic, fruity, bubblegum flavoured or even medicine-like. Whilst anywhere selling drinks in Scotland is highly likely to have Irn-Bru, it is much less common in the rest of the UK, though it can be found in larger shops and supermarkets.
An acquired taste, but worth it, is ginger beer, which despite its name is not typically alcoholic, and in its commercially available form is a pleasant ginger flavoured soda.
Mineral waters are also on sale in most mid-range restaurants, with supermarkets also selling a range. The range can vary from expensive imported brands such as Perrier, through locally bottled waters such as Highland Spring, Buxton Water, amongst others, down to budget “sparkling table water”‘s sold by supermarket under their own-brand.