Anyhow, there's no point in my reviewing posh restaurants -- you don't need me to tell you that the Fat Duck will put a big stupid grin on your face, or that Anthony's in Leeds has fabulous food but less atmosphere than Mars, or that if you're after the platonic ideal of "dinner with friends" then you should leave your cave and proceed directly to Chez Bruce. But what about if you're on a budget? Where can you eat and still plausibly claim the bill on expenses afterwards? Herewith my personal lone-traveller-with-limited-expense-acco
Best Restaurant Award: David Bann, in Edinburgh. It is my personal mission to convey the Gospel of Bann to as many people as possible. If I have a week working in Edinburgh, I will eat a sandwich on three nights in order to afford to eat at David Bann on the other two; it is truly that fabulous. It's also vegetarian, and so good that carnivores like me might not even notice, much less care. I've been there four times so far, had three-course meals every time (fewer courses seemed like a false economy under the circumstances), never eaten the same thing twice, and there's still more on the menu that I want to try. The service is charming, too. If I have to nitpick, the bread rolls are teeny ping-pong-ball sized things, suggesting some misguided attempt to accommodate wheat allergies. But I'll be back, two days out of five, the next time I'm in town.
Overworked but Useful Idea Award: The noodle bar. Post-Wagamama, they're everywhere: Ichiban in Glasgow and Tampopo in Manchester and Fuji Hiro (the only one that's not a Wagamama knockoff) in Leeds, and every one of them is reliable and cheap.
Not That Kind of Indian Award: Everywhere has a curry house, and occasionally there's something memorable about it. Sometimes, it's distinguished by mad decor (Darbar in Leeds, I'm looking at you), but more often than you'd expect, it's the food that's surprisingly non-standard. Good examples of the species are Hansa's in Leeds (another veggie place!), Cinnamon in Aberdeen, The Dhabba in Glasgow (overpriced and not as good as it thinks it is, but even so), and Masala Art in Derby.
Home From Home Award (if there's a Chinese cook in your home): The only Chinese food worth eating (that I've found so far, anyway) is in Manchester. Little Yang Sing and Tai Wu are good, but the best of the lot is Red Pepper, a Szechuan resturant which has authentically spicy food but also a lamentable attitude to single diners. If you're on your own, expect to be sat on a rickety card table, wedged between other tables and facing a wall. I'll definitely go back for the food, but not on my own.
Billy No-Mates Award: As a single traveller, you get used to dining alone with a book. Some restaurants treat you thoughtfully (Masala Art in Derby even brought, unasked, a magazine along with the menu -- some sort of "What's On In Nottingham"-type affair, which I took as a tacit admission that nothing at all is On In Derby, but even so a nice gesture), some treat you like an inconvenience. Red Pepper at least has the excuse of being jam-packed, all the time; if it weren't for the card table, you might not get a table at all. But Chaophraya in Leeds, which apparently has a reputation for outstanding service, treated me like a leper even in an almost-empty room, and I've never had a faster two-course meal in my life. So bollocks to them.
Pub Heaven Award: The Three Crowns at Brinkworth (the longest village in England, apparently) is a short drive from Swindon. Good real ale, good pub food, go early or be forced to queue for a table -- because the alternative dining experience is, well, Swindon.
Gastro Desert Award: Sodding Birmingham. Even Aberdeen -- a city in which every establishment assumes that you're on shore leave from an oil rig, and where food is treated
as a substance whose function is to absorb alcohol in order to allow you to drink more alcohol -- even Aberdeen has a couple of decent budget-ish restaurants (the aforementioned Cinnamon, and Foyer, a brightly-lit stripped-pine cafe run by a youth homelessness charity). In Birmingham, there's bugger all occupying the gulf between Nando's and the Michelin-chasers, at least as far as I can tell. Seriously, what gives?
Surprising Breakfast Award: The Premier Travel Inn in Leeds. No, really: not only are the staff cheerful and charming at silly hours of the morning, but they've always got smoked haddock and other yummy cooked-to-order specials on offer (in addition to the usual rubbery croissants and rapidly-congealing trays of full-English horrors).
Wildly Eccentric Breakfast Award: A tie between the shambolic Lydiard Park conference centre in Swindon (where your breakfast might never arrive at all), and Travelodge's long-life cardboard-box-and-shrinkwrap breakfast monstrosity (where it'll arrive --honestly!-- the night before, and you'll wish it hadn't). Resolution for 2008: never again stay in a Travelodge, not even for one night. Particularly not the one in Stoney Cross: it would have been more pleasant to just turn off the road into the New Forest, park the car and go to sleep in the driver's seat.
Got any city-centre recommendations for me to try in 2008? Of course you have! Go on, post a comment...