The Bad and the Ugly of eating out in Britain

The mediocrity, or down-right poor quality of food the British people will accept without complaint is astounding. I know, I’m a Brit who doesn’t like to complain, and I’ve just come back from a holiday during which every evening meal was awful.

Pub food

On our recent visit to Devon my wife and I were camping within walking distance of four pubs that served food. It was a little out of season, but we were far from the only trade; there was enough business to make a profit. In season there will be enough people staying locally either camping, caravanning, or in rented cottages, and B&Bs, that these pubs will all be full every night, and people will be queuing to eat in them because there’s nowhere else for miles.

All of these pubs had traditional British pub fare, scampi and chips, fish and chips, steak and ale pie with new potatoes (or chips) and veg, lasagne with salad (or chips), you know the sort of thing I mean. The fact that their menus were almost identical, and that we were likely to eat in all of them, seeing as we were staying so close, gave a good opportunity to compare. So read the comparison…

Pub number one

On the first night we visited quite a busy pub; out of probably a dozen tables only three were free, and the saloon was occupied by six or seven people drinking and playing pool. The pub looked like it was last decorated in the fifties, there was an air of post-war frugality about it. The fake-pine panelling, the ply fronted bar with wooden mouldings glued to the front and both then stained to give the appearance of oak panelling, the seventeen or more different styles of chair at the tables, all these things helped make the pub interior look exactly like a 1960s photo of someone’s local pub.

After looking at the menu, and checking out the specials on the blackboard on the fake-pine panelling, I ordered fish (I forget which type) with new potatoes and vegetables. I asked if the fish was local, and was told it was. It turns out it was pointless my asking, it could have been frozen, caught off Spain, and ten years old for all I could tell. It was cooked almost to the point of inedibility. Fish flavoured cardboard. The potatoes were, for once, cooked properly, but they’d undercooked the vegetables. Not so that they were al-dente, no, they were so undercooked they were barely warm. My wife was enjoying her chicken breast in mushroom sauce so I did the British thing, didn’t want to make a fuss, and ate it anyway.

Pub number 2

On the second evening we visited the nearest of the pubs; where there were three within less than one hundred yards a mile away to the right, there was one, only half a mile away to the left. From outside you could see that it had recently been extended, a flat roofed, breeze block eyesore had been added to pleasant nineteenth century architecture. The extension was purely to extend the dining area. The extension may have been modern, but they’d spared every expense in making it comfortable, and instead spent the money on fake beams and horse brass. In the main bar was a huge television on which football was being show, the shouts and cheers adding to the pleasant dining experience.

Our waiter…, no, sorry, *the* waiter, for it was he that served all tables, a young lad – probably eighteen or nineteen – was very pleasant and did a good job, I think he’ll do very well if he has the sense to get out of that place. Sticky, scratched tables, cheap condiments, and poor decor. The food was bland, but the micro-waved steak and ale pie was still painfully hot by the time I’d finished it, compared to the over-cooked frozen vegetables which were, by that time, not much warmer than they were before they’d been boiled for far too long, boiled to a point beyond taste and texture.

Pubs number three and four

In the end we stayed only three nights, and a good job too, we couldn’t have eaten in the first pub we visited on the third night, and I couldn’t have eaten in any of the others more than once. The first pub on the third night, the smell of cooking fat hit us so hard as we entered that we could almost feel it. Standing at the bar I looked around to see if the kitchen was close by, but I couldn’t see it, nor could I hear it in all the time we were there, how did the smell of fat so pervade the bar? We did look at the menu, but only briefly. We quickly finished our drinks and left, but the smell came with us, it was in our clothes, and was still there next day.

So, we’d eaten in two of the four, and couldn’t eat in the third, so Hobson made our decision for us. This fourth pub was the real McCoy in the Olde Worlde stakes. It was probably eighteenth century, the beams were real, and the horse brass was probably not a gimmick when it had first been put up. I think they went a little bit far with the tables though. These were whole slices of tree, about six inches thick, on which you could count it’s age and see the good an bad years. As these had aged they had dished and split, ours was so far from flat that I had to drink almost a quarter of my pint before I felt it would be safe to stand it on the table without it either falling or spilling.

After ordering food we’d barely sat down when the food arrived. Now, none of us likes to wait *too* long for our food, you know, the length of time it takes to cook what we’ve ordered, plus a bit for preparation is about right, a little longer if the place is busy. But having your food reach your table, almost before you get there yourself really makes you wonder about what you’re getting. Have they made a mistake and giving us the order for another table? No, this is what we ordered… and it’s all micro-waved, cardboard chips and molten scampi.

I don’t understand

Surely the people preparing and serving in these poorest of establishments *must* be aware that what they are serving is rubbish? I don’t believe that they’d accept the mushy, fatty slop themselves, or serve it to their families, so why give to the people who pay their wages? Why discourage repeat business, and kill word-of-mouth custom?

How can it be that within about one and a half miles, from Mortehoe towards Ilfracombe there are four pubs, and they each serve terrible food? There is obviously enough trade, so why is there nowhere that serves remotely pleasant food? The answer is that the people who run these pubs don’t care. They don’t care about food, they don’t care about hospitality, they don’t care about what they are doing, and they don’t care about you. All they want is to get your money into their till, they know that next year you’ll be in Blackpool, or Benidorm instead, and they don’t care if you never come back.

It’s not all bad news though! There is a part two to this post, it’s not yet written, and I’ll post a link to it here when it is.