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The Definitive Guide to Classic British Foods

And where to eat them in London

Sunday Roast
Hawksmoor/Facebook

For most of its history, Britain has been the poor culinary relation in Europe, laughed at internationally for a food culture that didn’t exist. Britain’s food history is enmeshed with frugality and postwar rationing, and has forever been constrained by a climate whose conditions are not always conducive to rich or fruitful growing. Worlds away from al fresco dining, salads, and reliable raw ingredients, meal times in Britain have traditionally involved roasting, stewing, or battering ingredients out of necessity. Until relatively recently, the British appetite has been for comfort foods much more than the minimalist assemblies of fresh ingredients popular on the European continent.

Over the past decade, the food and restaurant industries not just in London but also in the country as a whole have matured exponentially. But even as skeptics are at last convinced that it’s possible to eat well in Britain, some will argue that its cuisine is defined by things borrowed or imported. While it’s undoubtedly true that the tremendously diverse offerings in London make it a great place to eat, there's another story: of familiar foods which, if they’re prepared well by a good chef, can be a revelation. Britain is home to some of the world’s best beef, the finest game, world-class sea salt (!), and an untold bounty from its seas. Luckily, a new generation of growers — and chefs — are catching up.

Here’s a list of classics — some known, some lesser known — and where to find them. It is official, and who knew it: British cuisine is a thing.

Fish and Chips

Ask someone to name a typical British food and even a Londoner will likely suggest fish and chips: battered cod and chunky chips (fries to American readers), traditionally served swaddled in newspaper. Some might think it bizarre that quality examples of what many claim to be Britain’s national dish are not widely available in the country’s capital. And although the two examples below do it very well, it is a dish that is generally prepared better and more widely in the north of England, often by the coast. Among a number of minor controversies concerning fish and chips served in the south is the non-availability of thick brown gravy, curry sauce, or, as has been satirized, “owt moist” (translation: “anything moist”). Other key accompaniments: tartar sauce, mushy peas, and pickled cucumbers. Given the fairly mild flavor profile of fish and chips and the high level of salt and fat, anything pickled or acidic works as an effective cut-through; the liberal application of salt and vinegar is encouraged.

Where to get it:

Fish Central, 149-155 Central Street. Order No. 16 on the menu — cod — and pair it with chips, mushy peas, and pickled onions and gherkins.

Fryer’s Delight, 19 Theobalds Road. Opt to have your fish and chips fried in beef drippings, not vegetable oil, for an old-school taste.


Bacon Sandwich

A bacon sandwich, which is sometimes called a “bacon butty," is best with a buttered white bread roll and either tomato ketchup or brown sauce (a spiced, vinegary condiment most famously produced by HP). The white bread should not be toasted, but should be fresh and generously buttered; the hot, preferably back bacon "rashers" (slices) should melt that butter to further soften and enrich the sandwich. (The bacon sandwich ought also be distinguished from its close, popular relation, the BLT, a sandwich that comprises bacon, lettuce, and tomato.)

Where to get it:

St. John Bread and Wine, 94-96 Commercial Street. Get there before 11 a.m., when the kitchen stops serving the best-in-city bacon sandwiches.

Cabman’s Shelters, various locations. A white, untoasted roll is always the best vehicle for your rashers.

Dishoom, various locations. The bacon naan roll with spiced tomato chutney is a playful and delicious riff on a classic. Another essential breakfast spot.

Black Axe Mangal, 156 Canonbury Road. At weekend brunch, find the city’s most epic BLT: sourdough flatbread from a wood oven, thick-cut smoked bacon, pickled and fermented chili, and pickled onion.

Julia’s Meadow, 44 Newman Street. Ask for freshly cooked bacon and a sunflower seed roll. Don’t take a counter-ready one.


Welsh Rarebit

A British — not Welsh — classic. A kind of cheese on toast, made by combining cheddar, beer (often Guinness), mustard powder, and spices into a flour-thickened paste, which is slathered onto bread and grilled to a blister. Rarebits traditionally sat within an antiquated menu section titled "savouries," which would follow dessert. Said section still exists today on the menus of fusty old clubs on Pall Mall, but those establishments are inaccessible to anyone but members. Happily, there are some sentimental chefs and restaurateurs who’ve kept the custom alive for us all. It is one of the most satisfying of foods and deserves a broader reintroduction to menus across the city.

Where to get it:

St. John Smithfield, 26 St John Street. Follow chef/founder Fergus Henderson’s advice and crisscross grooves across the rarebit with a knife to make way for the Worcestershire sauce you’ll want to use liberally.

J Sheekey Atlantic Bar, 28-32 St Martin's Court. Head here for the ultimate in Brit late-night munchies — it’s open till midnight every day except Sunday.

Sweetings, 39 Queen Victoria Street. Have the scampi and bacon too, or any of the specialty seafood dishes.


Game Birds

If a restaurant respects the seasons, then a British autumn menu will be a showcase of game birds: grouse, pheasant, partridge, snipe, and woodcock. The deep, rich flavor in these proteins is a result of their living in the wild and having been hung (and matured) according to tradition. The most prized of the birds is grouse, whose season starts earliest, in August, and lasts through December. Others, such as pheasant and partridge, are shot between the months of October and February. Game birds are usually pan- or pot-roasted and are suited to mushrooms, root vegetables, and stewed fruits, all of which most accurately express this joyful culinary season.

Where to get it:

Lyle's, Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High Street. Whenever there is game, Lyle’s will be among the very best places to eat it. Keep an eye out in October, when James Lowe invites a series of international chefs to cook a two-night game-themed event, called #GAME.

Wiltons, 55 Jermyn Street. A taste of old London in the heart of St. James, Wiltons has a strict formal dress code — certainly not for everyone.

Rules, 34-35 Maiden Lane. At London’s oldest restaurant, game is the move.


Full English Breakfast

Also known as the "full English" or "fry-up," this breakfast spread is on par with fish and chips as perhaps the most famous British food custom. The full English is an audacious and calorie-loaded composition: eggs, bacon, sausage, black pudding (blood sausage), baked beans, mushrooms, grilled tomato, and fried bread or toast. For breakfast! (Londoners love breakfast.) One thing’s for sure: It keeps hunger locked up till lunch.

Where to get it:

E. Pellicci, 332 Bethnal Green Road. Ensure your breakfast also includes bubble and squeak (fortifying refried mashed potatoes and root veg).

Regency Café, 17-19 Regency Street. It gets very busy on Saturdays, especially among tourists who may know it as an English cafe location in the films Layer Cake and Brighton Rock. (Closed Sundays.)

Hawksmoor Guildhall, 10 Basinghall Street. Order a boat of HP sauce–laden breakfast gravy to pour over your fry-up and have faith –– it works.

Koya Bar, 50 Frith Street. An off-piste recommendation, but Koya Bar is one of London’s best Japanese restaurants — with a fantastic “English breakfast udon” featuring eggs and bacon.


The Sunday Roast

The Sunday roast, or "Sunday lunch," is Britain’s most celebrated food tradition; when it’s right, it can compete with the world’s most-loved national dishes. The centerpiece is roasted meat: beef (with Yorkshire pudding and horseradish), lamb (and mint sauce), chicken (with redcurrant jelly or bread sauce), and pork (with applesauce and crackling) are the most famous. It's served with roasted potatoes, an assortment of roasted or blanched vegetables, and gravy made from the roasting juices. It is advisable not to stray from tradition and to adhere to the condiments as accompaniments listed above.

Where to get it:

Blacklock, 24 Great Windmill Street. Book in advance: This popular destination serves arguably the city’s best roast.

Hawksmoor Seven Dials, 11 Langley Street. The restaurant specializes in steak, so have the beef and Yorkshire pudding. The beef is from lauded London butcher the Ginger Pig (whose meat comes from Yorkshire, fittingly).

Marksman Public House, 254 Hackney Road. Try the beef and barley bun with horseradish cream. (Reservations necessary.)

The Camberwell Arms, 65 Camberwell Church Street. Check the website or give them a call to find out which sharing meat is on the menu that day.


Pie and Mash

An East End tradition, with many of today’s purveyors having been operational for over 100 years, pie and mash is said to be London’s original fast food. This is less a gastronomic tour de force and more a culinary rite of passage for any would-be Cockney. Though the number of traditional East End pie and mash shops is dwindling, they at least have the support of David Beckham, who is public in his nostalgic love of the dish. Beckham is also a lover of jellied eels: a delicacy oddly but customarily served in pie and mash shops. The pie itself comprises minced beef and a pastry lid. Mash is mashed potatoes. The two are served in a puddle of parsley “liquor,” traditionally made from the liquid produced by cooking eel, but today is more likely to be a forgettable mix of chopped parsley, water, salt, and a thickening agent. Vinegar is generally added to perk up the sauce.

Where to get it:

F Cooke, 9 Broadway Market. Walk north up Broadway Market, thronging on Saturdays, to visit Netil Market for a window into London’s fast-food scene.

G. Kelly, 526 Roman Road. Especially busy on West Ham United match days, this shop is notably open seven days a week.

M.Manze, Various. Opened in 1902, the shop is now run by the founder’s grandson.

Quo Vadis, 26-29 Dean Street. Not the classic East End dish, this version is infinitely more gourmet and changes daily. Explore the menu: Chef Jeremy Lee’s manchets, kippers, cheese straws, and smoked eel sandwiches will be some of the best nibbles you’ll taste in the city.


Pork Pies and Sausage Rolls

These two great British foods share an entry for no other reason than that they are both seasoned pork encased in pastry. The pork pie is a mix of coarsely chopped pork meat and cubes of fat, bound by a rich meat jelly and a crown-shaped shortcrust pastry casing. A sausage roll is usually a more finely ground pork meat, seasoned with herbs, and wrapped — ends open — with puff pastry. Both are extremely well suited to either a strong English mustard or piccalilli pickle.

Where to get it:

The Quality Chop House, 88-94 Farringdon Road. It’s hard to find better pork pies or sausage rolls anywhere in town. Also visit the restaurant next door — one of the city’s best in the modern British mold.

The Ginger Pig, Various. It’s a top-class butchery, so buy meats to cook at home and try the traditional meat and potato Cornish pasty to take away.


Sticky Toffee Pudding

STP is the staple dessert on pub and restaurant menus nationwide. The pudding is a dark, treacly sponge, studded with dates, over which a thick, hot butterscotch sauce is poured. It was invented, many think, by chef Francis Coulson (from the Sharrow Bay in Ullswater) in the 1970s. There’s certainly a Cumbrian tradition to the pudding, one that is principally maintained in the village of Cartmel (famous also for chef Simon Rogan’s two-Michelin-starred L’Enclume), whose eponymous brand is exported all over the world. The dessert is best served with a rich vanilla custard or vanilla ice cream.

Where to get it:

Foxlow, Various. Part of the Hawksmoor group, this mini-chain specializes in beef — order a steak or skip straight to dessert.

Paradise by Way of Kensal Green, 19 Kilburn Lane. The Sunday roast ain’t half bad either.

Holborn Dining Room, 252 High Holborn. Try one of chef Calum Franklin’s savory pies and have a drink in the characterful Scarfes Bar.

Noble Rot, 51 Lamb's Conduit Street. The menu changes all the time, so sticky toffee pudding might not be on. But a visit to Noble Rot is never wasted: Dive into the peerless by-the-glass wine list.


Bonus

Below, a collection of restaurants that might not be known for one particular dish but can be relied upon to serve thoughtful and delicious British food. These are the restaurants responsible for moving our perceptions of British food away from the stereotypes of old.

40 Maltby Street, 40 Maltby Street. Even though it will be busy, early Saturday lunchtime (while the Maltby Street Market is on) is the best time to enjoy the always joyful, brilliantly British cooking here.

The Anchor & Hope, 36 The Cut. Order the sharing joints of meat: leg of lamb or rib of beef, for example. This pub group, which also includes Great Queen Street and the Canton Arms, demonstrates the deliciousness and accessibility of the modern British restaurant and gastropub.

Rochelle Canteen, Rochelle School. Margot Henderson (wife of St. John’s Fergus), Melanie Arnold, and Anna Tobias create a daily-changing menu in one of the sweetest dining rooms in the city. It opens 9am – 5pm daily and recently began dinner (6pm – 10pm) Thursday – Saturday.

Dean Street Townhouse, 69-71 Dean Street. You want the duck egg hash and gravy for breakfast.

Hereford Road, 3 Hereford Road. Sunday lunch is excellent at ex-St John Bread and Wine chef Tom Pemberton’s diamond in the rough in Notting Hill. The daily-changing menu is a roll call of classics with well-executed tweaks.

Adam Coghlan is a London-based food writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Editor: Hillary Dixler


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