© Katja Bainbridge

For centuries, Norwich was England's second city—today, it's a top destination for those looking for a properly traditional British experience, both on and off the plate.

David Landsel
May 04, 2018

We live in a thrilling, if thoroughly confusing time, a time where Parisians crave fried chicken, where Londoners are lining up in the rain at very good taquerias, some of them run by actual expats from Mexico. In Tokyo, they're eating pit-smoked brisket, while we're doing cutting-edge cooking with strong Japanese influences in Texas. It's all upside down, nowadays, everything is everywhere; the notion of free movement of peoples may still rankle with some, but while the future of our great global village gets sorted out, pass the food, and we'll take one of everything. Carnitas in Copenhagen, ramen in Rome, avocado toast in Athens; on our plates and in our poke bowls, the future is now, and it is often quite delicious.

With so many cities now buying into the pan-global food hall concept, this makes the ones that haven't clambered aboard something akin to exotic.

With roughly a quarter of a million people in the region and frequent rail connections to Central London in under two hours, the lively city of Norwich will likely balk at being labeled a throwback, but in stark contrast to the dizzyingly cosmopolitan capital, where the food has gone from something one tolerates politely to a scene worth celebrating—not to mention traveling to experience—in barely a generation, Norwich, an astoundingly old city, buried deep inside England's mostly terribly quiet far East, is living in the past, kind of.

© Katja Bainbridge

In this spinning-top existence where we have now apparently made our home, coming across a city that looks kindly upon the notion of tradition, while also committing to 21st century standards of quality and sourcing, along with fun tweaks and rethinks and all of that good stuff, can be something of a revelation. Norwich is a town with competing, very good tea rooms, of shop windows filled with giant cakes, a place where one of the more popular places for a weekend brunch is a modest café known for its full English breakfast, the sort you might walk straight past, if you didn't know any better.

This all dovetails rather neatly with the setting. There are two cathedrals, one towering above a picturesque compound that's like a city unto itself, a castle perched dramatically over the central shopping quarter, a classic market in an attractive square, lots of narrow passageways crammed with shops and cafes, and all but spit-polished cobbled streets lined with artfully sagging half-timbre architecture. Norwich is England for the PBS viewer, for the period drama obsessed—a place that, depending on where you find yourself these days, you might convince yourself no longer exists. It does. It's here. It's real, and it's quietly spectacular. For when you go, here are five very good places to eat.

Book a table at Benedicts

Prodigal son Richard Bainbridge returned home after a rather impressive bit of career building, toiling in Michelin-starred restaurants, competing and then judging on the popular BBC show, Great British Menu; since 2015, he's been at the helm of one of the city's most sought-after restaurants, a deceptively simple spot that comes off as a smart neighborhood joint, one that performs at the level of a fine dining establishment. This is a British restaurant, but it is never dull; you might be offered a local cheese soup, or cured sea trout, for starters, or mains such as local mutton baked in a hay wrap, or dry-aged pork loin. No matter the change in the weather, or the menu, there will typically be trifle (how English can you get?) for dessert. Prices will be relatively reasonable; at last check, a three-course lunch was being offered for less than $30, a nearly overwhelming eight-course tasting menu dinner for just around $80.

Order a few small plates at Woolf & Social

Chums Felix Rehberg (he's the businessman) and Francis Woolf (he's the chef) had two ideas in mind when they opened this pleasingly modern corner spot, a reasonable stroll from the most ancient bits of the city center. They wanted a social club, a place where people could, well, socialize, and they also wanted a new kind of restaurant than Norwich was perhaps used to. Whether or not the result is what they had in mind is less important than the fact that it has quickly become quite popular, both in town and beyond town. With a seasonal, veg-forward menu of small plates served up in a casual, Scando-spare room, you might think you've come to dine in a buzzword factory, but there's real passion coming from the kitchen here, enough to attract the national critics—they've recently received some very favorable reviews. Prices are once again very accessible.

Ling, Chorizo, Tomato, Red Pepper #woolfandsocial

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Get the Full English at Olives

At the foot of Elm Hill, a very old cobbled street still lined with more than its share of artfully sagging Tudor period buildings, a modest café looking like a thousand other modest British caffs serves as something of a gateway to one of the most charming sections of a city that is not exactly short on the stuff. This place is called Olives—step into the airless room, thick with escaped kitchen humidity, claim a wooden table and wait for your order to be taken. There is a menu, but you don’t need it, at least not your first time around—you want one of the best English breakfasts money can buy, a groaning plate, artfully piled with quality grub—streaky bacon, standout sausages, exceptionally tasty fried eggs, beans, generous amounts of fried bread, mushroom and tomato, both perfectly cooked, and, because that's not enough, a clever cake made from bubble and squeak, that classic dish of cabbage and potato. Not squeamish about blood? Big, fat hunks of black pudding can be ordered for a small upcharge—not that any normal human could fit it in. A pricey proposition at about $14, and worth every penny.

Have fish and chips at Grosvenor Fish Bar

At the mouth of a maze of shop-lined alleyways in the city center and across from the coolest pub in town, the nicely upgraded version of a joint that served up fish and chips on this spot for nearly a century brags a menu that transcends your typically utilitarian fish bar model, roping in all sorts of delights. There's a potent smoked red herring (battered and fried, naturally) served with cooling red cabbage coleslaw, you can order cod cheeks with minted lemon mayo dip, or crispy squid rings served up with chips and garlic aioli for a few quid a bop. With the option to dine in the chip shop's own 70-seater grotto (basement) or to haul your haul across the road to The Birdcage pub (it's allowed), there's no need to sit in the street like some plastered hen/stag party reveler left-behind. How civilized.

Do Sunday lunch at The Wildebeest

Fancy a run in the country? Just minutes from town in the village of Stoke Holy Cross, you might think you're headed towards a classic roast at a rustic pub, but then again, the clue ought to be in the name—this won't be business as usual. One of the region's more talked about restaurants, this super-gastro setup, partners directly with a local farm, sourcing some terrific produce from the region; smoked venison haunch, pan fried quail breast, smoked heirloom carrots, roasted monkfish tail—there's nothing boring about this interpretation of one of the country's most traditional meals, and then you round the bend toward your pudding (that's English for dessert), and suddenly, it's all île flottant and creamy lemon posset, and this is a very good thing—when one cannot best the classics, it is indeed wise to leave them the hell alone.