After a recent trip to London, Bath, York, and Edinburgh, I've discovered some new restaurant deals and confirmed some previous favorites.
In general, I found British portions huge. Rather than getting two appetizers, two main dishes, and two desserts with wine for $70 each, a couple can order two appetizers, split a main dish, split a dessert, and drink tap water. You'll probably fill up fine, enjoy the same atmosphere, and get out for $30 each. Don't be shy about sharing. I find waiters sympathize with budget travelers these days; they accommodate our cost-cutting measures with a smile.
Great budget values in any town are the cafes in the farmers' market — where you can get baked beans with your breakfast all day long. Many churches have cafés where volunteers serve up soup and sandwiches for a price that's not particularly cheap — but you know you're supporting a humble congregation's community work. Hungry sightseers appreciate the handy, moderately priced cafeterias they'll find in larger museums.
Good fish and chips joints are rare. In each town there seems to be one that is evangelical about grease and has won the undying allegiance of a passionate local following. To find them, look for one thing these winning "chippies" seem to have in common — a guy behind the counter who's as greasy as the fish.
I don't like recommending chains, but some are just too fun to miss. Wagamama, a pan-Asian noodle slurp-a-thon, is everywhere now. Across Britain, an Italian chain, Ask, nabs the grandest old dining hall in town and fills it with happy eaters enjoying pasta and pizzas at good prices. And how does Starbucks get the best real estate in each city? Maybe it's because I'm from Seattle, but if I'm in need of a fix, I can use my intuition to find a local outlet.
In each town there seems to be a hot Italian place where, as soon as you step in, you know it's going to be a fun evening (like Martini in Bath). There's something about a gang of energetic Italian waiters and cooks that makes you just want to drink red wine and slurp spaghetti...especially in Britain.
English office workers like to get top-quality sandwiches for lunch. Follow their lead, skip the tired chain spots, and find a deli with a line of local professionals at the counter. At one deli, I just lingered on my stool, nibbling on my wonderful sandwich and sipping a glass of tap water, while watching all the yuppies swing by for their takeout meal.
Ethnic restaurants from all over the world add spice to Britain's cuisine scene. Thai or Chinese buffets serve all-you-can-eat meals for $15. That's fun and affordable. But their takeout boxes (fill one up for $10) can feed two, making it Britain's best, cheap hot meal.
Pub grub is the most atmospheric budget option. You'll usually get fresh, tasty buffets under ancient timbers, with hearty lunches and dinners priced at £6–10. For reasonably priced meals in a nice setting, take advantage of early-bird dinner specials at fancier restaurants; you'll eat well, but early (generally 5:30–7:00 p.m.).
For a splurge, I avoid the big, highly advertised formula places, and seek out quirky little 10-table restaurants that represent the creative vision of their owners. I am always impressed by the passion of the couples — gay, straight, professional, or romantic — who run these establishments.
In Edinburgh, I like the Wedgwood, run by Paul and Lisa, who served me haggis with pigeon — my favorite haggis ever. In Bath, Casanis French Bistro — run by Jill and Laurent — has been on everyone's short list since just after it first opened.
Also in Bath, Dave and Dawn have been at it for nearly two decades at Tilleys Bistro, still scampering up and down their stairs like it was their debut night. I told Dave that his cheese and port plate was my idea of a fine dessert. It didn't surprise me that he admitted his desserts suffer a bit because he, too, is passionate about cheese and port.
How do I find these special haunts? I rely heavily on the advice of B&B hosts, who have no vested interest in anything other than satisfied guests. When their recommendations turn out to be good, I heartily enjoy my research work.