Can you find British celebrity chefs outside of London? Not a frivolous question if you are coming to Britain for the first time and have heard outdated opinions about how bad the food is outside the capital.
In the space of a few decades London has shaken off its dire food reputation and become a center of fine dining that actually rivals Paris and outclasses New York for Michelin stars.
But what about the rest of the UK?
The good news is that television "cheffing" has turned the best chefs around the country into mega celebrities. They've created a demand for superb dining and inspired even more talented chefs to open cafes, bistros and restaurants around the country.
If you're planning on venturing out of London on your next trip to the UK (and my goodness, you most certainly should), the dining options are amazing. But there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Once a chef becomes a media celebrity, he or she usually stops cooking for a living (not unique to the UK by the way). The chef is busy writing books, opening restaurants around the country - or the world, judging foodie competitions and appearing on or hosting television programs. If you are expecting the chef you admire to cook for you - or even supervise the kitchen while you're in the restaurant that bears his or her name, you will probably be disappointed. Nevertheless, you will experience that chef's cooking style, ambiance, special dishes and original recipes.
- Expect to plan and book months - sometimes even as much as a year ahead - to worship at these foodie shrines. It's often easier to get a table for lunch or at the bar on short notice but don't count on it.
- And don't select a restaurant on the basis of the famous chef's name alone. At least one of the most famous chefs of the 1990s franchises his name and his moody, bad boy pictures (30- years out of date) to a group of really mediocre steakhouses. Instead be guided by reviews, Michelin stars and AA rosettes to discover some strikingly original cooking around the country.
That said, the celebrity chef-owned restaurants included in this feature are all definitely worth traveling out of London to sample.
Tom Kerridge's The Hand and Flowers
Tom Kerridge started out as a child actor. Maybe that's why he's so easy to watch on television - and why his wonderful cookery advice, delivered in his gentle West Country accent - always seems to be so easy to follow.
He opened his Buckinghamshire pub, The Hand and Flowers, in Marlow in 2005 and immediately gained a Michelin star. Then, in 2012 the pub became the only pub in history, anywhere, to earn two Michelin stars. And, in case you are wondering, this really is a pub - complete with bare wooden pub tables and benches.
Kerridge specializes in refining traditional,hearty pub classics, modern British and rustic French dishes into fine dining. A stuffed courgette flower (zuccini blossom) starter turns out to be a delicate scotch egg with the the meat hiding a tiny, perfectly cooked quail egg, still runny and golden in the center. Shepherd's pie, only passingly resembling the pub and family classic, is a regular feature on the less expensive set menu. A dessert of "milk toffee" tart with a bitter grapefruit sorbet is sublime.
The Nitty Gritty
- Getting a table: This really is the sort of place where, if you have a specific anniversary or occasion in mind you need to book at least a year in advance to grab that date. Otherwise, reservations are taken up to six months in advance with reservations opening on line at midnight exactly six months before the date you're interested in. Weekday lunches are easier to book and if you are willing to sit at the bar (the stools have backs and are very comfortable), you might land a last minute sitting. There are two lunch sitting a day. Go for the later one and you can linger as long as you like.There is also an extensive last minute availability list on the pub's online bookings page.
- Expect to spend: Minimum spend is £25 per person for the two-course, seasonal set lunch menu. Expect to spend between at least £50 to £75 per person, plus drinks and service, if not more.
- Getting there: Marlow is 32 miles from central London via the M4. Allow plenty of time. If you arrive early, there is reasonably priced public parking behind the supermarket in the town center and the pretty Georgian village has plenty of diverting shops. Marlow train station is a 10 minute walk. Check National Rail Enquiries for schedule and prices.
- An Alternative: If you don't manage to get a table at the Hand and Flowers, try The Coach, a more traditional pub opened by Kerridge in the center of Marlow. It serves lunch and dinner seven days a week on no reservation, first come first served basis.
With Atul Kochhar's Sindhu Marlow just up the road, this Buckinghamshire village has become a center of top celebrity chef cooking. Why not stay over to sample both.
Atul Kochhar at Sindhu Marlow
Indian-born and London-based chef Atul Kochhar became the first Indian chef to win a Michelin star while head chef at London's Tamarind, in 2001. One of his own London restaurants, Benares, in Mayfair, won him a second. Today he is a television regular with restaurants in Madrid, Dubai, Mumbai and on P&O Cruise ships.
Fortunately you don't have to travel that far to sample his cooking. If you are looking for a day out of London with an unusual modern Indian meal, Kochhar's empire extends to Sindhu at the Macdonald Compleat Angler Hotel (check TripAdvisor reviews) in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, Indian Essence in Pettswood, Kent, a southeast London suburb and Hawkyns Amersham at the historic Crown Inn. Movie fans might recognize the Crown from Four Weddings and a Funeral. Amersham is at the end of the London Underground's Metropolitan and City Line, so while it is outside of London, you don't have to travel very far.
Of the three, Sindhu is the more formal experience, serving Kochhar's modern interpretations of traditional Indian dishes - Tandoor-cooked tiger prawns with saffron, yogurt and spices, Atlantic halibut with lemon and curry leaf, pan roasted salmon with wild garlic and coconut sauce.
The atmosphere is more casual at Indian Essence and the menu more of an Indian Fusion experience - fried squid with chillies and lime, chicken tikka pie with spiced prune compote, chargrilled chicken with mace and cinnamon, fennel-scented roast lamb chops. And at the Crown, the atmosphere is distinctly English coaching house with a modern Indian menu.
The Nitty Gritty
- Getting a table: Booking is essential for all with tables available on their websites. If your party is small, you should be able to book just a few days in advance.
- Expect to spend: At Sindhu, you could quickly rack up a bill of £90 to £100 per person if you have a big appetite and like costly wines. Average spend is about £70 per person and, in 2018, there is a five course tasting menu for £49 and a seven course menu for £69. There are also five and seven course vegetarian and piscaterian (fish eaters) tasting menus. At Indian Essence they do a weekday lunch offer, of £14,50 for two courses and 18.50 for three. And at Hawkyns they do a tasting menu and a vegetarian tasting menu for £55 each.
- Something special - Kochhar hosts occasional cookery masterclasses at Indian Essence. The £150 price includes a demonstration of several dishes by Kochhar, a three course meal with wine and a signed copy of Kochhar's latest book. Additional guests costs £35 for adults and £15 for children. The classes sell out quickly so watch the website to see when the next ones are scheduled.
- Getting there: Sindhu, like the Hand and Flowers, is in Marlow, about 32 miles from central London. See the section immediately above for directions. Indian Essence, at 176-178 Pettswood Road, Pettswood, BR51LG, is about 18 miles from Central London, reachable via Southeastern Trains to Orpington Station.Check National Rail Enquiries for schedules and prices. Hawkyns Amersham is at the end of the Metropolitan and City Line, part of the London Underground system.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage
Foraging, "downshifting", organic and home grown, catering for locavores - if you'd like to have a meaningful relationship with the pig before it becomes bacon, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of the River Cottage is your man.
How meaningful? He once puréed and flambéd a human placenta and turned it into a paté for the baby's family and friends for one of his early television programs.
He is the king of sustainable, seasonal, ethically produced food - themes that have played out in his television series, centered around his garden and farm at River Cottage, since the late 1990s.
He owns several River Cottage Canteens and Delis in the West Country - Plymouth, Axminster, Bristol and Winchester - but the real treat for 21st century "hippies" is a chance to dine at the River Cottage itself.
While it's not a restaurant, Friday and Saturday night feasts and other special events are held at River Cottage headquarters. It's somewhere near the West Dorset/East Devon border - the location is only revealed to you after you book.
Events with Hugh himself range from about £35 per person for lunches and talks at one of his Canteen Restaurants, to about £150 per person for the full experience with Hugh cooking and talking at River Cottage.
The Nitty Gritty
- Getting a table: A full schedule of feasts and events at River Cottage and the other venues is published on the River Cottage website. They range from Friday and Saturday dinners and Sunday lunches in the River Cottage barn, to Wine and Dine events in the Farmhouse itself. You can check the schedule as far as six months in advance and don't wait until the last minute to try to book.
- Expect to spend: Meals at River Cottage range from £38.50 for Sunday lunches in the barn to about £70 for feasts in the cottage itself. Summer lunches are £55. The Canteens serve breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. Lunch will set you back from about £15 to £30.
- Getting there: It's a secret until you book but plan on trying to book a River Cottage event if you are heading for Dorset, Devon or Cornwall (where more dining riches await - see below) on your UK vacation.
Rick Stein - The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow
If you like fish and seafood, you need to make a pilgrimage to Padstow, on the north coast of Cornwall, where seafood maestro Rick Stein owns a mini-empire of restaurants.
After being launched into the world of celebrity cheffing in the 1980s with appearances on the late Keith Floyd's program, Floyd on Fish, Stein began hosting his own travelogue-style cookery programs. They've included Rick Stein's Taste of the Sea, as well as explorations of fish and seafood in the Mediterranean, France, the Far East, India, Spain and the Adriatic Coast.
Before the 1980s, the closest most Brits got to seafood was takeaway fish and chips. Almost on his own, Stein reintroduced them to the fishy treasures off their island coast.
By 2016, Stein had six fish related businesses in Padstow - the flagship, simply named The Seafood Restaurant along with a bistro, a cafe, a fish and chip shop, a fisheries and seafood bar and a bar. In addition there are fish and chip shops and seafood restaurants all over the West Country: Falmouth, St Merryn, Porthleven and Newquay in Cornwall; Sandbanks in Poole in Dorset, Marlborough in Wiltshire and Winchester in Hampshire. He has also encroached on London with a fish restaurant in Barnes, part of the London Borough of Richmond. Locals who have tried it report that it's a bit old fashioned, so if you prefer your seafood 1980s style, this is probably the place to try.
For the full experience, visit The Seafood Restaurant in Padstow for Cornish lobster, crab, scallops and oysters; locally caught brill, Dover sole, red mullet, cod and hake, The locally sourced produce includes kalettes - a brussels sprouts/kale cross grown in the restaurant's own garden.
The Nitty Gritty
- Getting a table: Booking is required, usually about three days in advance but more during busy vacation seasons.
- Expect to spend: Just because the vibe is casual does not mean the prices are. Expect to spend about £70 per person for three courses without wine. And, before you get blown away by the astronomically priced white wine list, read a bit further. The first selection of whites is Stein's personal selection. Lower down on the menu, find a good selection of reasonably priced wines, many by the glass.
- Getting there: Padstow is about 280 miles from central London and takes five hours or more to reach via the M4 and M5 motorways. Trains to nearby Newquay leave London Paddington Station every few hours for a four and a half to five hour journey. To make a really big splash with your partner, you could fly to Newquay Airport from London Gatwick with Flybe for £89 round trip. Or, you could just tour the scenic, historic and artistic county of Cornwall and stay over in Poldark country.
Nathan Outlaw of Restaurant Nathan Outlaw
Nathan Outlaw trained with Rick Stein at his Padstow seafood restaurants before striking out on his own and quickly earning two Michelin stars for his Cornwall restaurant in Port Isaac.
Restaurant Nathan Outlaw bases its menu on totally local Cornish fish and seafood - whatever the day's catch is. You won't have a clue about what you'll be eating until you get there. There's one, fixed price menu at £125 per person (lunch or dinner) and an optional matching wine flight for £75, or you can choose from the wine list. Typical dishes might include raw scallops, gurnard or turbot and mulled pears with chocolate. A four-course set menu is served for lunch on Friday and Saturday at £62 per person with a £42 wine flight. Similar dishes are served, just fewer of them.
You can also sample Outlaw's fishy philosphy at his small plate restaurant, also in Port Isaac, Outlaw's Fish Kitchen. And, as of 2018, there's also a brewery/pub style restaurant where they cook fish and meat over coals. The Mariners has Outlaw-style rather than typical pub prices. They publish a sample menu but if you really want to know what's on offer, they suggest your try their instagram page. Or you can try your hand at creating one of his recipes yourself. He and a host of other top British chefs share their recipes on the Great British Chefs website.
The Nitty Gritty
- Getting a table: Plan on booking, online, about a month in advance for all the restaurants. Restaurant Nathan Outlaw serves at two, timed sessions. Outlaw's Fish Kitchen times diners before 8pm to an hour and 45 minutes,
- Expect to spend: For Restaurant Nathan Outlaw it's a matter of - if you have to ask, you can't afford it. For the full experience with wine flight, be prepared to spend £200 per person. At Outlaw's Fish Kitchen, it depends on your appetite. You could spend under £25 per person but small plates are small and if you're hungry it can quickly add up. And at the Mariners, prices don't seem to be geared to single diners or even couples. You can buy a whole turbot for £130 or a kilo of steak (about 2.25 pounds) for £100/
- Getting there: Port Isaac is east of Padstow on the North Cornish Coast. It takes about 4 hours and 40 minutes to drive. Getting there by public transportation is complicated as it involves bus and train and potentially a journey of between seven and 13 hours. It makes more sense to stay over and visit the nearby castle ruins at Tintagel, the legendary birthplace of King Arthur.
Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons
Raymond Blanc opened his first restaurant in Britain in 1977. Since then, he has become one of the country's favorite Frenchmen and his Oxfordshire hotel and restaurant, Le Manoir Aux Quat'Saisons, one of the best in Europe.
It's all the more remarkable since this two Michelin-star chef (who can count 26 more Michelin-star chefs among his trainees) is entirely self-taught.
Le Manoir, a rambling country house set in romantic gardens, was awarded its coveted stars almost immediately after opening in 1984 and has held them ever since.
Critics regularly write ecstatic reviews of this special occasion restaurant but also call it the most expensive restaurant in Britain. I don't know if that's true anymore but if you order the cheese course after a £175 per person, seven-course dinner menu, it will set you back £28 extra.
The Nitty Gritty
- Getting a table: If you are not going to be resident in the luxury hotel, plan on booking three months in advance.
- Expect to Spend: A lot. Really, a lot. The à la carte menu, only available for tables of fewer than six people, can cost about £175 per person for just three specialty courses without wine or cheese. The multi-course set menus, in 2018, ranged from £95 for a five-course lunch without cheese, wine or salad, if ordered for everyone at the table, to £190 per person for the seven-course dinner.
- Getting there: The restaurant is in Great Milton, about 45 miles northwest of London on the way to Oxford. You can get there by a combination of train to Oxford and local bus or taxi. But if you are going to spend about £500 on a dinner for two with wine, is that really how you'd travel? Drive, take a limo or arrive in style by helicopter from Heathrow or Gatwick.
The Roux Family at The Waterside Inn
Mention the Roux brothers, Albert and Michel, to any foodie in Britain and they will know you are talking about the family who brought Britain out of the dining dark ages and kick-started its culinary renaissance.
When they opened Le Gavroche, the first French restaurant, in London, in 1967, Charlie Chaplin and Ava Gardner were among the invited guests. It became the first British restaurant to be awarded three Michelin stars. In 1972, they opened the Waterside Inn in the Thames-side village of Bray. It was the first restaurant outside of France to hold onto three Michelin stars for at least 25 years (and as of 2018, 40 years on, it's still holding them).
Today, the brothers have retired from hot kitchens and their sons run the flagship restaurants - Michel Jr (Albert's son) at Le Gavroche and Alain (Michel's son) at the Waterside Inn.The dining room is a lovely airy room with big windows overlooking the river. The atmosphere in the restaurant is relaxed and unpretentious. This is not a hushed temple of cuisine and you never feel as though you are in the presence of a chef-tyrant. This the kind of place to celebrate a special occasion or a romantic milestone while the other guests smile with you - like a scene in a French movie.
There are two fixed price menus and an à la carte menu.The sauces are exquisite, the cheeses perfectly ripened, the portions beautifully presented and generous. Service is attentive but so discreet you barely notice. And leave room for dessert. The Waterside Inn has a reputation for some of the best desserts in Britain.
The Nitty Gritty
- Getting a table: Unless you have a very large party, you should be able to get a reservation about a week to ten days in advance.
- Expect to Spend: The 7-course "Menu Exceptionnel", which has to be ordered by everyone at the table, costs £165 per person, including coffee but not wine. But there is also a "Menu Gastronomique" which is only £52 for two courses, £63.50 for three on weekdays or £79.50 on weekends. We chose the à la carte menu, where, depending upon your appetite, the sky's the limit. But it was worth it, if only for the most beautiful raspberry souffle I've ever tasted.
- Getting there: Bray is about 27 miles from London via the M4 and local roads to Maidenhead. Great Western Railways run regular train service from London Paddington Station to Maidenhead, about a mile and a half away. The trip takes about an hour and 20 minutes. Check National Rail Enquiries for schedules and prices.
Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck
For a tiny riverside village, Bray glitters with Michelin stars. Just up the road, from the Waterside Inn, Heston Blumenthal's 3-star The Fat Duck introduces diners to his wildly inventive, modern British cooking. This is the man who introduced the world to bacon and egg ice cream, snail porridge and domes full of scented smoke.
That's all passé now. The restaurant's latest incarnation is as a sort nostalgia head trip, personalised to your own life - or as a waitress was quoted as saying in a Telegraph review, "a cross between Willy Wonka and Harry Potter,".
It's a fixed price menu of £325 per person (yes, really) - with the suggested wines at £155, you could spend £400 per person on this meal. .It's presented as a theatrical performance - in 2018, a journey based on Heston's childhood that is supposed to bring back memories of your own childhood - rather than a meal. You are invited to book your seat for the journey before you get any more information about the experience. (And good luck trying to book on the restaurant's fiddly website).
The experience is tailored to you as an individual diner - which is what the complicated booking process must be about - and includes magic tricks and all sorts of special effects.
The Nitty Gritty
- Getting a table: Good luck. This is the kind of restaurant you actually base your whole trip on. I had no luck using the online reservation system, which is a kind of Internet game. But you can try calling +44 (0)1628 580 333.
- Expect to Spend: It's a fixed price of £325 for 18 courses plus suggested wines at about £155. You do the math.
- Or you could try: If you can't see your way to spending that much or you're not inspired by the concept, you might try Blumenthal's two other restaurants in Bray. The Hinds Head is a 500-year-old pub that features a much more accessible menu of British classics with a three course set lunch menu of about £25 and a la carte choices that will tote up to about £50. The Crown at Bray is a traditional 16th century village pub with a modern pub menu that features familiar favorites such as fish and chips and burgers (available as takeaways) alongside confit of potted rabbit, bagna cauda, macaroni cheese with pickled mushrooms and charred spring onions. Prices started out in the realm of reality but have since been climbing. When a fish finger (British for fish sticks) sandwich costs £12, do we really care that the fish fingers are homemade? This is a pub that declares it wants to be for the locals but one of the locals is the Queen of England after all. Booking is essential.
- Getting there: The Fat Duck is just a few hundred yards up the street from the Waterside Inn, in Bray. See directions above.