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While London sets the national pace for big-city restaurants, the Thames Valley is home to some of the UK’s most progressive countryside eateries. Quaint village pubs have become gastronomic fun palaces, grand country houses are now a stage for local ingredients, inns have their own kitchen gardens and foragers, and the river itself sets a sedate pace for cute cafés or the most luxurious fine dining. Thames Valley restaurants are defined by their location but, even better, they’re rarely more than an hour away from the capital.
Upstaging an Italianate architectural showpiece hotel set in 65 acres of manicured gardens with views of the Thames and Chilterns is no easy task, but Michelin-starred chef Adam Simmonds frequently achieves it nonetheless. Traditional country house grandeur and an understated Anouska Hempel-designed dining room are matched by highly creative, technical cooking that captivates without resorting to shock tactics.
With a high-street trattoria or pizza chain in virtually every town, the Thames Valley may seem spoilt for Italian choice, but Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi’s Berkshire outpost is probably the most authentic of the lot. Tucked into Bray’s backstreets, their whitewashed restaurant resembles an old pub, while the interior mixes starched tablecloths with bare brick to match cooking that’s a refined take on Giancarlo’s native Tuscan cuisine.
Perhaps Britain’s most iconic restaurant, the Fat Duck’s waiting list may get perpetually longer and the prices ever higher, but critical acclaim for Heston Blumenthal’s house of gastronomic fun remains glowing. The single tasting menu is a ‘greatest hits’ collection of HB classics taking in the ‘sound of the sea’, snail porridge, Mad Hatter tea and the BFG among other, equally magical creations.
Two Michelin stars and back-to-back Great British Menu wins have left tables at Tom Kerridge’s unassuming little restaurant in pub’s clothing a hot commodity. Those lucky enough to bag a seat can expect casual service, beamed low ceilings and thick wooden tables (contrary to expectations), but Tom’s captivating mix of refined French technique with best-of-British ingredients feels completely at home in a pokey village boozer.
With decking stretched out over the river at Goring, plus stunning views of the Chilterns and a beam-and-brick cottage interior, The Leatherne Bottel looks like a quintessential waterside restaurant. Clothed tables, amuse-bouches and formal but friendly service sit comfortably with classical French cooking and an impressive wine cellar – neither of which do much to nudge up consistently reasonable bills.
There’s been a hostelry in Hurley village since 1135, although previous incarnations were surely nothing like today’s Olde Bell. Convincingly archaic yet sensitively modern, designer Ilse Crawford’s blend of comfort and history is often remarkable and in complete harmony with the kitchen’s simple, ingredients-led cooking. A cosy bar is popular with drinkers and diners, and with 50 bedrooms on offer there’s absolutely no need to drive home.
Trained in France’s three-star gastro-temples, Orwells’ chef/owner Ryan Simpson has transformed this pretty pub on the outskirts of Henley into a gastronomic destination as well as a treasured local. Chose from inventive tasting menus or affordable but accomplished country cooking – both of which showcase ingredients grown and gathered in the surrounding farms and fields.
So much more than a village café, Pierreponts combines bakery, restaurant and coffee shop with the cosiest of quirky decor. It may be off the foodie radar, but an irresistible, counter-top spread of home-baked cakes and breads immediately reveals why Goring residents are keeping schtum. Brunch and lunch menus focus on quality ingredients served simply and generously at very reasonable prices.
Eating at Michel and Alain Roux’s three-star stalwart may be a definite bank-breaker, but it’s also undoubtedly special, with service to make you feel like a superstar, an encyclopaedic French wine list, and classical cooking to take your breath away. If drinks on the terrace aren’t quite watery enough, why not push the boat out for canapés and Champagne on the restaurant’s own motor launch.
Once a pleasant if unremarkable gastropub, The White Oak is now worth travelling for – thanks to the arrival of new chef/patron Clive Dixon from the Hinds Head in Bray. While the contemporary interior may miss a sense of tradition, ample compensation comes from daily changing menus, very generous pricing and gutsy cooking with a subtle sense of invention.