The stereotypical notion of English meals as parades of roast beef, overcooked vegetables, and stodgy puddings has largely been replaced—particularly in London, other major cities, and some country hot spots—with an evolving picture of the country as foodie territory. From trendy gastro-pubs to interesting ethnic-fusion restaurants to see-and-be-seen dining shrines, English food is now known for an innovative take on traditional dishes, with an emphasis on the local and seasonal. In less cosmopolitan areas, though, you’re still looking at lots of offerings that are either stodgy, fried, sausages, or Indian.
In general, restaurant prices are high. If you're watching your budget, seek out pubs and ethnic restaurants.
Discounts and Deals
Eating out in England's big cities in particular can be expensive, but you can do it cheaply. Try local cafés, more popularly known as "caffs," where heaping plates of English comfort food (bacon sandwiches and stuffed baked potatoes, for example) are served. England has plenty of the big names in fast food, as well as smaller places selling sandwiches, fish-and-chips, burgers, falafels, kebabs, and the like. For a local touch, check out Indian restaurants, which are found almost everywhere. Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's, Morrison’s, Tesco, and Waitrose are chain supermarkets with outlets throughout the country. They're good choices for groceries, premade sandwiches, or picnic fixings.
Meals and Mealtimes
Cafés serving the traditional English breakfast (called a "fry-up") of eggs, bacon, sausage, beans, mushrooms, half a grilled tomato, toast, and strong tea are often the cheapest—and most authentic—places for breakfast. For lighter morning fare (or for real brewed coffee), try the Continental-style sandwich bars and coffee shops—the Pret-a-Manger chain being one of the largest—offering croissants and other pastries.
At lunch you can grab a sandwich between sights, pop into the local pub, or sit down in a restaurant. Dinner, too, has no set rules, but a three-course meal is standard in most mid-range or high-end restaurants. Pre- or post-theater menus, offering two or three courses for a set price, are usually a good value.
Note that most traditional pubs don’t have any waitstaff and you’re expected to go to the bar to order a beverage and your meal. Also, in cities many pubs don’t serve food after 3 pm, so they're usually a better lunch option than dinner. In rural areas it's not uncommon for pubs to stop serving lunch after 2:30 and dinner after 9 pm.
Breakfast is generally served between 7:30 and 9, lunch between noon and 2, and dinner or supper between 7:30 and 9:30—sometimes earlier and seldom later except in large cities. These days high tea is rarely a proper meal anymore (it was once served between 4:30 and 6), and tearooms are often open all day in touristy areas (they're not found at all in non-touristy places). So you can have a cup and pastry or sandwich whenever you feel you need it. Sunday roasts at pubs last from 11 am or noon to 3 pm.
Smoking is banned in pubs, clubs, and restaurants throughout Britain.
Credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants and pubs, though some require a minimum charge of around £10. Be sure that you don't double-pay a service charge. Many restaurants exclude service charges from the printed menu (which the law obliges them to display outside), and then add 10% to 15% to the check. Others will stamp "Service not included" along the bottom of the bill, in which case you should add 10% to 15%. Cash is always appreciated, as it’s more likely to go to the specific waiter.
A common misconception among visitors to England is that pubs are simply bars. Pubs are also community gathering places and even restaurants. In many pubs the social interaction is as important as the alcohol. Pubs are, generally speaking, where people go to meet their friends and catch up on one another's lives. In small towns pubs act almost as town halls. Traditionally pub hours are 11–11, with last orders called about 20 minutes before closing time, but pubs can choose to stay open until midnight or 1 am, or later.
Though to travelers it may appear that there's a pub on almost every corner, in fact pubs are something of an endangered species, closing at a rate of 14 a week (as of 2013), with independent, non-chain pubs at particular risk.
Most pubs tend to be child-friendly, but others have restricted hours for children. If a pub serves food, it’ll generally allow children in during the day with adults. Some pubs are stricter than others, though, and won’t admit anyone younger than 18. Some will allow children in during the day, but only until 6 pm. Family-friendly pubs tend to be packed with kids, parents, and all of their accoutrements.
Reservations and Dress
Regardless of where you are, it's a good idea to make a reservation if you can. We mention them specifically only when reservations are essential or when they’re not accepted. For popular restaurants, book as far ahead as you can (often 30 days), and reconfirm as soon as you arrive. (Large parties should always call ahead to check the reservations policy.) We mention dress only when men are required to wear a jacket or a jacket and tie.
Online reservation services aren't as popular in England as in the United States, but Open Table and Square Meal have a fair number of listings in England.
Open Table. Open Table 0207/299–2949; www.opentable.co.uk.
Square Meal. Square Meal 0207/582–0222; www.squaremeal.co.uk.
Wines, Beer, and Spirits
Although hundreds of varieties of beer are brewed around the country, the traditional brew is known as bitter and isn’t carbonated; it's usually served at room temperature. Fizzy American-style beer is called lager. There are also plenty of other alternatives: stouts like Guinness and Murphy's are thick, pitch-black brews you'll either love or hate; ciders, made from apples, are alcoholic in Britain (Bulmer's and Strongbow are the big names, but look out for local microbrews); shandies are a low-alcohol mix of lager and lemon soda. Real ales, which have a natural second fermentation in the cask, have a shorter shelf life (so many are brewed locally) but special flavor; these are worth seeking out. Generally the selection and quality of cocktails is higher in a wine bar or café than in a pub. The legal drinking age is 18.