There was one school meal which used to really stand out: two slices of corned beef, and two bright white lumps of mashed potato, served with an ice cream scoop. It was the early nineties, but there was still a whiff of post-war rationing era in the air.
Food cuts crippled British cuisine for almost a decade after The Second World War, but their lasting effects are often blamed on the demise of British cuisine for decades afterwards. Once rationing ended in 1954, a period of convenience food and carvery lunches followed. Accounts of seventies dinner parties describe a horror of Blue Nun and Black Forest Gateau ... and by the time we reached the eighties, Delia had to start from scratch, publishing instructions on how to boil an egg.
There has been a paradigm shift though. The revival of British cuisine means that the very ingredients which made us the butt of jokes are now setting hearts a flutter. Tom Kerridge has perfected ‘proper baked beans on soda bread toast’, and breakfasts of Smoked Eel Benedict (“the poshest bacon ever”). The Scotch Egg Challenge and Sausage Roll Off have become annual fixtures in the food calendar, while craft ales and gin have overhauled their reputation to become the hip tipple of choice.
Just as ‘New Nordic’ was carved out by Scandinavian chefs, so British restaurants are leading the way – breadbaskets contain slices of sourdough milled from heritage grains, and cheeseboards showcase local varieties. There’s renewed pride in our cuisine, and there’s no doubt that the new British restaurant is something to be celebrated.
“Grotty rundown pub” is how The Sportsman modestly describes itself. Though last month it won ‘National Restaurant of the Year,’ beating national competition from the Kentish salt marshes. It’s here that that chef and Telegraph columnist, Stephen Harris, has found inspiration since he left his job in finance, and took on the pub in 1999. Native oysters are plucked from the North Sea, and seaweed is churned with butter, which melts over boat-fresh slip sole. It’s a celebration of the British coastline, without a stick of rock in sight.
Faversham Rd, Seasalter, Whitstable CT5 4BP
Anglo is a small, stripped-back joint off the main drag in Farringdon, where the minimalist menu fits its surroundings. ‘Cherry with Hay + Horseradish’ might not give much away, but you can be sure that the dish which arrives will be far more elaborate than its name implies. The evening tasting menu (£45 for seven courses) is a culinary tour of the British Isles – name-checking Isle of Wight tomatoes or Cornish cod – with the sourcing for each dish just as careful as its plating.
30 St Cross St, London EC1N 8UH
“We are fiercely focused on sourcing all our produce” explain the team behind Leith restaurant, Norn. Indeed, there are flashes of New Nordic purism about this East Coast restaurant. The attention to detail – from ingredient provenance through to delicate garnishes – makes for a magical meal though. The bread basket sets the tone – it’s milled from a nutty, Orkney grain. Successive dishes are often twists on classic Scottish recipes, like the crowdie with beetroot and squash, or smoked haddock served with artichoke and sorrel.
50-54 Henderson St, Edinburgh EH6 6DE
‘Nose to Tail’ eating has long been championed by chef Fergus Henderson, who is seen by many as the godfather of British gastronomy. He founded St John in 1994 – back when offal was widely considered, well, ‘offul’. His dishes have been instrumental in changing its reputation, and menus often include duck hearts or lamb sweetbreads. No visit is complete without trying either the signature dish of roasted bone marrow and parsley salad (£9.20), or the classic dessert combination of Eccles cake with Lancashire cheese (£8.50).
26 St John St, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 4AY
There’s no better place to soak up the city of dreaming spires than at Parsonage Grill. It’s all stone hearths and gilt framed oils, with leaded windows in the wood panelled private dining room. Start with a glass of sparkling English Nyetimber on the terrace which overlooks the garden, and then head inside for classic British flavour combinations – think smoked salmon with punchy horseradish, or rabbit pie with buttered greens, rounded-off with ripe Wigmore cheese and homemade chutney.
The Old Parsonage, 1 Banbury Rd, Oxford OX2 6NN
The understated elegance of this Soho institution is flecked with glimmers of chef Jeremy Lee’s eccentricity – from the John Broadley illustrated menus to the smoked eel sandwich (£10), which comes with a flash of hot pink pickled onions. It’s a permanent feature on the daily changing menu, which might otherwise feature a jellied pork terrine or a ‘walnut and rhubarb mess. ’ Quo Vadis is a great tip-off for pre- or post-theatre dining, thanks to a set menu (£19.50 for two courses), and a cocktail menu absolutely riddled with temptation.
26-29 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 3LL
Richard Bainbridge’s central Norwich restaurant mightn’t look like much from the outside – plain black shop front, with a pared-back decor – but it’s a blank canvas for Bainbridge’s stunning dishes. Expect a celebration of East Anglian produce: Cromer crab, Norfolk quail and Hindolveston Chicken. Dessert ramps things up a notch with meadow hay-infused creams or beer sorbet ... and, of course, Bainbridge’s Great British Menu Winning Dish, ‘Nanny Bush’s Trifle’, which is masterful and modern twist on a retro classic.
9, St Benedicts St, Norwich NR2 4PE