When you travel solo, dining out is a big deal. Especially after a day of sightseeing in a new town or city, where the only people you may speak to are the bus driver, taxi driver, hotel cleaning staff, people in line or other single tourists. Settling in at a table for one that evening is a fine reward, especially if the food is good and the staff friendly.
My first two dinners in Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds got my trip off to a delicious start.
Michael Alexiou, a Greek Cypriot, bought a 300-year-old grey brick house on CC’s high street in 1986 and transformed it into Michael’s Mediterranean. When I arrived in late June all 20 seats in the cosy dining room were filled with locals and visitors. It was fun to lean back against the orange banquette and listen to their lively conversations while watching the constant parade of dishes leaving the kitchen.
From the familiar Greek fare, including traditional and meatless eggplant moussaka, I chose a starter of delectable grilled octopus from Galicia, Spain. For a main I couldn’t resist the slow-roasted local lamb shank, Kleftiko, one of many recipes Alexiou inherited from his mother. It was so rich and flavourful I was sad to reach the last tender nugget of meat.
Manager Claire Jones said Michael’s is also famous for its Filletto Marathona, a generous portion of beef from a rare Gloucestershire breed served with veg and skinny fries.
I still regret being too full to try the chef’s fresh batch of baklava. Before I left, Jones showed me the covered patio and the stylish B&B rooms upstairs. The upstairs hall was filled with colourful paintings by local artist Jeremy Houghton.
Dinner at the Cotswold House Hotel & Spa the following night turned out to be one of my finest solo dining experiences ever. The sage walls of the quiet, carpeted dining room are decorated with leafy illustrations. I was ushered to a white tablecloth-clad table set for one in the middle of the room facing the floor-to-ceiling door into the back garden. The elegant flatware was designed by Robert Welch, who set up his first studio in Chipping Campden’s Silk Mill. His shop was closed when I walked by otherwise I might have dragged home a full set of new cutlery.
All three courses suggested by my attentive young server were delicious and beautifully-presented. A twice-baked souffle of double Gloucester cheese. Pan-fried sea bream with mashed potato, cauliflower puree and a jumble of wilted kale, broccoli, beans and zucchini. A slice of warm apple and frangipane tart with honeycomb ice cream as scrumptious as it looked. Even the glass of Sancerre wine accompanying dinner was perfect.
Though I never eat eggs for breakfast at home, I couldn’t resist taking full advantage in the UK hotels I stayed in. After all, a hearty breakfast included in your room rate means you won’t have to stop for lunch, which saves time and cash.
First on my list was a full English breakfast, consisting of a fried egg, grilled tomato half, rasher of bacon, a dense sausage, grilled portobello mushroom cap, potato croquette, a small dish of baked beans and a thick slice of black pudding, made with pork or beef blood, fat and chewy barley. I wondered if I’d get a prize for finishing it.
During my week in the Cotswolds I also enjoyed Eggs Benedict, Eggs Florentine with spinach, scrambled eggs with smoked salmon and oatmeal porridge topped with rhubarb-apple compote. And I must compliment the chef at the Porch House in Stow-on-the-Wold, England’s oldest inn, for his/her brilliant idea to serve poached eggs on avocado toast!
Not being much of a morning person I rarely initiated conversation, even with the cute guy who showed up at the next table one morning. Instead I buried myself in the daily Wordle puzzle.
Of course there are times when one must lunch, for research if nothing else. When I arrived in Stow-on-the-Wold taxi driver Tamas pointed to a restaurant called The Old Butchers and pronounced it the best seafood restaurant in town. Which seemed rather odd. Turns out the former butcher shop became a restaurant in 2005 and is now one of the most popular eateries in the Cotswolds. I was lucky to snag a wee butcher block table inside the bustling restaurant on a Thursday afternoon.
The Butchers may be cramped but the menu is so huge it’s overwhelming. Scottish langoustines, oysters, escargots, crab with truffle fries, Cornish monkfish and prawn tandoori, beer-battered fish and chips with pureed peas, on and on it went.
On the server’s recommendation I ordered a half a Cornish native lobster poached in garlic butter. These blue lobsters, which turn red when cooked, are delivered daily from the coast of Cornwall 300 km to the southwest so they’re super fresh. And fabulously sweet and delicious, I discovered, especially if you ignore the $50 price! The server suggested a refreshing glass of Picpoul de Pinet, an ancient white grape from France’s Languedoc-Roussillon that easily rivals Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc.
That evening before dinner I decided to splurge on a cocktail at Hotel Sheep on Sheep Street. The bartender recommended an espresso martini, which I figured I could find in Toronto. Something more local? The gin of the month happened to be “The Taste of Downton Abbey,” with botanicals including juniper, orange peel and lavender harvested from filming location Highclere Castle and distilled at England’s oldest gin distiller. Perfect! I enjoyed my G&T on the quiet patio before venturing back into the lively restaurant for dinner, where the staff were especially friendly.
Though I was burning off quite a few calories on my daily walks in the Cotswolds, I rarely ate dessert after dinner. Until I spied a sticky toffee pudding on The Sheep’s menu served with glazed bananas, butterscotch sauce and a dollop of Brakspear beer ice cream. The “pudding” was moist, as it should be, yet so light and fluffy I almost asked for seconds.
In Praise of Cream Tea
The Americans have arrived in Stow-on-the-Wold.
“I can’t remember did I drink Coke yesterday?” a woman sitting nearby asked her friend. I refused to let their chatter ruin my Cotswolds Cream Tea experience at Huffkins, bakers to British royalty since 1890.
The food at this bright airy tea room couldn’t be more local. According to the menu, wheat for the flour is grown and milled by a fifth-generation miller in Skipton under Wychwood. The eggs hail from Billy’s Eggs in Stow while milk and butter are sourced from Cotswold farms.
Placing my order at the counter, I asked if I should have a fruit or plain scone. Plain, the baker decided, as it goes best with the Tiptree strawberry preserves and the butter-like Rodda’s clotted cream, which unfortunately comes in a plastic tub.
And what about tea? If I’m not used to strong English tea, she said, don’t order the Assam Kenyan black breakfast blend. Instead go with the house blend, Margaret’s Hope Darjeerling blended with Orangajuli Assam from Bokakhat, India. Copy that!
The warm scone was generous and puffed on the sides with a burnished gold top. As instructed I smeared the jam on first, followed by a spoonful of clotted cream. Of course it paired perfectly with the tea. I enjoyed every bite and every drop, especially after my fellow tourists left.
I still craved a daily latte and found a favourite at Stow Town Coffee in Stow-on-the-Wold. No mugs, no indoor seating but there is a park nearby where you can enjoy your paper cup of coffee.