The mega reality show of Will and Kate's wedding showed the world once again that the Brits know how to orchestrate a grand event. But for an equally long time, those same people have suffered the slings and arrows of food writers, including the homegrown variety. British writer Peter Mayle wrote that his British boarding school food was color-coordinated: "gray meat, gray potatoes, gray vegetables, gray flavor."
At some point, though, those who have traveled to the U.K. realize that the food is quite good, especially clotted cream, farmhouse cheddar, and McVitie's digestive biscuits (cookies) — the latter being so universally popular that Prince William had McVitie's make a chocolate groom's cake.
But the essence of comfort food in the U.K. is pub food. In February 2006, British ex-pat David Harris, with his Chicagoan wife Paula, opened Big Ben British Pub & Restaurant in a house on Providence Road. That building burned in February 2010. Subsequently, the Harrises found a more suitable place for their business in Atherton Mill. They opened their 128-seat restaurant in December 2010 in a space beside the Trolley and LYNX lines.
The long, dark wooden bar lines the back wall, which is separated from the dining area by structure and lace. The dining room is an oasis of brick walls while service is charming, low-key and neighborhoody. At times, Cathy Jones, who had owned C.C.A. British Foods in Charlotte, tends bar. Tellies are habitually turned to soccer matches.
Marcus Hart has been at the helm of the kitchen since 2006, but the food is directly supervised by Harris, who serves the foods of his homeland with alacrity. The menu is filled with Harris family recipes, which the Harrises used in their previous pubs in Florida. These menu items include steak and kidney pie, Yorkshire pudding, bangers and mash, bubble and squeak, and, of course, wallies (pickles). On the menu, too, are American preferences. The roster sports a burger and "cottage pie," which is a shepherd's pie, but with beef. Fortunately, ground lamb shows up in the traditional shepherd's pie flavorfully studded with English peas and blanketed with mash.
In the mornings, a full-on English breakfast is offered with sausages, British bacon, baked beans, potatoes and mushrooms. A bacon butty — a crisply grilled bacon sandwich — and a sausage sarnie, another sandwich, are available, too. Breakfast is served until 2 p.m. The beer list includes 14 on draft, a few dozen in bottles, and cider, too.
The savory Scottish meat pie (pasty) on the starter list is a well-crafted house-made beef, potato and carrot mix nestled within a crimped pastry shell. For Anglophiles, Harris' version of fish and chips will not disappoint. The beer-battered whole haddock is moist and tender. If you close your eyes and breathe deep, you could be in, well, nevermind.
The hot (perhaps too hot) apple crumble (cobbler) and the scone filled with clotted cream and laced with thick strawberry preserves are much more than filling finales, especially when savored among the multi-accented conversations that hum throughout the room. These desserts are simple, comfortable and straightforward, much like Big Ben.