The Rookie’s Guide to Touring London Like a Pro: Food Basics

Before we start getting into more specific articles, here are a few things that you may not know about the food and dining experience in London. Hopefully, they will lead to a smoother eating experience… or at least amuse you.

 

-To eat like the British, think posh.

I remember being fascinated with how my grandmother (a native New Zealander who spent much of her young-adult life in England) ate dinner. We would all try to copy her, feeling so proper when we did so. The knife goes in the dominate hand, the fork in the non-dominate, turned over so that the prongs curve down instead of up. We had been taught to cut our food this way, but the British don’t switch hands in order to eat a bite. Instead, they use the knife to stack small portions of each food onto the fork and consume a polite bite of their entire dinner without having to open their mouth ridiculously wide. Meanwhile, American children are holding their forks in a tight fist and lowering their chin to the edge of the plate to shovel food into their mouths. Tsk.

 

-The only true fast food is American.

Big surprise. Oh, there are plenty of UK food chains. For example, Costa and Pret A Manger (can someone please explain that name to me??) are basically the equivalent of Starbucks and McDonald’s. Don’t misunderstand me – they still have Starbucks and McDonald’s, but there are actually more Costas and Pret A Mangers. Like, I’ve seen two of the same one on the same block. A minute away from each other. What’s the difference? Try calorie and fat levels. You can’t call these places (or their other chains like EAT, Gregg’s, and Patisserie Valerie) fast food. They serve pastries, sandwiches, salads, smoothies, fresh fruit and juices… Honest-to-God healthy food! I avoided Pret A Manger for a while, thinking it would just be your typical quick-service chain. Then I discovered their avocado and salmon wraps and cups of perfectly ripe mango paired with lime. Glorious day.

But if you really want your American fast food, besides McDonald’s, you can also find Burger King, Pizza Hut, KFC, and more. I’d like to note that I went without fast food for three months, ate McDonald’s nuggets and fries, and within two hours, felt like I was going to throw up. Just something to think about.

 

-No soda refills either!

Soda fountains? Yeah, they don’t exist. At least, I haven’t seen a single one since I left America. You can still get a Pepsi or a Coke in some places, but if it isn’t served in a glass bottle, then you’ll get one glass. Just one. Because, you know, moderation. Most of the drinks you find at quick-service cafés are bottled fruit and vegetable juices, and there are so many more interesting flavors and combinations than you find in America.

 

-What is a flat-white?

There is a mysterious coffee concoction here called a “flat-white.” At first, I thought maybe I just didn’t know enough about coffee, and I had forgotten about this drink (which would be sad, considering I’ve worked as a barista). However, an Irish waiter at a restaurant cleared my mind by pointing out that it’s really a British thing, and he had no idea what it was either. We decided that it’s closest counterpart is the macchiato.

 

-And what is the deal with tea?

The British do take their tea quite seriously, though I’m fairly certain that the whole idea of having an “afternoon tea” is carried on the shoulders of the tourists. Who can resist something so picturesquely and properly British? There are different types of “teas” though (and I don’t mean the drink itself). Afternoon tea is traditionally savory sandwiches, scones with jam and cream, and pastries. High tea is an actual dinner entrée, followed by the scones and pastries. Cream tea is just the scones with jam and cream. And of course, all of them are accompanied by a pot of tea. So get your British on and go to tea!

 

-Good service means not bringing the check.

The difference in table service at restaurants has been the hardest thing for me to adjust to in Europe. I’ve been a server before (though a pretty crappy one), but it doesn’t take a good server to realize that in America, if a guest has to ask for their check, you pretty much suck at your job. The goal is to have it there for them before they even need it, for their utmost convenience, just in case they desire a speedy dining experience. In Europe, not so. Quite the opposite is actually true. Servers absolutely will not bring you your check unless you ask for it. The way it usually plays out is this: they remove the last of your dishes, leaving you with just a water glass. They ask you, “Would you like anything else?” Now at this point, if you say, “Nope, that’ll be all,” an American server would bring you the check. A European server will bow away and not come near your table again for the next half hour, while you sit there blankly staring at the wall. The proper response to “Would you like anything else?” has to be, “The check, please!” else you will not get your check. If you miss this opportunity to request it, you’ll end up doing that thing you see in French movies where someone in a cozy street café snaps their fingers and shouts, “Garcon!”

Even if you manage to communicate that you want the bill, it often takes longer to receive it than it did for your food to arrive. People talk about getting rid of tipping for servers in America, but I don’t know – although I’m all for a higher wage rate for servers, the hope of gratuity apparently results in a much higher service standard.

 

-While we are talking about gratuity…

You don’t always not tip. It’s confusing, you don’t have to tell me. I have never seen so many different ways to pay for a meal than I have in the UK. In America, it’s pretty simple – for fast food, you order and pay at the counter and then walk away with your food or have it dropped at your table; for table service, you sit down and order at the table, then pay at the end of the meal, from your table. God forbid Britain think that simply. There are table service restaurants where you are seated, but then you have to get up and go to the counter to order, paying right then. There are others where you order at the table but pay at the counter at the end of your meal. Cafés often have two prices for their products – one for take-away, one for dine-in. However, you can pretty easily order the take-away and then turn around and sit down anyway. Most restaurants include the VAT in your ticket, but just when you least expect it, one will ask if you’d like to add grat. All of this comes down to one thing: stay alert when dining. I’ve spent a lot of time watching other people to figure out how a certain restaurant works.

 

-Who can claim the origin of the full breakfast?

Upon arriving in Scotland, I feasted upon a full Scottish breakfast and quickly fell in love. It traditionally consists of bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms, beans, eggs, black pudding, and toast, and they really do call it that: A Full Scottish Breakfast. Then I got down to London, and lo and behold, what do I find on all the menus here?? A Full English Breakfast. Bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms, beans, eggs, black pudding, and toast. Whose breakfast is it really? To whom do we owe this delightful combination of foods? Who first began to break their fast with such a feast??

I kind of have a feeling this is a topic one should never bring up in the UK…

 

But hey, what do I know? Plan your next vacation for London and see if you can uncover the answer!

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