Has Britain’s Food Scene Gone From Stodgy To Sustainable?

20 July 2018
Read Time: 5.1 mins

Ever since superstar chefs burst onto our screens at some point in the Noughties, Britain’s dining scene has gone from derided to desirable. Today, for both restaurateurs and diners, there is an increasing understanding that the food on our plates has a cost beyond that of the bottom line on the bill.

Food innovators are seeking to reduce waste and source ingredients locally, and in a country with a large coastline and plenty of open space, foraging is on the rise. Increasingly, restaurants are maintaining their own gardens or farms to reduce food miles, as well as to ensure a supply of more esoteric ingredients. For the food lover, this means that everything from a luxurious Michelin starred meal to a quick bite in a small country pub can now be a sustainable choice in Great Britain.

Industry Innovators

There are those who have helped Britain cut her teeth on the idea of sustainability in dining, and stalwarts of the movement can be found across the country. Many have gone on to expand their focus to encompass breweries, distilleries and even wineries. The flavours you will encounter vary by region – just as accents change over the course of a short drive, you can expect to find a shift in the ingredients used as you move through the counties.

By the seaside you can anticipate finding not only a greater use of lesser-known fish, but also an abundance of foraged sea vegetables. And inland, rare-breed animals, farmed locally, are likely to be celebrated on menus, complemented by seasonal greens. And the next big trend might be in Wales, where the city of St David’s is home to Britain’s first insect restaurant, Grub Kitchen.

simon rogan's beef tendon Simon Rogan's perfectly plated beef tendon with broth. (Image: L'Enclume)

Where to get your fix

Douglas McMaster – Silo, the brainchild of the then 27-year old Douglas McMaster, opened in Brighton in 2014 and became Britain’s first zero-waste restaurant. Eliminating waste is, like McMaster’s background in nose-to-tail cooking, a holistic goal, so at Silo, the bread is made from grains ground in its own flour mill, butter is churned on site and the restaurant is even home to an aerobic digester, managing organic waste by creating compost. On the menu, you’ll find creative dishes making use of ingredients such as sea buckthorn and bone marrow.

Simon Rogan – Since 2002, Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume, in the tiny Cumbrian village of Cartmel, has wowed locals and visitors with a menu based around foraged ingredients and those that are sourced from the northwest of England. Michelin stars followed – the first in 2005 and the second in 2013 – and the restaurant has become a destination in its own right. The tasting menu is a constantly changing and evolving beast, with around 20 perfectly formed courses making their way to the table. The restaurant has its own farm nearby in the Cartmel Valley – and Rogan runs a shop and a casual restaurant, Rogan & Co, both in Cartmel. If you are not visiting the Lake District, keep an eye on the London dining scene, with Rogan’s pop-up Roganic expected to make a return to the capital in late 2017.

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Andy Holcroft – Insects are high in protein and are frequently touted as a way of solving global food shortages. Although eating them has no novelty value in many parts of the world, it’s not so in most western countries. At Grub Kitchen in St Davids, Wales, Andy Holcroft wants to remove this novelty value, with a menu that includes bugs from grasshoppers to ants and worms. Even the desserts have been known to feature insects. You will find more familiar protein sources, such as lamb or beef in general, and the restaurant focuses on locally grown or reared produce.

Sustainable, Foraged And Local

Local and foraged might be a tough ask in the big cities, in particular London, but there’s a good trade of foraged ingredients heading into the capital. Around the country, chefs are keeping menus seasonal and full of novel ingredients.

In rural parts of Britain, local and foraged are definitely buzzwords and are often accompanied by social and sustainability concerns, such as the reduction of food miles. Venues regularly champion local producers, and forge strong links with them, helping to create sustainable communities.

Where to get your fix

The Pipe and Glass, Dalton, East Yorkshire – A family-run gastropub with a Michelin star, The Pipe and Glass sits on the edge of the picturesque Yorkshire Wolds. The Mackenzie family has taken the time to build relationships with small suppliers, both near to home and further afield. Milk and cream come from St Quintin’s Creamery, less than 25km away from the pub and run by a third-generation dairy farming family. Yorkshire Rapeseed Oil, a local family-owned business, supplies oil, while Three Little Pigs, which is within walking distance, supplies the pub with cured pork products and black pudding, all made from rare-breed pigs.

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Harissa, Newcastle-upon-Tyne – The profits of this Mediterranean restaurant with a conscience are invested into the community through Food Nation, a social enterprise that provides food education activities in the Newcastle and Gateshead areas. The restaurant makes use of homegrown vegetables and herbs and the menu always includes some vegan dishes, such as falafel or vegan Hooba sausages, made from oyster mushrooms in Darlington, less than an hour away.

Lake Road Kitchen, Ambleside, Cumbria – Sustainable Restaurant of the Year in the 2017 National Restaurant Awards, Lake Road Kitchen is able to take advantage of Cumbria’s rich agricultural pickings, including Herdwick lamb from the fells. Another specialty is aged steak. The steak here is routinely aged for 90 to 100 days and chef James Cross works closely with Lake District Farmers to guarantee the availability of the best local cuts.

Plant-Based Temptations

Of course, it could be argued that mainstream restaurants are adopting what vegetarians and vegans have practised for years. The respect for animals that inspires many to switch to a vegetarian or vegan diet often sits alongside environmental awareness. Around the world, a vegetarian, or predominantly vegetarian, diet is prevalent in many regions, so it is not surprising that cities that are home to immigrant communities generally offer a real diversity of vegetarian and vegan dining for the food-loving traveller.


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Where to get your fix

Hansa’s Gujarati Restaurant, Leeds – West Yorkshire is home to a plethora of curry restaurants, with cuisines covering the whole of the subcontinent. In Leeds’ city centre, Hansa’s has been serving the food of Gujarat since 1986 and is showing no signs of slowing down. The Gujarat is a Hindu state so vegetarian and vegan dishes are all that you will find on the menu. For curry lovers, not just vegetarians, the menu is a welcome and delicious departure from the usual.

The Gate, London – Since 1989, The Gate has been producing vegetarian food for Londoners and has expanded to three restaurants in the city. It is not just vegetarians who are well looked after – there are plenty of vegan dishes and the menu identifies common allergens, making it a go-to for anyone with dietary restrictions. Thanks to the owners’ Indian and Arabic backgrounds, the food encompasses a wide range of culinary influences, with Mediterranean flavours complemented by those from across Asia.

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Edinburgh, Scotland – The city has long catered well for vegetarian diners – Hendersons, which opened in 1962, is the UK’s longest-running vegetarian restaurant – but Edinburgh currently boasts the largest number of vegan restaurants too. Hendersons itself has opened a vegan bistro, and Harmonium, a vegan bar that also serves food, is new to the scene. The vegetarian and vegan scene is so healthy in Edinburgh that many venues offer vegan options, not to mention general awareness of vegan dietary requirements is high.

Expert Tip

“I visited Coach & Horses in Soho, London's first vegetarian and vegan pub. With vegan interpretations of traditional meals such as mac and cheese and shepherd's pie to the more adventurous 'tofush' and chips, it's a different dining experience without losing the charm of a London-style pub.” – Cassandra Edwards, Flight Centre Yokine, WA

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Alex Prichard

Alex Prichard is a freelance writer and web developer, and the founder of Wine Academy, an Adelaide-based wine education program for professionals and consumers.