Dining culture: US vs. UK

Who will win the battle of the fast food?

I was lucky enough to spend my spring break on the West Coast of the United States of America attempting to discover the taste of freedom. Obviously I was already aware of certain significant differences: portion sizes and the American love affair with pumpkin, cinnamon, and Mexican food, just to name a few.

I spent my two weeks on a foodie mission to devour everything that the Home of The Brave had to offer. Unexpectedly, my biggest discovery was not the differences in the food itself, but the restaurant culture instead. It seems to me that unlike here in the UK, incredible food does not have to come from incredibly expensive or fancy restaurants. This was quite a steep learning curve as it meant we would end up eating at places that I was quietly convinced would give me food poisoning. However, since natives were showing me around I had no choice but to entrust them with my digestive welfare. It’s a good thing I did, because I had meals I never would have eaten had I not been taken to certain places.

The first of these places was a garish shack called Brazil Café where I had a surprisingly delicious steak sandwich smothered in salsa verde. From then on I spent my days eating at dubiously decorated Taquerias. I was staying round the corner from Berkeley’s gourmet ghetto and I discovered gems such as Gregoire’s, a tiny hut that serves gourmet seasonal, French inspired dishes all day, every day that you can eat outside on picnic benches.

This got me to thinking about takeout culture in Britain. Like most of us, I love a good curry or a sweet and sour from my local Chinese but I would never think of takeaway as on option if I were looking for really decent food. For me, a takeaway meal is something I use to satisfy a craving for something greasy, a craving that is often the result of a hangover, and for something more towards gourmet I would have to get dressed into acceptable clothes and blow money at a nice restaurant.

Towards the end of the trip, we went on a road trip all the way up to Portland where there were entire blocks of food carts for us to eat our way through. The one that sticks out in my memory is Nong’s Khao Man Gat where they sell very simple Thai chicken and rice served with a perfect soybean sauce and soup on the side for $8. Even at this point, so far into my trip and surrounded by a plethora of other food carts, I still felt suspicious as I ordered my Khao Man Gat.

I am aware that I may be a particularly cautious Brit, some could even say neurotic, but this definitely stems from a greater cultural mind-set. Other elements of North American dining culture such as coffee shops have slowly been finding their place in the United Kingdom, but I am not sure whether there is room for such a thing as gourmet ghettos and great food carts, or at least I cannot imagine them on any of the high streets I know. There are already a few companies making the most of this gap in the market, such as Leon with their ‘naturally fast food’, but only time will tell whether such a style could become anything more than niche.