The newspapers tell us that Rebekah Brooks and hubby Charlie are fond of flying to Venice for lunch at Harry’s Bar on the Grand Canal before flitting back to Chipping Norton for supper. Or used to, when she had a job. Many lesser mortals take the day trip Eurostar tour to Paris for lunch in the Eiffel Tower. So why not train down from London to Winchester to lunch at what the newspapers (The Times) tell us is the third most romantic restaurant in Britain? (How do they measure that – does the Most Romantic Restaurant wheel out a four-poster bed with the pudding wine?)
The journey takes just an hour and, if you’ve got enough grey hair to qualify for a rail travel card, a return ticket costs £15. A stunning two course lunch at the Chesil Rectory is only 95p more than that. And though it may not be the Grand Canal, a leafy stroll along the adjacent Itchen river will nourish the post-prandial spirit, so who needs Harry’s Bar?
Winchester is stuffed with charming restaurants and cosy pubs whose soot-blackened timbers groan with antiquity, but the Chesil Rectory, built between 1425 and 1450, is the oldest commercial building in the city and one of the best preserved. The passing centuries have sunk it well below street level and the low oak doorway was originally used by livestock. So if you’re taller than a cow, duck! Keep your head down when climbing the stairs to the bar, too.
Inside, you are swaddled in comfort. Contemporary button-back banquettes and armchairs don’t break the historic spell cast by the ancient beams and the two 16th century fireplaces. The cuisine though is thoroughly up-to-date. Head chef Damian Brown does wonderful creative things with local Hampshire ingredients.
We were offered a selection of four wholesome artisan breads, with butter, rapeseed oil and crunchy dukkah seeds to dip it in. I said that if we had thought to bring some Marmite we wouldn’t have to order anything else and the waitress, I think, smiled. Maybe she’d heard that before.
The carnivore in our party (me) chose a starter of venison carpaccio so thin it was melting, garnished with a tarragon pesto, capers and horseradish. You could eat it with a spoon. And I only needed a fork to pry open the spicy confit of pork shoulder tottering on a crusty fondant potato harbouring a rich and creamy inside and contrasted with cabbage and bacon bits.
My wife delighted in the fresh oven-roasted trout with celeriac and apple slaw, warm potato salad and sweet dill dressing. Afterwards we decided to lash out another £4 and asked for two spoons and a portion of homemade carrot cake partnered with cream cheese ice-cream. Decadent!
For some reason the expert and gracious staff gave us coffee and petit fours on the house. Possibly they liked that wheeze about the marmite after all?
Chuck Anderson’s TV plays have been produced by CBS Television , New York and MGM-TV, Hollywood. In the UK he has authored fiction and non-fiction books. Plays include the premiere of Warehouse of Dreams at the Lion & Unicorn Theatre in November 2014 and a production fostered by the British Council in Hamburg of the one-act black farce Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee?