Not so long ago, a mention of English food often brought snickers from foodies, self-proclaimed gourmets, and the French. There was, of course, afternoon tea, which might merit a condescending nod, but otherwise, well, the beef and vegetables were thought to be overcooked, the breakfasts cardiologists’ nightmares, and what exactly is “Toad in the Hole”?
All that’s changed.
And for someone who, despite the bad press, has always enjoyed the hearty delights of this cuisine even in its most unsophisticated incarnations, that’s good news indeed. Thanks to people like Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, and Delia Smith, the fare of this island nation has now made the rest of the world sit up and take notice.
And you don’t have to limit yourself to places in London to experience first-rate English fare. As a matter of fact, some of the most mouth-watering surprises can be be found far from the capital.
On an April visit to Torquay, for example, I discovered one of the best restaurants I’d been to in a very long time. Yes, Torquay—famous as a favorite resort of Agatha Christie’s and the setting of Fawlty Towers—can now boast a world class restaurant. Located at 14-16 Parkhill Road, the Orange Tree (www.orangetreerestaurant.co.uk) is a small and unpretentious place that produces delectable and imaginative taste treats.
At one recent dinner, the appetizer of pan-fried mackerel with cucumber and horseradish mousse served with endive was sublime. So was a main course of filet of lemon sole with crayfish tails. On every visit, all the food sampled was outstanding. Also worth noting was the attentive and absolutely first-rate staff, a group of middle-aged ladies who might well have been in service in another age and who were expert at making each patron of the restaurant feel like an important and cherished guest.
Listed at number 58 on Eat Out’s list of the UK’s 100 best restaurants, the Orange Tree is the loving creation of German-born chef Bernd Wolf and his wife Sharon. They can be justifiably proud of this gem and its menu of classic English dishes, each with its own special twist.
In the same league, but in a very different part of the country, is the Fox and Hounds Restaurant (www.foxandhoundsgoldsborough.co.uk/index.html) in Goldsborough, a North Yorkshire village just outside of Whitby and between Sandsend and Runswick Bay.
At the Fox and Hounds, chef Jason Davies, who had worked at the celebrated Ivy in London, and his wife Sue offer an innovative menu of locally sourced organic food. What this means is that everything is fresh, full-flavored, and eye-poppingly tasty. I remember a particularly delectable rump steak as well as a pan-fried turbot. Additionally, the restaurant itself is a small delight—a kind of sophisticated pub atmosphere, cozy but quite stylish at the same time, and smack dab in the middle of nowhere. On view: local artist (and Drawing Master at Eton) Ian Burke’s marvelous painting of a “Hunting Pink” jacket is itself a joy to behold.
No discussion of good eating outside of London could be complete without a mention of Bettys (www.bettys.co.uk/branchlanding.aspx). Determinedly old-fashioned and delightful, this group of six cafe tea rooms is located throughout Yorkshire. Less sophisticated than the two previously mentioned restaurants, all the branches nonetheless maintain a very high standard of feeding their traditional clientele. Founded in 1919 by a young Swiss, Frederick Belmont, and still run by his family, Bettys is justifiably famous for its morning coffee and afternoon tea, but you can also eat very well there at lunch or dinner. Some of the offerings still have a Swiss accent (for example the bacon and raclette cheese rosti and the “Swiss fitness loaf” of bread) but the Yorkshire sausages are also outstanding.
(On a personal note, I must say that it bothers me that such an apparently conservative and old-fashioned company decided to drop the apostrophe from their logo, but annoying though this may be, it does not detract from the quality of its food and service.)
Returning to Devon, another discovery is the casual and appealing Tea on the Green in Exeter (www.teaonthegreen.com). Right on that city’s Cathedral Green, this small and intimate destination is located in a building that dates back to 1530 and provides an ambience that fans of Masterpiece Theatre and Barbara Pym will cherish. Ben Mangan, the affable and energetic owner, offers up sumptuous breakfasts, ample lunches, perfect afternoon tea, and a first-rate Sunday roast menu. Make sure to sample the impressive variety of very special teas and the scrumptious jams and marmalades. (My favorite: blackcurrant.)
Heading southwest from Exeter into the South Hams, visitors should make a point of going to the fourteenth-century Tower Inn (www.thetowerinn.com/index.asp) in Slapton. Tucked away behind the church of St. James the Great, which has been in this spot for over 650 years, and beside the dramatic, ivy-clad ruins of the chantry tower, this is a truly atmospheric village pub. One of the oldest in England, it was originally built to accommodate the artisans working on the monastic collegiate next door.
The Tower Inn has stone walls, open fires, scrubbed oak tables, and flagstone floors—everything, in fact, to make guests feel snug, welcome, and very comfortable. Head chef Dominique Prandi and his staff offer a menu that also highlights locally-sourced, seasonal fare, with a concentration on the traditional classics. If you’re exploring this part of the world some Sunday lunchtime, do yourself an enormous favor and head there immediately. The roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, the roasted parsnips and, yes, the cauliflower cheese, were all worth every calorie.
An appealing footnote from the Tower Inn’s website: “We are very much a family run business and always here to offer a warm welcome to everyone, including well behaved children and dogs!”
And speaking of Sunday roast lunch, if some Sabbath the Somerset coastal town of Weston-super-Mare pops up on an itinerary, another easy recommendation is the Old Thatched Cottage (www.theoldthatchedcottage.com/default.asp), located in the oldest building in that municipality. This family-run restaurant is relaxed, friendly, and very comfortable and the traditional fare is splendid. One reviewer on tripadvisor.com put it succinctly: “On a number of occasions we have found waterfront restaurants a disappointment—often the best are tucked away in the back streets. However, it was cold, windy, and wet so we were not in the mood to go searching. We needn’t have worried—the food was excellent, the service exemplary and the price reasonable.”
A final place worth mentioning in this random and arbitrary discussion of eating well in jolly old England is a rather impressive pub located in Sedgefield, a peaceful County Durham, The Dun Cow Inn (43 Front Street, Sedgefield, Stockton-on-Tees, Cleveland). This likable spot received a certain amount of international press in 2003 when George Bush visited with the local MP and then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. I’m sure they ate well. The food here is tasty, traditional, and—good heavens!—ample. If you’re in the area and looking for a major rib-sticking meal, you could do no better.
It’s the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee—good time to explore Britain if you choose to avoid the chaos of London and the Olympics. More than likely, no matter where you decide to wander, you’ll eat very well.