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How to eat the best, for less: the UK’s top 10 budget cafes and restaurants

I have almost literally eaten my way around Britain for the Guardian’s Travel section in the last eight years. I have written around 80 installments of its best budget eats series, including the venues that did not make the final cut. This means I have visited over 1,000 establishments from Edinburgh to Exeter.

The purpose of the series was to give food-focused travelers an insight into where they could eat well for under £10 ahead, away from acclaimed, expensive restaurants. The lists were not just about filling your belly cheaply but also about winkling out exceptional places where holidaying visitors could treat themselves cost-effectively. Value for money and quality were key factors.

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The exterior of Science Cream, Cardiff, a cafe-restaurant with an innovative, 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? It would help if you were 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 4 pm, £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.

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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, hoping 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 “posh” or potentially expensive places. 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 center. Head to… … 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.

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