Following on from my previous post about foodie cities brings me to an interesting point. When in Paris there’s French food everywhere, in Rome – Italian is easy to come by, New York – plenty of hearty American fare and Bangkok has Thai cuisine from all over the country. So where’s all the British food in London?
Ask anyone, what is British food? Their answer will invariably be either fish n chips or roast dinner. To a degree they’re not wrong, most pubs and restaurants claiming to be British will serve some variation on this theme.
But in the modern, gentrified and millennial age I think most British people would say that British food has evolved. We are a well travelled and mostly cultured bunch who enjoy the fact that our multi cultural melting pot of a country means you can get fantastic versions of many international dishes in even provincial cities.
Take for example my home town of Plymouth, down in the deep south of Devonshire. It has a pretty bad rep for being a bit of a cultural backwater and a long way from everywhere, which isn’t an entirely undeserved reputation to be honest. But in Plymouth for example you can get decent Japanese (Yukisan), tapas (Maratimo), Thai (Thai House) not to mention Turkish (Shirley Valentines) and of course the ubiquitous Indian/Chinese. However it’s fairly easy to find decent British food too… The Barbican Kitchen, The Greedy Goose, River Cottage Kitchen, Rock Salt, The Waterfront to name but a few, are all pretty damn good and reasonably priced.
Back to London, the big glitzy capital of our nation and the widely acclaimed ‘best city in the world’. A wander around most of zone one and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the best British food can muster is a chain called Bill’s and an assortment of high end burger joints. Don’t get me wrong, Bill’s is OK and if you want some British food then give it a shot, but where is the glut of amazing British food restaurants??
Answer: Mostly in pubs. Historically British dining out would have been done in pubs or inns alongside a big glass of beer – at least for the working classes – and this continues today. British food in a cafe setting tends to mean a ‘greasy spoon’ (E.Pellici and Regency Cafe are the famous examples of this in central London) which is generally where you get a fried breakfast. Or of course you can get an afternoon tea of cakes and sandwiches in numerous cafes across the capital. But historically as a Brit, the pub is where you got your slap up grub.
However not all pubs are created equal. Generally a Taylor-Walker, Nicholson’s or Wetherspoons is going to serve a very generic, pre packaged version of classic British fare such as pie and mash, fish and chips or scampi. So you end up in a gastro pub paying £15-25 for a fusion version of the same thing you could have had in a Nicholson’s for a tenner.
Then, let’s say you’re a visitor from a Muslim country… You’re probably not going into a pub to experience British culture and food and you’ll probably end up on Edgware road eating, well, middle eastern food. Or you’re an Italian family with two kids, it’s Friday night and all the suited media and finance types are packing out all the best pubs getting drunk – you’re not going to drag your family in to a boisterous environment to grab a bite are you?
The truth is, for excellent modern British food in London you need to head out from zone one, mostly.
Some of the best British food can be found in suburban spots, especially Brixton, Islington and Hackney.
Further north and Heirloom in Crouch End has a good reputation and The Gate (which has several chains in Islington, Hammersmith and Marble Arch) delivers exceptional vegetarian cuisine in a British style. Chriskitch in Hoxton is also excellent but fairly high class dining as is nearby Hoi Polloi.
So it is there, but my gripe is mainly that British food is hard to find and when you do find it, it’s either exclusive and expensive or at the other end, pre-packaged tat. There is little to point at and proudly proclaim, ‘See our amazing food’ like, say Spanish, Japanese or Turkish people can.
People often say there’s plenty of choice in central London, then point to restaurants like Rules as an example of classic British food. But a cursory glance at the menu shows one dish costing as much as a meal for two in some of the places listed above. See also Chiltern Firehouse and The Ivy for the same problem. Hawksmoor meanwhile is supposed to be modern British food but it’s all meat, which is fine to a degree, but steak isn’t a uniquely British dish, you can get that anywhere in the world – probably a lot cheaper too.
Even our ‘celebrity’ chefs can’t be completely relied on. Jamie Oliver chooses to do Italian but has recently opened some more British themed restaurants (to be fair I do like Jamie’s restaurants), Gordon ‘F@#king’ Ramsay has several options but I hear mixed reports – I’ll update this article as soon as I try one of his restaurants.
What I’m getting at is that if you want to casually rock up in London of a weekend and have a decent bit of modern British fare, you’re not going to find it in central London unless you pay through the nose or go to a bad chain pub. There are a couple of caffs where you can get a full English breakfast, or you can head to Borough Market, Brick Lane or South Bank for some great street food, but a sit down meal with the family is pretty much out of the question unless you make a trek to the ‘burbs or sit in a pub.
Sadly as London business rates are about to go up we are probably about to see less interesting and affordable British restaurants in Soho and Shoreditch and more chains like Five Guys, Nandos and Aberdeen Steak House. Oh and a word to the wise, NEVER go to an Aberdeen Steak House.
NOTE: This is entirely based on my own observations, eating habits and experiences. If anyone would like to correct me as to the phenomenal British dining options in central London then please do in the comments below!