When we first came to America — as a tourist for me and “coming home” for my husband — we dined out a great deal in some of the finest restaurants, casual bars and diners and sometimes had take-out (which my husband explained was a “take-away”) while we were traveling.
It was confusing to enter a bar that automatically served food. This is much more common in the United States. For a start, the British call these bars “pubs with restaurants” or “gastro-pubs.” In the land of my birth, dining in pubs is a relatively recent innovation, much increased by the banning of smoking in public places in 2007.
The British way is to seat yourself without making a fuss, and then order your food at the bar. If you are lucky, you might get a printed menu. Otherwise, the selection of dishes is written on a blackboard, often with several items crossed out if they have run out.
In the U.S., the server often is offended if you try to do any of this yourself.
And the British habit of going to bar to get yourself another drink? Not here, where I was initially overwhelmed by the constant refilling of iced water and diet soda. However, I have come to rather like it and find it a nuisance to have to fight my way to the bar when I visit England to get one small beverage with a small, single cube of ice if I am lucky (yes, I am “going native,” as my husband says).
Did you know the British call an appetizer a starter, and dessert usually is known as afters, sweets or pudding even if it is cake or pie? Ordering an entrée — or “main course” in England — also can be confusing because to the British, fries are chips, the U.S.’ chips are known as crisps and a baked potato, which is never loaded and is served with a tiny sliver of butter, is a jacket potato. Salad is not served as an additional course; it is either a meal in itself in the U.K. or a few small pieces of lettuce, cucumber and tomato to garnish a plate.
Oh, and fish or meat are not broiled but grilled. Coffee always comes after the final course in England, but not with the dessert.
And you are asked if you want it black or white rather than with or without cream.
Confused yet? Try emigrating.
I think much of the great American service culture comes from the different traditions around tipping. While this is slowly changing in the U.K., www.gov.uk shows that the current rate for every legal British worker over the age of 21, including those in restaurants, is a minimum wage of £6.19 per hour (close to $10 ), so waiting staffers do not rely on tips to make up the bulk of their pay.
Diners, which tend to be much more down-market in the land of my birth, are called cafes or caffs. They traditionally are frequented by lorry (truck) drivers who order butties or sarnies (sandwiches) usually with mugs of steaming hot tea that always are served with milk and usually with lots of sugar.
In the more upmarket American eating and drinking establishments, when ordering a cocktail I was gobsmacked (flummoxed) to find out that a mimosa is what the English call a Buck’s fizz.
Actually, when we first visited Savannah, I had mixed feelings about the city’s law that allows open containers of alcoholic beverages on the street in to-go cups.
However, I have seen much worse drunken (yobbish) behavior in British towns when the bars traditionally close (known as “pub chucking-out time”) at 11 p.m.
In fact, as a young woman working in England, I was always very careful to avoid driving, walking or being on the “tube” (London’s underground public transport system) around this time and planned dinners, theater trips and work commitments around this scary time of the evening. If I ever did need to be out and about around 11 p.m., I always booked a registered taxi or used valet parking. It was expensive, but much better than risking problems from the groups of young and not-so-young men who were the “worse for wear,” an English pleasantry that means “drunk and obnoxious.”
So in the interest of my health, I try to “eat to live rather than live to eat,” but must admit that I always enjoy going out to dinner whatever continent I find myself on, and agree with British author Virginia Woolf, who said “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.