If there is one British restaurant that typifies the hotel dining room as a gourmet destination in its own right, it has to be Belmond Le Manoir au Quat' Saisons near Oxford. Founded by Raymond Blanc OBE in 1984, “Le Manoir” is a legend that lives up to expectations. Arriving guests walk through a series of beautifully-tended very English gardens and are then heartily welcomed into the old stone manor house.
Staff at Le Manoir set the tone brilliantly: friendly but not intrusive, very aware that they are fronting a premiere product, but with none of the airs of misplaced snobbery that blighted so many top British restaurants in the post WWII era. When my wife and I took our table for the (reasonably-priced) tasting-menu lunch, we were asked if we wanted the wines “introduced”. I didn't understand the question at first as it's become an all-pervasive part of the tasting menu schtick in Britain that the sommelier tells you all about each wine before you get to drink it. At the Manoir however, it's understood that couples and families may not want their conversations interrupted. A nice touch.
The food – novella but not preposterous – was of course excellent and the dining room – a relative modern conservatory-style extension - was full. Afterwards we had a look at the kitchens where a well-attended cookery class was being held. Then it was on to the bedrooms. One of the attractive touches at the Manoir is that no two rooms are remotely similar. Some are to be found in the old house, many are in converted outhouses and quite a few in a new accommodation block that does a very good job of pretending to be an extension of the old outhouses. There's even one suite in a converted 15th century circular dovecote with exposed beams in the bedroom and a high, conical ceiling.
We saw four-poster beds with floral prints, rooms full of Art Deco mirrored furniture and a carved Indian bed that looked on to a large fish tank. You really do need to scroll through the rooms online beforehand but whichever one you get, there's no chance of disappointment.
In Berkshire, 35 miles south of Le Manoir stands The Vineyard, the destination hotel for lovers of wine and fine food. The tone is set as soon as you enter this former eighteenth-century hunting lodge. Guests walk in over a green glass bridge below which is visible part of the hotel's original wine cellar. Meanwhile at the end of a corridor lined with wine bottles – mainly French and Californian – there rises a huge and dramatic mural painted by Gary Myatt. Myatt specialises in amazing trompe d'oiel murals like the series Mel Holmes has painted for Hotel du Vin. This particular image takes us into a cellar in Paris and depicts the moments after the famous 1976 blind tasting when it was revealed that Californian wines had triumphed over French. Sir Peter Michael, owner of The Vineyard has had himself painted in to a corner as a benign spectator at this scene of acute French consternation, although he wasn't present at the time.
Peter Michael is a versatile entrepreneur. After founding and running a number of UK technology companies, he set up his own winery in California in 1983. Then in 1992 he was one of the founders of Classic FM and in 1996 he bought the Foley Lodge Hotel near Newbury and spent two years rebuilding and extending it to create The Vineyard, a hotel for wine lovers.
This is a personal project, with a lot of Sir Peter's own art collection on the walls and his personal likes and dislikes enforced through the wine list. It's also a superb place to eat with a knockout tasting menu by Head Chef, Robby Jenks. The Vineyard also stands out for the number of French – or French-sounding staff. Head Sommelier, Romain Bourger sets the tone, enthusiastic and youthful. An unexpected and rather nice touch is the glass of wine brought to your room soon after checking in. Each has a little stem collar with its name displayed. In our case it was a Viognier from India. Now that was a first.
In the dining room the presentation of wines with individual labels continues, although there is also the dreaded “black glass test” sprung on diners enjoying the tasting menu. Without warning two glasses of wine in opaque black goblets are presented with our new course. And their labels were upside down. Deprived of even the clue of colour, it is remarkably difficult to recognise what you're drinking.
From a personal point of view I'd like to also commend The Vineyard for its vegetarian tasting menu which my wife thought one of the best she's eaten at a hotel.
Last year the legendary Mirabelle restaurant in Mayfair was demolished. This was the haunt of stars like Madonna, Kyle, Johnny Depp and Russell Crowe (who once sent back a £3,500 bottle of wine that insisted was corked). But diners can get just a hint of it in Eastbourne at the Grand Hotel.
The Grand truly lives up to its name with huge public rooms, a broad sweep of bedrooms facing the sea and a fine dining restaurant that has taken the name of Mirabelle. This sister restaurant was created after the owners of the Grand purchased the London Mirabelle in 1961. The famous blue neon Curzon Street sign was copied and mounted over the Grand's side street entrance in Jevington Gardens.
Today the Eastbourne Mirabelle is hugely popular with locals who can join a club which allows them two meals for the price of one if they stay on the Dinner Menu. That said, it is very tempting to go for the Seasonal Classics table d'hote men or even the Tasting Menu which is uncommonly is good value.
The restaurant has recently been substantially refurbished. Gone is the rather tired cream wallpaper and pink carpet, and in its place is a blue/grey palette with Royal Garden wallpaper (referred to by the waiters as “birds and berries”).
Overseeing the well-staffed restaurant is Benjamin Warren who takes pride in running one of the reasons people come all the way to Eastbourne. His senior sommelier is Marcin Segrecki who has very clear ideas about what one should be drinking. When I asked for a suggestion to accompany my Newhaven scallops he brought me a glass of an Argentinian white, not a taste or a look at the bottle but a statement about what I should be drinking. He had of course matched the dish perfectly.
The chef is Stephanie Malvoisin late of the Goring Hotel whose Gourmet Tasting Menu is set to become one of the highlights of the culinary year on this part of the south coast. I really want to go back for that - and when the baby grand piano is being played. It was silent the evening the weekday evening that I ate at Mirabelle.
The Grand Eastbourne is one of the few great British seaside hotels that is still thriving. It has kept to its traditions, with afternoon tea served daily in the Great Hall - which is three dramatic floors in height. Claude Debussy, who stayed at the Grand for a month in 1905, was an admirer of the acoustics in the Grand Hall. The hotel keeps alive the idea of a Palm Court orchestra too – but only on the last Sunday of every month. The Garden Room, where breakfast is served, so huge that I had difficulty imagining it full but when – as often happens - every bedroom is taken at the Grand the hotel staff have to set up extra tables in the Concourse, a sun lounge that runs along eastern half of the hotel's ground floor.
This is a destination hotel with a destination restaurant, literally on the side.
This small hotel on the side of Loch Linhe is so remote you just know it has to be good. The number of Americans who have made it here (two and a half hours from Glasgow Airport) is further proof that Airds is exceptional. Given that Americans get very little in the way of holiday every day has to count and so you won't find them driving through the Trossachs National Park and Glencoe unless they're sure of a fine meal at the end of it.
Airds began life as an inn on the road to Port Appin. Appin is a gateway to islands like Lismore, Mull, Eigg and Rum. The low, whitewashed hotel has been in operation for 150 years but nowadays numbers only 11 bedrooms and suites as hotel rooms have grown bigger and gone ensuite. For the last 16 years the amiable hosts at Airds have been Jenny and Shaun McKivragan. If you can manage it, get them to give you a room with a loch view. From the window you'll be able to watch the ever-changing weather on the lovely Morvern peninsula opposite.
At dinner time guests assemble in one of the two drawing rooms with their twin log fires, comfortable sofas and lots of original art. The feeling is rather like finding yourself staying at the home of a generous friend with good taste. After drinks and a look at the menu, dinner is served in a dining room that overlooks the quiet road down to the quayside. Service is amiable and even humorous at times, the tablecloths old fashioned in their crisp whiteness and the tasting menu makes the most of locally sourced Scottish meat and game. Airds' restaurant has had a continuous presence in the Good Food guide for 40 years and in 2017 its seasonal dinner menu was recommended in the Michelin Guide in 2017.
A special mention should be made of breakfast at Airds which offers the opportunity to have whisky with your porridge, not an offer to be passed up lightly. I'm also very fond of the cuddly highland cattle doorstops which are placed on the bed in every room. If you want privacy just put Angus outside to guard your door.
In the middle of an impossibly perfect old Wiltshire village called Teffiont Evias sits Howards's House. It's an unusual structure, built in stone in 1623 for a man called Augustus Hayter but then given a distinctive Swiss-style roof in the nineteenth century. The house only got its present name in the 1980s after opening as a hotel. Among its first guests was a called Howard who stayed so often that it was eventually named after him.
There are just nine bedrooms, predominantly decorated in white with light oak furniture. There are also a few quirky decorative touches – especially the ornate table lamps whose bases are nesting parrots - - and some splendid original art on the walls thanks to Charlotte Greenwood. Charlotte, one of the co-owners, takes the hotel's décor seriously concern. She used to come to Howard's House as a child and was delighted when the opportunity arose for a career change in 2009 when she took the hotel over with her husband Simon
As a general rule for a venue to be so popular in such a remote spot the food has to be good. Under new chef Andrew Britton the small restaurant at Howard's House is pulling in some good reviews. Much of the fruit and veg used in the kitchen is home-grown. All of the meat and fish is sourced locally, with the venison being stalked locally by a professional hunter. Simon is in charge of the wine and draws on local suppliers whenever possible. Ask for an excellent white wine called Magdalene Angevine produced by the Danebury Vineyards, 24 miles away near Nether Wallop.
It's worth staying at Howard's House not just for the food but to visit the village church, which contains Tudor tombs of the Ley family and a Pre-Raphaelite panel painted by Baron Henry de Triqueti in 1863. The nearby rectory was designed by George Gilbert Scott (architect of the Albert Memorial) and the manor house is a Grade II listed building. Many families have owned the village including the Leys, the Maynes and the Hungerfords. One of the Hungerfords, Walter, 1st Baron of Heytesbury was executed in 1540 for treason, sorcery, and offences forbidden by the Buggery Act. More recently, in the 1930s, the rather grand English actress Hermione Baddeley rented the manor house for wild parties which included naked swimming in the goldfish pond.
These days Teffiont Evias is a much calmer place and an ideal venue for a foodie weekend away at its one hotel.
Malton in North Yorkshire is a charming old market town that was once the site of one of the finest “prodigy” houses in England. Prodigies like Audley End and Longleat were built in Tudor and Jacobean times to show off the prodigious wealth of the family who had commissioned them. In 1602 Sir Ralph Eure built such a house on the site of the town's Norman castle. Sadly it did not last long as two of his descendants, sisters Mary and Margaret argued so long and so violently over who should inherit it that in 1774 the Sheriff ordered it should be demolished and the stones divided between the pair.
Nowadays the grandest house in Malton is the Talbot Inn, which overlooks the Derwent River and is a sponsor of the Ryedale Literary Festival. The current building was built in the eighteenth century and given a third floor in 1809. In the nineteenth century a hotel servant stood at the railway station below with a whistle so that he could summon a coach and horses whenever new guests arrived by train. The hotel retains a sense of civic grandeur mixed with Northern friendliness. It also has a signed copy of A Christmas Carol on display in the lobby (Charles Dickens came to visit friends in Malton).
The hotel's dining room is named Wentworth (after Sir Thomas Wentworth who in 1713 bought the whole town, and whose descendants still own most of it). It's a large Victorian room that also serves breakfast and is decorated with sporting scenes and Ape and Spy cartoon portraits. It has a fine wine list that includes a Bordeaux from the aptly named Chateau Talbot (no relation).
The menu at the Wentworth was designed by TV celebrity chef James Martin who turned the hotel into a gourmet destination between 2012 and 2105 and set up a cookery school here.
The menu makes the most of Malton's position as a marketplace for the best local produce with asparagus from the Vale of York, plaice and halibut from Whitby, Derwent salmon cured in the hotel's grounds, and Yorkshire beef braised in Timothy Taylor's Landlord, a beer from the West Riding of Yorkshire. Even the excellent sparkling wine is local. It's produced by Rydale Vineyards, 6 miles from Malton and is called, with some justification, "A Taste of Paradise".
Chewton Glen is an eighteenth-century manor house that was converted into a country house hotel in 1956. Over the years it has extended in many directions, including a spacious wing built around its croquet lawn and a lofty spa faced by stone columns reclaimed from a demolished chapel.
The colourful Dining Room at Chewton Glen is one of the most exclusive in this part of Hampshire but in 2017 a new food outlet, The Kitchen was added out by the main gate. The Kitchen is both a cookery school and an easy dining area popular with locals.
Here celebrity chefs, like Tom Kerridge and Atul Kochhar, and guest chefs from five-star hotels like the Gritti in Venice offer gourmet dining tuition by day and also cook for guests who book for dinner that evening. The provision of video cameras above the work-surfaces, and screens in the cookery school allows for everyone to see in perfect detail what the masterchef is doing. TV chef and former Chewton Glen pastry chef, James Martin – late of the Talbot, Leeds Kitchen and James Martin Manchester - is a near neighbour in Hampshire and works in closely with The Kitchen helping make this one of the most interesting hotel restaurant venues in Britain.
If any hotel bears out my maxim that the more remote the destination the better the food must be, then Buckland Tout Saints is the ultimate test. The hotel challenges any belief you may still have in your GPS. As General Manager Mike Hall says, “You drive down one country lane after another, each one narrower than the last and then, just when you think you're completely lost, there we are!”
Buckland Tout Saints is a mansion on a low hill, two storeys high at the front and three – or more – at the back as it looks down over groves of rhododendrons and garden terraces.
The house was built in the seventeenth century as a typical, rather grand three-sided manor house. In last years of the nineteenth century it was given a major makeover that created a fourth side, blocking off the old courtyard, as had been done at Buckingham Palace in 1847.
This radical refurbishment involved the installation of pew panelling taken from St Martin's Church, Carfax in Oxford which was used to decorate the stairs and smoking room (now a delightful old bar). Ironically the Victorian's demolition of Carfax Church – an act intended to make traffic able to pass more freely along Cornmarket and Queen Street was ultimately rendered unnecessary as both streets have recently been pedestrianised. Nevertheless the hotel bar looks good with all that ancient wood panelling and if you take the door marked Gents you'll come across some rather wonderful Victorian WCs including one with an iron cistern labelled The “Speedwell” by its London manufacturer.
Less private rooms on the ground floor include the beautiful Queen Anne dining room, panelled in Russian pine behind which were discovered a tranche of family portraits in oils that had been inexplicably hidden. These serious-looking mid-Victorians (probably former owners) now line the walls of the dining room.
The mansion has been a hotel since 1956 and has established a good reputation for food. The menu includes Dartmouth crab and local venison, scallops from Start Bay (seven miles away), duck from Sladesdown Farm (18 miles away) and excellent Sparkling Brut from Gusbourne in Kent. Indeed the wine list is extensive for a four-star property.
Definitely a hotel worth visiting. But make sure your GPS is well charged beforehand.
Some hotels are just difficult to resist. Chilston Park near Maidstone in Kent is like staying at the country house of a gentleman acquaintance, back in the early years of the twentieth century. The hotel doesn't go for retro-chic. There is no attempt to convince you that you're stumbled into the set of Downton Abbey, but so much of it remains unchanged from the days when the Akers-Douglas family lived here during the Edwardian era that it's easy to forget that the M20 roars past less than half a mile away.
In 1983 the descendants of Aretas Akers sold it to become a hotel. Sotheby's bill of sale hangs in the hotel today and shows that the interior of Chilston Park has changed very little over the years. The elaborate stucco ceiling of its long dining room is immediately recognisable, as are the marble fireplaces and the superb Victorian oak staircase under which a small bar has since been tucked.
The bedrooms in the main house are all highly individual, lying off four corridors that are lined with an eclectic collection of artworks. Most of it is arresting, some of it good and some of it the kind of thing your Edwardian friend took a personal fancy to at auction and sees no reason to remove.
Dinner in the evening feels rather like you've joined a house party. People take drinks at various tables around the house, including on sofas below the extraordinarily staircase that seems almost too big for the house . If you drink here you'll enjoy the glow of an open fire but you'll also be faced with two huge carved wooden dragons – or are they lions? - brought back from some foreign trip and still wonderfully hideous.
In the dining room – named Culpepper after the family who once owned Leeds Castle and Chilston Park - the service is friendly and prompt. The starched tablecloths, flowers and silver cutlery exude have an old world charm. The menu is predominantly British – beef, pigeon, lamb – all locally sourced and the selection of English cheeses to end the evening is irresistible.
Afterwards find an old armchair by the fireplace (if you can squeeze past the dragon-lions) and savour your digestif. Or wander down to the broad fish pond at the front of the house, close your ears to the M20 and watch the moon rise. Then make your way upstairs. This, after all, is the joy of staying at a hotel with a fine dining room: all you have to do afterwards is toddle upstairs and sleep it off with a big smile on your face.
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