Britain’s Chain-Restaurant Renaissance

Never mind the high-end places; the real British food revolution is happening in far humbler establishments.
little chef

Full disclosure: I’m probably the wrong person to trust on the subject of what to eat in Britain, because I’m hopelessly biased. As a lifelong English major, I tend to find British food of every sort irresistible, especially if—like plaice and treacle and baked beans on toast—it’s likely to turn up in a book. On the whole, my critical apparatus breaks down the minute I arrive at Heathrow, and all standards disintegrate. I love those soft ice cream cones thrillingly embellished with a stick of Cadbury’s chocolate. I love the aptly named rock buns and the industrial bacon with no redeeming characteristics except fat and sizzle. True, I’ve never opened that jar of Marmite on the breakfast table. But I’d love it, I know I would, especially if I could be reading the letters column in the Guardian (print edition, please) at the same time.

Even so, I was having a hard time working up an appetite on the first day of a recent trip to England with my husband. Jet lag had disrupted our body clocks, and driving on the wrong side of the road took quite a bit of nervous attention, so it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that we finally got hungry for lunch. The possibilities did not seem promising. We were heading west on the M40—one of those endearing British highways dotted with towns named Great Haseley and Little Haseley, Piddington and Tiddington, Handy Cross and Horsleys Green—and I knew I should be eager to turn off the road and discover some charming café with a sense of place. Frankly, it seemed like too much work. We had just spent an endless, twitching night folded up in economy-class airline seats, followed by a couple of hours in a traffic jam, and all we really wanted to do was keep driving until we got to the Lake District. As soon as the sign for a service plaza came into view, we headed towards it.

I had a dim memory of British highway food—the Little Chef fast-food chain, floppy gray hamburgers, the smell of old, old grease—and was trying to imagine what the 21st century version might be. Floppy gray veggie burgers? Blearily we trudged into the food court. Then we stopped short and gazed around in astonishment. Like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when the screen fills with color, everything that had been dark and treacherous in memory was now radiant and inviting. We saw Pasty Presto, a counter offering organic Cornish pasties, baguettes, and scones... We saw Le Petit Four, a kind of faux-French café... We saw a mini-version of one of the legendary Marks & Spencer food departments... We saw a Starbucks... And yes, we saw a McDonald’s and a KFC, but for once in their lives they were the exceptions, not the rule. Where were we?

In the middle of the British food revolution, that’s where—the real one. I’m not talking about the glamorous new culinary frontier opened by Marco Pierre White and Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay and all the other world-class chefs who have transformed what people eat when they visit very expensive British restaurants. That’s been dramatic, all right, but hardly revolutionary. We’re always going to have talented chefs, and we’re always going to have high-end restaurants featuring whatever constitutes the great cooking of the moment. The sign of fundamental, far-reaching change in a nation’s culinary life isn’t Heston Blumenthal putting flaming sorbet on his latest Fat Duck menu—it’s Heston Blumenthal redesigning the Little Chef menu to include freshly made omelets instead of microwave ones. Real change has to do with ordinary food, public food, eat-and-run food, the stuff that’s available to a captive audience. If you come across a highway rest stop that offers Greek-style probiotic yogurt served with red-currant and raspberry compote—fresh and delicious, for the equivalent of about $2.50—you’ve found it.

Everything at the service plaza was not equally dazzling, to be sure. We skipped the sandwiches at Le Petit Four, which looked pretty shopworn. But Marks & Spencer! We plunged up and down the aisles exclaiming over the alluring salads and sandwiches that bore no relation to their blowsy counterparts in a million American markets, and finally gathered the perfect jetlag meal. The aforementioned yogurt. A chunk of hot-smoked salmon with new-potato salad and watercress (about $6.95). A bag of scrumptious dried apricots (about $3.95). Fresh limeade (about $2.70). And afterwards, from Pasty Presto, crisp and flavorful ginger cookies and great fair-trade coffee. Looking back on that meal, the cognitive dissonance sets in all over again—this was a highway rest stop?

British home cooks, of course, have never needed a revolution in order to serve wonderful food. Long before the age of celebrity chefs, you could buy excellent bread and dairy products in neighborhood shops, and I always found the fruits and vegetables in London groceries to be far better than anything in a typical supermarket back home. But the public food, all too often a plate full of grease followed by a plate full of custard, could definitely be bleak. It isn’t anymore. Judging from a week of rainy June days I spent wandering happily around Oxford and London, the quality of the sandwich shops, takeout places, and supermarket prepared foods these days is remarkable.

Pret A Manger, for instance, a chain with some 190 outlets (including 21 in New York and one in Washington, D.C.) now sets the standard for ready-made sandwiches, and it has a fast-growing competitor called EAT. Both chains specialize in very fresh ingredients and very arresting combinations—at EAT., I had the special of goat cheese and dukkah-spiced grated vegetables on “freshly baked malted bread,” plus first-rate coffee, for about $8—and emphasize organic and/or sustainable sourcing. I’ve rarely seen a ready-made sandwich from a high-end chain in this country that achieves such irreproachable quality.

These days, the British just seem to know how it’s done. At Marks & Spencer, British-grown fresh produce carries the name of the grower right on the label. (Simon Philpot was responsible for the delicious raspberries from Berkshire that I tasted at a friend’s house.) Equally striking, at least to an American, is the fact that M&S produce is also labeled by variety. “Tulameen” raspberries, “Taylor’s Gold” pears, “Chantenay” carrots, “Santini” tomatoes—when was the last time you saw produce being taken so seriously at your local supermarket? A lot of the locally produced meat, fruits, and vegetables at M&S are more expensive than their conventional counterparts, just as in the U.S., and so are the ready-made meals and salads. But unlike the fancy-organic market in my neighborhood at home, M&S has figured out how to make high-priced prepared food that’s actually worth paying for. The agricultural pedigree is flawless, and the flavors are outstanding. You could serve that ready-to-cook lime-and-coriander chicken to company without flinching.

Still, as I walked around my favorite neighborhoods admiring the bright new coffee places and the multiple flavors of artisanal ice cream, I couldn’t help feeling wistful for the bad old days. No more racks of cold toast? No more plates piled high with fried canned mushrooms? I found I was looking anxiously around for something they used to call a cheese salad, generally a slice of cheese topped with two lifeless watercress sprouts. I was even sorry to see that those desperation fruit crumbles—canned fruit, custard from a powder—had quietly given way to tiramisu. Farewell, terrible English public food! One American, at least, will miss you.

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