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There’s plenty of swanky dining in West Dorset if you really want it, but to get under the skin of the region, it pays to forego lily-gilding and head for the kind of unpretentious, easy-going eateries that reflect the area’s rural footings.
From Weymouth to Lyme Regis, the mammoth Jurassic Coast and the rolling hills of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex are home to ramshackle beach cafés and hidden farmhouses, quirky street food hangouts and time-honoured, in-the-know institutions.
West Dorset’s restaurants also make admirable use of locally sourced produce gleaned from acres of verdant countryside and miles of unspoilt coastline. Elsewhere, the region’s mild, temperate climate makes it hard to beat for the basics.
An easy-going alternative to the five-star allure of its well-to-do neighbour, Summer Lodge, the Acorn Inn (aka The Sow & Acorn in Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles) booms cosy, country charm from every nook and cranny. But don’t let the chintz fool you – the kitchen here means business.
This refurbished, 17th-century coaching inn was the figurehead for a new era in West Dorset dining when it opened in 2006, and it’s still a reliable option for relaxed suppers in boutique surroundings. The all-day, brasserie-style menu is also good for simple lunches and meaty treats such as home-reared lamb.
A little slice of laid-back lovin’ on the otherwise bleak shores of Portland, the Crab House Café brings some typically tropical vibes to the region. Sit under pink straw umbrellas and graze on stir-fried crab with ginger, chilli and garlic while the sea laps at your feet.
If you can find it underneath all the greenery, this pretty garden café has lashings of Enid Blyton charm, including hefty cream teas, a peanut butter-led menu for the little ones, and an attractive BYO policy in the evening.
If you like your fish and chips served in a vinegar-soaked bag with an unnecessarily small wooden fork, this is the place for you. In the heart of Weymouth’s kiss-me-quick backstreets, F&F is unashamedly traditional, but without a whiff of stale fat or lifeless batter.
There isn’t a greasy spoon in sight at this perennially popular beach café on prime National Trust land – just plenty of fresh seafood, homemade cakes and – thanks to some beefy awnings and industrial-strength patio heaters – a great year-round location.
The prices are more Chelsea than South Coast, but there’s no denying that Dorset’s prodigal son Mark Hix knows his onions – as well as his seafood. Perched high above Lyme Regis, with views of the iconic Cobb harbour, this is one of the loveliest locations in the region – complete with an all-new terrace for summer evenings.
Dorset has gone bonkers for posh pizza, and leading the Jurassic Coast charge is Jalopy – a vintage Peugeot J7 van complete with a wood-fired oven, transported from the depths of southern France to the market streets of Bridport and beyond. A runner-up in the British Street Food Awards, Jalopy is now a must-visit for local devotees.
An original among West Dorset restaurants, the Riverside put fine fish suppers on the menu in the region long before local boy-turned-celeb restaurateur Mark Hix rolled his first pollock fish finger. Floating like a palace above the river Brit as it joins the sea, this place is forever busy.
MasterChef winner Mat Follas opens up his bag of foraged delights at this smartly rustic restaurant overlooking the square in elegantly heeled Beaminster. His food is earthy and man-sized – no wonder Wild Garlic hums with a steady trickle of TV fans and curious locals.