It's goodbye fast food and hello seasonal, organic, locally sourced fare for more and more British restaurant-goers

The United Kingdom is eating out like never before. A decade ago, only around 20 per cent of the average household food spend was outside the home. Today, it is over 30 per cent. Worth around £36bn, the market grew by 7 per cent last year and is hard on the heels of the US, where 50 per cent of food spend is outside the home.

The United Kingdom is eating out like never before. A decade ago, only around 20 per cent of the average household food spend was outside the home. Today, it is over 30 per cent. Worth around £36bn, the market grew by 7 per cent last year and is hard on the heels of the US, where 50 per cent of food spend is outside the home.

But the biggest change is not the amount that is spent, but what that money is being spent on. Buffeted by a series of food crises and health scares, British consumers are turning away from anonymous, low-cost, low-quality food and seeking out healthier and higher quality alternatives.

There has never been such an interest in organic food, slow food, local produce, seasonal menus and traditional recipes. And it hasn't gone unnoticed in the high street, not just in restaurants, but fast food outlets, farmers' markets, cafés and hotels.

Even fast food giants McDonald's and Burger King, sometimes perceived as the antithesis of good food, have introduced organic and healthy options on to their menus, including organic milk, baby carrots, salads and fruit, while the number of applications to become Soil Association-certified food outlets has doubled in the past year. Newly certified venues include the first wholly organic restaurant in Cornwall, based, appropriately enough, at the UK's only fully certified bed and organic breakfast establishment, Bangors House.

Once sniggered at options such as organic food are now an accepted part of British gastronomic culture. They have spread from the specialist eateries onto the menus - and the plates - of mainstream cuisine. Consumer expectations have risen enormously since the days when a trip to a dodgy pub for a plate of soggy chips and a burger was regarded as a culinary treat.

Mark Spincer is food and beverage concept manager at CenterParcs, which operates four holiday villages in the UK. He has introduced a range of healthier food options for children to meet the expectations of modern diners. "Increasingly, our guests don't just want traditional children's food for their family, like chips and burgers, they want a range of options that reflects what they, as adults, prefer to eat," he says.

CenterParcs has introduced a low salt range of meals, together with a range of certified organic meals across 80 per cent of its restaurants. At the same time, it has a policy of buying fresh British meat.

"People know where the food has come from. It is still fun and appealing to children, but it meets the demands of parents looking for a healthier choice," he says.

That healthier choice might mean organic food. Equally, it might be something as simple as using fresh produce from a local source; or using artisan produce, such as handmade sausages or cheeses. Indeed provenance - knowing where the produce has come from, down to the name of the farm - is a huge issue.

Pam Rodway is an artisan cheese maker in Moray, Scotland. She supplies her cheese to local restaurants, chefs, farmers' markets, organic delivery schemes and specialist cheese shops. After starting the business on her own in 1997, she now employs three part-time cheese makers and two trainees.

"It is about re-establishing the link between what goes into your mouth and where it came from. People are rediscovering genuine food culture. They are more prepared to spend money on good food, knowing how and where it was made. They want to know the story behind what they are eating. Until fairly recently, all too often the story was not worth knowing," she says.

It has been estimated that the classic Sunday roast dinner could have travelled more than 20,000 miles before it reaches the plate because so many of the vegetables sold in British shops are imported.

It needn't be the case. And in a growing number of restaurants, it no longer is. The Dean Court Hotel in York has been using only fresh local produce in its restaurant for over two years and is a champion of local and seasonal menus. "It is just common sense. Using local produce, from a locality or farm that you may know, is so much more satisfying. And it is reassuring for customers. We know that people appreciate local, fresh produce, and that has grown. It used to be a bonus for them, now it's an expectation," says Dean Court's David Brooks.

The change in consumer tastes in eating out has been developing gradually over the past decade, as organisations such as the Soil Association and the Slow Food movement have begun to get their message across.

It has been given an enormous boost in recent years by food scares such as BSE, the row over genetically modified foods and concerns over the plight of agriculture and the power of the supermarkets.

The public, it seems, is more willing to ask questions about the food on its plate; is more knowledgeable about what is being offered and more vociferous in its criticism.

Crucially, alternative options are much more accessible, as well. Ivan Taylor, chief executive of Pizza Organic, launched his chain of seven organic pizza restaurants in 1999. A year later, four of them closed down because of the inconsistency of supply and the difficulty in keeping a stable menu.

But as the organic sector strengthened, so did the mechanics of supply, demand and distribution. Today, Pizza Organic has 10 restaurants, with more planned.

Barny Haughton, owner of Quartier Vert, an organic restaurant in Bristol, adds: "It is not as simple as saying that the public has changed and has suddenly become more interested in the food they are served in restaurants. The actual food producers and providers have also changed and have become much better at providing it and getting their food to the table."

Haughton is a veteran of the good food scene and chairs the judges for the Soil Association's organic food awards. He founded Quartier Vert in 1988. It now includes a cookery school, a bakery and a catering arm. Haughton's philosophy is simple. Good food depends on good cooking. Good cooking depends on good produce. Good produce depends on good agricultural practices.

He believes that the growing public interest in food is down to education, of both supplier and consumers. And he says that it is through education that the great strides being made in food quality can be embedded into the UK's food culture, not just when dining out, but in the home, too.

He runs children's cookery courses in conjunction with local schools, adult cookery courses and courses for families on income support, to show how it is possible to eat healthily on a budget. In September, he is planning to launch the Quartier Vert food academy in Bristol, complete with teaching kitchens and a restaurant. He sees the move towards a greater societal interest in food as a long term development which has benefits not just for the food sector, but for society as a whole: "There is enormous pleasure in eating and cooking well whether at home or in a restaurant, as opposed to fast food in front of the television. People are realising that food is connected with everything - education, the environment, politics. Gastronomy is not just about food, it is a way of interpreting how we live."

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