It has to be acknowledged, however reluctantly, that London’s food scene has exerted its hegemony over the rest of the country for far too long. As little as a decade ago, there was very little to tempt even the most adventurous foodie away from the capital. But a lot has changed in the intervening years: there are some exceptional chefs doing wonderful things in cities that, thanks to being able to charge considerably lower rents, are likely to grow in popularity and acclaim. Here are some of the most interesting spots, and the outstanding places to eat within them.
Brighton & Hove
It might be 45 minutes away from the capital on a fast train, but the ethos of ‘London-on-Sea’ is decidedly different. There are more formal places that have thrived, such as the excellent Salt Room, overlooking the sea and offering sublime grilled seafood, but the places that have the greatest favour amongst locals are those that offer cooking of the quality of the best metropolitan establishments with a more laid-back atmosphere. Few would argue that Michael Bremner’s sublime 64 Degrees, tucked away in the Lanes and serving small, interesting sharing plates of fish, vegetarian and carnivorous dishes, is any less good than most Michelin-starred establishments, and over in Hove, Duncan Ray’s excellent Little Fish Market serves a no-choice five-course set menu to grateful, and often surprised, punters.
The city also excels in lower-cost options. Some of the best pizzas that you can sample outside Naples can be found at the fantastic mini-chain Fatto a Mano, which are usually packed with families astonished at both the quality and the cost (kids eat free), and high-end but sensibly priced Indian cuisine is a mainstay of both The Chilli Pickle and its rival Curry Leaf Café. And fans of bao buns must not miss Baby Bao, which has an apparently permanent residency in The Pond pub near the station, and which serves up wonderful nuggets of deliciousness; the peanut butter ice cream and jam one is a particular highlight.
For more inspiration, check out our guide to Brighton’s best restaurants.
Anecdotally, a lot of the people who now live around the most desirable areas of Bristol – Clifton, Cotham, Redland and the like – are either displaced or disaffected Londoners who may have moved away from the city of million-pound one-bedroom flats, but still want their beers to be craft, their bread artisan and their vegetables organic. The city has attracted a lot of attention for its Michelin-starred flagship Casamia, which is in both price and quality indistinguishable from London’s best establishments, but similar fare at a lower cost can be found at Wilks, and The Lido has rightly drawn praise for its Moro-esque cuisine, using a wood-fired oven to do remarkable things to fish and meat.
For some reason, Italian food is particularly strong in the city at the moment, and anyone visiting Rosemarino, Bianchis or Pasta Loco is not going to be disappointed in either quality or quantity; much the same could be said of the burgers at Chomp or the steak at The Ox. But there is a plethora of interesting, unusual street food, much of which can be found at St Nicholas Market, and where punters hope for a happy medium between an influx of new traders and their favourite emporia lingering a little while longer.
There is an ongoing rivalry between Glasgow and Edinburgh as to which city has the most exciting food scene, and it would be a brave writer who attempted to choose one over the other However, the city that invented the deep-fried Mars Bar (I ate one recently: never again) scores over Edinburgh in that it is possible to eat an excellent meal at around half the price of its neighbour. This includes the city’s most famous restaurant, The Ubiquitous Chip, but the theme of great value but fantastic dining can be found all over Glasgow, whether it’s Nico Simeone’s Six by Nico – six courses, £29, wine pairing £25 – or Brian Maule at Chardon d’Or.
There are some fun places with unusual ideas, such as the Partick Duck Club (which does much as the name suggests, although other food is available) and Mother India serves a curry that is pretty much the equal of anything that you’ll find in the subcontinent. And the really offbeat places can stimulate and thrill in equal measure: The Hanoi Bike Shop and Julie’s Kopitiam are doing fantastic things with, respectively, Vietnamese and Malaysian cuisine, and vegans have been politely flocking to The 78 ever since it opened.
There is another competition to be had between Liverpool and its neighbour, which – and I am all too aware that this will probably get me banned from M1 for the next year – seems to specialise in slightly corporate, high-expense places at the moment. Liverpool, by contrast, pulls off its big, glossy dining options with some style – The Art School boasts both a beautiful setting and engaging, innovative tasting menus – but is also superbly equipped with more unpretentious options, such as the Spanish-themed Pilgrim, which occupies the first floor of the new Duke Street Food Market, and Gary Usher’s Wreckfish, a brasserie that somehow manages to be better value than you expect every time you visit.
You won’t lack for unusual and interesting places – Jay Rayner said of Rösti, a place of Marmite butter and green tea cod, that one should ‘use any excuse to eat here’ – and Hope Street is a riot of excellence, from the superb brasserie London Carriage Works to the Pen Factory, a good option next door to the Everyman Theatre. And if you’re in the docks area and longing for something more upmarket than the usual cash-grab places near to the Beatles Story, Gusto does Italian food so memorable that you’ll have to restrain yourself from going there – oh yes – eight days a week.
A decade or so ago, including Oxford in a list like this would have been met with justifiable contempt. Although the city had always had pricey and oddly unmemorable options in its boutique hotels, and a couple of good Italians in Jericho’s Branca and Summertown’s Mamma Mia, most would have considered it very much an also-ran. How things change. Now, in Arbequina (and its next-door cocktail bar Terruno) has established itself as one of the best tapas places in Britain, and the same owner also has Oli’s Thai on a residential street in the east of the city. I can only concur with the critic who said ecstatically that one should ‘crawl over broken glass to eat there’, and note that, despite its two-month waiting list, walk-ins on weekday lunchtimes usually can be found a spot, especially in bad weather.
Of the more formal options, The Cherwell Boathouse is worth visiting for its magnificent and fairly priced wine list as much as for its food, and the city’s sole Michelin-starred option, The Oxford Kitchen, has been feeding the well-heeled of Summertown for some time – although we would rather visit the excellent Pompette, where chef Pascal Wiedemann, late of Terroirs and Soif, does remarkable things with terrines and charcuterie. Superb steaks can be had near the station at The Porterhouse, The Magdalen Arms is the gastropub to beat and excellent dim sum can be had at lunchtimes at Sojo, where the clientele are mainly Chinese and where talk of coronavirus puts nobody off their sublime baked pork puffs. And, of course, Raymond Blanc’s legendary Le Manoir aux’Quat Saisons, a few miles outside the city, remains peerless, both for its food and for the warmth of its welcome.
Like Oxford, York has seen a rapid change in its status as a dining destination, replacing tourist traps with must-visit restaurants (although we will forever have a soft spot for Betty’s Tea Rooms, home of the Fat Rascal and more besides). The large number of particularly beautiful and historic buildings within the centre makes for some fine places to eat in, and small-plates establishment Skosh, no-menu fine dining Le Cochon Aveugle and the famous, much-beloved Meltons are full most of the time with everyone from adventurous tourists to writers and academics attached to the university.
Their students, meanwhile, are visiting the more inexpensive places, sampling excellent nachos at Source and some truly sublime Levantine street food at Los Moros, just as those with hearty appetites are keeping Mannion & Co in business: its hearty sandwiches and salads and no-reservations policy mean that queues are a frequent occurrence. Many talk wistfully of the long-closed Blue Bicycle, but its replacement, The Blue Barbakan, brings some splendid Polish dishes to the city, as well as a few twists on English favourites. If the menu’s lamb & rosemary casserole pie (complete with ‘fudgy, buttery pastry lid’) does not induce you to visit, then I cannot imagine what will.