It's been nearly half a year since I moved to London from the American Midwest, and I've yet to taste all the cheap British classics. Yes, I've gone through the dark days of drinking burnt Pret lattes and taking advantage of a few limp Tesco meal deals – but I knew there had to be more. British people are proud of their food, aren’t they?
In the US, we like to gorge on buttermilk pancakes, cheap drip coffee and actually good Mexican food (sorry). My high school years were filled with people hopping into In-N-Out or Dunkin' Donuts for “happy hour”. When Chick-fil-A migrated from down south to open up locations nationwide, there were huge queues for their crispy waffle fries – despite their questionable record on LGBTQ rights.
But I've moved here since then… And despite fond memories of fast food with friends, I realised it's time to see what the UK has to offer in comparison. And so, I took on the brave task of trying some British staples: Nando’s, Greggs and Wetherspoons. My rating system was simple, with one being worse than American cheap eats and five being better.
I had honestly never heard of Nando's until Ed Sheeran and Example did a freestyle about it and, like a lot of teenagers across the pond in the 2010s, I remember thinking: “What is this?” When I asked my boyfriend if he had seen the video, he didn’t remember initially. Before I even got to press play, he said: “Ah, yes. My millennial elders showed me.” Rude.
We have a few Nando’s branches in the US, but people aren’t so bothered about it over there. In the US, fried chicken – not flame-grilled – is the only type that stands a chance at gaining a cult following. Americans regularly debate which is better for a bucket of fried chicken: KFC or Popeyes? I’m team Popeyes because I love their southern biscuits (think: a savoury scone) served with a little drizzle of honey.
The meal: The Great Imitator Burger (hot) with Peri-Peri chips and garlic bread.
Yes, I know. It’s hard to give Nando’s a fair judgement without trying their chicken. However, considering Nando’s has a bunch of vegan options, there really is no excuse for how bad this burger was. I was expecting a chicken alternative on par with beef alternatives like Beyond Meat. Unfortunately, this was near tasteless, extremely rubbery and room temperature. All I could taste was the sauce (fine), and the bread was neither crispy nor soft – just chewy and difficult to eat.
My disappointment, however, really came in with the chips. They forgot the Peri-Peri salt, so what I was left with were chips that were nicely chunky, but lacking (obviously) in salt. The temperature was okay, but considering the sheer number of spots where you can pick up piping hot chips in the UK, I was left confused about why people go so wild for Nando’s. I guess next time I’ll try the Peri-Peri salt? If there is a next time??
Also, the garlic bread was just garlic bread. Why is everyone obsessed with Nando's garlic bread?
The rating: 2/5
I've heard a lot about Greggs, mostly thanks to Piers Morgan gagging on TV and that time everyone lost their minds over the vegan sausage roll (a sausage roll, in iPhone-style packaging? Really?). For me, a sausage is either Polish or Italian, served in a slightly toasted hot dog-style bun, topped with mustard (no ketchup) and giardiniera (Italian pickles). When you say “sausage” and “roll”, the average American might imagine something more like pigs in a blanket. It's not really a thing over there.
The meal: Vegan sausage roll
I strolled up to a Greggs in Whitechapel, east London, fearing they’d have run out (I remember reading wild news stories about long queues and shortages). Luckily, they had vegan sausage rolls in abundance. Every single teenage boy in front of me was picking one up – straight from the roll-y oven thing and into the little paper bags they went. Glorious.
Once I bit down, I finally understood the hype. It was flaky, buttery, perfectly salty and extremely quickly served. The texture of the filling was soft, but not at all mushy as some vegan meat alternatives can be. The golden pastry kept everything nice and warm, and was definitely less messy than a classic sausage roll. I sat on a nearby bench, basking in the winter sun and savouring each bite of that fresh little treat. More of a snack than a meal, it’s still one of the best chain meals I’ve ever had.
The rating: 5/5
I've been to “Spoons” a few times for drinks, but I've heard that it's more than just your regular UK pub (the concept was once explained to me as “the McDonald’s of pubs” although I don't think that truly captures the strange vibe in there).
In the US, pubs are mostly referred to as “bars” and the food is nowhere near as cheap as the food from Spoons. For us, bars are one of two things: a place to drink before going to the club or a place to watch sports while surrounded by drunk men. The convivial atmosphere of the British pub is simply not a part of American culture. Eating breakfast in an American bar would be concerning, to say the least. A breakfast and a pint at the same time? Unhinged.
The meal: Vegan breakfast
Seeing as their vegan breakfast is £3.35 (astonishing), I was expecting a measly piece of toast and some tea. Boy, was I mistaken. I was served a giant plate of greasy goods that puts those sourdough-for-£12 hipster brunch spots to shame. The fact that I got veg (tomato and mushroom), protein (baked beans), hash browns, veggie sausages and bread for that little money was mind-blowing.
As an American who only recently discovered the comfort of baked beans, I was excited to dig in and continue my British food journey. I brought the fork to my mouth, blew on it, and… they were cold. Not room temp – cold. I grimaced, but luckily the Quorn sausages were better than expected (especially after the pitiful vegan chicken at Nando’s), and you can’t go wrong with hash browns and some plain old buttered toast. By the end, I was making a mental note to hit up Spoons during my next hangover.
The rating: 4/5
Ultimately, I enjoyed my mini tour of cheap British favourites. Do I still miss the greasy goods of America? Yes. Will I be stuffing my face with Greggs everyday single day? No, just some of them. But I can see why these chains are a part of everyday food culture in the UK. If not for the low prices, then at least for the vibes.