British Food, Good and Bad

I just spent a great week in London with the family (see here, and here) and yes, I did run across a few pasties, including these, in the breathtaking food halls at Harrods:

pastie

I find it hard to believe that the food halls can be profitable; part of the spectacle is the volume and variety of every sort of food imaginable, and though the prices are suitably dear, it is easier for me to believe the food halls are more loss leader than profit center. Does anyone know?

On another food note: As much as I love London, I am consistently surprised by how very, very bad the food can be. Yes, the more expensive restaurants are usually good, and yes, there are some cheaper places (like this one) that are outstanding. But very often the restaurant food hews to the English stereotype of potted meat, soggy pastry, and vegetable mush. At several meals, it was rare to encounter a single thing that crunched at all or was remotely fresh or colorful. And it wasn’t cheap.

This stood in stark contrast, however, to the takeaway food available even in shops like Tesco Express and Marks & Spencer Simply Food. In both those places, there’s a great selection of fresh fruit and veg (as they call it there) along with salads, prepared meals, etc., at very affordable prices. It would be the equivalent of walking into a 7-Eleven in New York and finding row upon row of clean fresh fruit and tasty greens — not quite as lovely as the Harrods food halls, but quite nice indeed, and probably one-fourth the price.

So why such an abundance of good fresh food in the corner shops, at good prices, and such a lack thereof in the more pricey restaurants? I expect labor costs figure into the answer, and economies of scale — there are a lot of Tesco and M&S shops — but I’d be pleased to hear from anyone who could explain the rest of it.


Brian Kirk

stick to beer & chips when in london. the indian food is of course amazing though.

Tariq Ali

7-Eleven actually has a row of clean vegetables and fruits. I used to purchase their sliced green apples as a healthy snack -- they also have a selection of fancy sandwiches.

londoner

what do y'all call fresh fruit and veg?

Shakeel Mahate

I am surprised Harrods allowed you to take pictures, I remember in 2000 when I visited Harrods and wanted to take a picture of the food hall, a security guard asked me to not take any pictures.

Better than Tesco and Mark & Spencers, are the open air markets hawking fruits and vegetables.

I also enjoyed shopping at the bakeries for tasty pastries.

AlexC

This stereotype of bad British food winds me up even more than that of bad British teeth. Where exactly were you eating? As an economist you should surely know that a business can only survive as long as it has customers - and it's not discerning Londoners buying the rubbish you're describing, it's tourists! Make some effort to find something interesting to eat and there is an incredible variety of great, fresh and affordable food to be found in Britain.

Peter

I agree, stick to the ethnic food restaurants.

Kent

Agreed that my very recent experience in London included not a single bad meal. Admittedly, for much of my stay I had the advantage of being shown around by a local foodie who happens to be a very good friend of mine, but even the meals we blundered into on our own were quite decent, even wonderful.

In fact, I would venture to say that the ratio of good to bad restaurants in London (or in any other U.S. city) exceeds that which can be found in NYC. New York has an unbelievable array of restaurants, yes, but compared to Chicago, Boston or San Francisco, it has a far great proportion (and number) of simply awful places.

Jennifer

7-Eleven is not a good comparison. Tesco is like Target and Marks & Spencer is Whole Foods or Wegman's, a gourmet, middle class (read professional class) grocery. M&S is all about quality. The takeaway salads and sandwiches would have been summer picnic fare in decades past. The English aren't used to having fresh things in winter, and so they still haven't learned how to cook them.
Watch Gordon Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares and you will get the rest.

Michael S

The bad food that one encounters in Britain is completely intentional. The Brits don't want anyone "fiddling with their food" (i.e. using spices or anything that will enhance the taste.) Salt is about it for flavor. How else can one explain "bangers and mash" or "spotted dick?"

Brandon

As a Canadian who has lived in London for 7 years I can tell you that this city punishes ignorance by making you eat at overpriced restaurants with poor food. As you've already found good and cheap restaurants are out there, but you have to go through the painful process of discovering them!

As to whether Harrods makes money in the food hall, I can't say for sure. I do wonder how they could lose money there when they charge ?40 for bouillabaisse.

Paco

I love London, but I'm sorry to say that I couldn't find any good or cheap food while I was there!!
If It's cheap, healthy, tasty and good food what you're looking for I'd recommend you to go to Spain. You won't regret it!

Doug

The food hall also serves as a front for an enormous e-mail business for Harrords to sell around the world. A prices even more dear than the hall itself.

Did you see the bank of lovely lassies ,all appropriately dressed, taking orders by phone?

As for food in Londaon or the British Isles: Just look a little harder. As a freakonomist you know that effort in should equal value out. Just look harder - you will be rewarded - and don't overlook some of the best ethinic cooking any where. Avoid working the problem and you will enjoy a trip back through time. the Brits the Scots and the Welsh have come a long way.

ian p

Firstly, Harrods seems to have been an amazing goldmine for Mohammed El-Fayed, its owner. I wouldn't speak for individual lines in the foodhall, but suspect that collectively they make a mint - many people visiting Harrods don't buy anything other than from them.

As for the food, like any tourist city has some restaurants that seem to survive just by picking off people who won't be back again. The cost of doing business in London means that anything that isn't decent normally doesn't survive for long - if its not in a tourist trap. There are plenty of good guides to eating out in London - and its easy to do so relatively modestly. Ethnic restaurants are often great - but so are many of the British, European or just international restaurants. Providing you recognise that you are in one of the worlds most expensive places - and choose accordingly - you shouldn't be disappointed. Its been a while since I came away from a restaurant - even new ones - having been disappointed. I think the quality of the food is one of London's strengths - when you get used to picking the right places.

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dj

Really? We're still having this discussion? In 2008? Like in New York, dreck abounds, you just have to know to avoid it. I've eaten my share of awful food in both cities. In the past year, on two short visits, had three excellent experiences: Bar Shu in Soho for amazing, searing szechuan, 32 Great Queen Street near Covent Garden for top notch pies (wonderful room and staff, too), and everything I ate while wandering around Borough Market. Overpriced for sure, but that just reminds me of home is all.

Amy

I agree with AlexC -?what London were you visiting? Like New York, London has an enormous range of fantastic food, from corner markets with fresh produce reflecting the diversity of the its inhabitants and selling ubiquitous, delicious and inexpensive taramasalata, hummus, and other healthy snacks, to restaurants offering a range of cuisine that similarly spans the globe, from outstanding Persian food to updated-British-traditional at places like Rochelle Canteen, which was reviewed in the NYT earlier this year.

MD Singh

When in London, try Indian food. Or else go for beer n burgers.

Carina

Can you give some examples of the rubbish places you're going to eat in London? I'm a Londoner and my American boyfriend is always astounded by the countless amazing (and often very well priced) places I take him out to eat. He actually misses the food when he leaves...
Next time, much better than M&S (and even Waitrose!), head to Borough Market. Instant food was a phenomenon in the 60s here & we've grown away from it lately - we're generally much more likely to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients (and eat out less) than people are in the US in my experience. Ask Jamie Oliver.

Hugh

The reason why places like Tesco Express and M&S serve fresh food is possibly due to recent health campaigns (especially from the chef Jamie Oliver) which have put a lot of pressure on large supermarkets to adapt.
I'm guessing that the restaurant you were complaining about was some overpriced pub. Next time you're in Britain you should visit Birmingham for restaurants.

john f.

I agree completely with your sentiments. The food halls at Harrod's are simply amazing -- something akin to to the food courts in the lavish Vegas casino's these days -- only far better. Otherwise, I stuck to one of the many fine Indian restaurants in London, where you almost cannot miss.

chools

In the UK there are a large percentage of people who seem to openly enjoy what to me is poor quality food. This they will eat this on a regular basis and tell you how good it is. This is turn allows many eating establishments to continue to function without having to pay too much attention to their cuisine.
Writing this early on a Friday evening, I know that our local high street will be filled with people collecting their takeaways, usually Indian or Chinese. These will be high in salt and sugar, not have much crunch to them, and will also be relatively expensive, again poor food but liked by a lot of the population.
We seem to have become a nation that for as long as the food is hot, you're not cooking it, then it is fine to eat
Sad but I'm afraid all too true