In the last eight years, I have, almost literally, eaten my way around Britain for the Guardian’s Travel section. I have written around 80 instalments of its best budget eats series which, including the venues that did not make the final cut, means I have visited over 1,000 establishments from Edinburgh to Exeter.
The purpose of the series was to give food-focussed travellers an insight into where they could eat well for under £10 a head, away from acclaimed, expensive restaurants. The lists were not just about filling your belly cheaply, but also about winkling out exceptional places where a holidaying visitor could treat themselves, cost-effectively. Value for money and quality were key factors.
Exterior of Science Cream, Cardiff, a cafe-restaurant with an innovation, scientific take on ice-cream.
Dessert song … Science Cream, Cardiff, offers an innovative take on the ice-cream experience. Photograph: Owen Mathias Photography
The transcendent bacon sandwich at St John Bread & Wine (£6.90) in London or Cardiff’s Science Cream and its incredible liquid nitrogen ice-creams (£3.95) were equally precious as a mountain of sausage ‘n’ mash at Belfast’s John Hewitt Bar.
As well as taking its toll on me physically (warning: walk everywhere, taste don’t eat, bring Zantac), this rolling research has left me with various tactics and tips on how to get the biggest gastro bang for your buck. Here are my pointers on how to dine memorably at low, low prices and also, in no particular order, my choice of Britain’s 10 best budget cafes, restaurants and diners.
Seat yourself … and carry your own cutlery
A morning walker amid park benches on a path in Clissold Park, London, UK.
to eat well for a tenner? You need to be prepared to rough it a bit. Sitting on a park bench or hovering in a doorway with a takeaway is often the only way to bring that meal in on budget. Keep a few plastic forks and a small packet of wet wipes in your bag. It is the best £1 you will ever spend.
Eat at weird times
Food is expensive at night, so reverse your day. Go big at breakfast, treat lunch as you blow-out by eating, say, one main course with wine at Notting Hill’s Hereford Road (£9.50) or two courses circa-£10 at David Brown Delicatessen, Whitstable. Alternatively, go late afternoon for an early tapas’ tea at Cardiff’s Bar 44 or a 4pm, £7 pasta dish at Belfast’s Coppi.
Plan ahead, shop around
For instance, on Norfolk Street in Cambridge, you can chow on boa buns or wonton dumplings at Zhonghua then, a few doors down, buy a terrific pastel de nata from the Portuguese-owned Norfolk Street Bakery. That is two ace courses for around £8.
Be disciplined, drink tap water
A glass bottle full of tap water on an outside restaurant table. A woman sits next to it, her hands folded.
Restaurants are not stupid. They offer crazy deals at lunch in the hope that you will spend double that on drinks and sides. Resist the upsell. Get your beer fix at the local bottle shop.
Don’t be intimidated
Guardian online commenters have often moaned at my inclusion of places that are “posh” or potentially expensive. But why should that stop you from dropping in on a tenner? That superb value £9.50 steak sandwich at Yorkshire’s Michelin-starred Pipe & Glass is going to be eaten by somebody. Why not you?
Avoid tourist hotspots …
… such as York, Chester, the Lakes – where a minority of distinguished venues are fighting a constant rearguard action against those happy to dole out overpriced rubbish to gullible visitors. For different reasons, Birmingham is always difficult too. Brum may have five Michelin stars, but there is a dearth of good affordable food in the city centre.
… obviously, central London, Manchester, Belfast, Cardiff, Leeds, Liverpool. Big cities with new, fast-growing food scenes and many young urban/student customers, usually produce bargains galore.
Trust in curry leaves and mustard seeds
Onion rava dosa served in a style reminiscent of restaurants in southern India.
I rarely encounter a bad south Indian curry house. The necessity in such regional cooking to use fresh ingredients and cook from scratch, gives these venues a significant edge. Discovering the mighty dosa, coconut chutneys, sensitively-spiced sambhars and proper, wholesome daals has, for me personally, been the big revelation of the budget eats’ era.
The friendliest places to eat in the UK are …
Lincoln, Liverpool and Belfast. In Belfast, they want to chat that much you will struggle to get away. And that matters. Whether spending £3 in a sandwich shop or £200 in a restaurant, a warm smile and a keenness to please can transform a functional transaction into a pleasure.
The holy guacamole trinity
I am ambivalent about gourmet fast food but, undeniably, the rise of Tex-Mex burrito canteens, finicky burger flippers and authentic Neapolitan wood-fired pizza joints, has radically improved the dining landscape for the cash-strapped traveller. Pretty much every major city now has one, two or three such outfits – all readily Googleable. Use them.
BRITAIN’S 10 BEST BUDGET EATS
The Troll’s Pantry, Brighton
Burger on a napkin at The Troll’s Pantry, Brighton, UK
Ultra-fastidious burger slingers (organic beef, homemade seasonal sauces etc). Its beef dripping-fried, cloche-steamed patties are the best I have eaten.
The Green Cafe, Ludlow
Diligent chef Clive Davis cooks superb rustic British/Italian dishes, such as tagliatelle with shredded lamb breast. The location on the river Teme is a peach, too.
Edna’s Kitchen, Bristol
Edna’s Kitchen, Ludlow, UK
Tiny park kiosk whose Middle Eastern dishes, particularly the falafel dressed with electrifying green chilli schoog sauce, sing with fresh flavours.
Fish Shed, Exeter
Around £8 for fish and chips seems extortionate, until you taste the Fish Shed’s beef dripping chips and day-boat caught, expertly-cooked fish (or Exe mussels, scallops etc). Awesome.
Books For Cooks, Notting Hill
Notting Hill is, arguably, the last place that needs a bookshop cafe serving three courses at lunch for £7. But there you go. Great food. Arrive early. Queue. Enjoy.
Oli’s Thai, Oxford
Aubergine curry, Oli’s Thai restaurant, Oxford, UK.
Aubergine curry, Oli’s Thai
Laddawan Thurston’s exceptionally vibrant Thai food has turned Oli’s into Oxford’s hottest restaurant. Squeeze in at lunch for an east Asian revelation.
40 23, Birmingham
If I said there’s a dearth of good affordable food in Brum city centre, this is the exception. By New Street station, this next-level Greek kebab joint’s A1 grilled meats are stuffed into super-fresh pitta with (crucially!) loads of authentic, thinly-sliced deep-fried potato.
Baba Ganoush, Kendal
The open kitchen at Baba Ganoush, Kendal, Cumbria
A 21st-century buccaneer in staid Cumbria. Bright, rigorous food equal parts Ottolenghi, Nigel Slater and Jamie.