Monday, 30 April 2012

BHS Restaurant, Stratford-upon-Avon

You know what I am going to write, don't you? The very name has already conjured an image in your mind of plain fare and plastic chairs. All sorts of phrases are running through your mind like, 'family friendly', 'fish and chips', even 'slightly soggy lasagne'. You are right of course. This is a huge space on the second floor of the store, designed to cater for large numbers of hungry folk in search of cheap grub. It is a sort of 'does what it says on the tin' place - but I do not mean that as a criticism.  I was with my sisters and this is a perfect venue for that kind of catch-up occasion as a prelude to shopping. The sibs and I had breakfast, the six-item option which comes with toast. You choose from a bewildering array of beans, tomatoes, hash browns, fried bread, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausages, mushrooms - and fried eggs are done on request. There is a £1.99 option where you don't choose the constituents of your meal and have to have a hot drink but that is a bargain. Toast is served with butter, all the food is what my Mum would call 'clean' - no gritty bits or brown crunchy edges - and the turnover is such that it is always piping hot.

Coffees come from a machine so the latte quality suffered - more of a slightly frothy milky coffee; but this is not a venue for the sophisticated coffee drinker. You get a decent mugful and besides, there are a multitude of soft drink alternatives.

Access is excellent, particularly around the food counter and I have always found staff helpful. It can get a little awkward manoeuvring around the tables and chairs as it gets busy.

Being such a large place the atmosphere is better conducive toward hectic, arm waving gossiping than say, a coffee shop. Even if you are on your own there are huge windows with a brilliant view down on the Bancroft Gardens. Sit with your back to the restaurant for some great people watching.

Useful venue for the oncoming zombie apocalypse, too. Good view of the oncoming hordes and plenty of furniture to fight off any incursions.

Latte: *****
Access: *****

Strada, Stratford-upon-Avon

This is a pricey place, but has a two course menu for a mere £10.50 which was the option we chose. Our starter was mozzarella and basil on ciabatta.Tasty, although Drew thought it could have done with heating up a llittle. The portion was rather meagre, just one slice; but the main course was generous enough. We went for a chargrilled chicken with roast potatoes and vegetables. It did have a specific name  - pollo something - but I cannot remember. The chicken was delicious, smoky but melt-in-the-mouth and Drew waxed lyrical about the mushrooms. Wine is expensive by the way - £6.50 for a large glass. Stick to the complementary bottle of water for a super cheap night out.

Access is fine but the bench-like seating can be a bit off-putting.

9.5.12 A 30% voucher tempted us to return. Our starter was rosemary garlic bread which was delicious. Aromatic rosemary on a salty, slightly crunchy bread. Divvy up the portions beforehand though to avoid beneath-the-breath hissed conversations as to who has the last slice. For the main this time around Drew had Spaghetti Ragu (posh spag bol) which he enjoyed. I had the Rigatoni Speck which is a posh version of pasta with ham and a cheese sauce. It was tasty and filling with enough sauce to coat the pasta pieces. Personally I prefer a thicker, gloopier sauce with every pasta piece drenched in cheesy goo; but then, I'm quite common.

Access: *****

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Garden Restaurant, Wyevale Garden Centre, Black Hill, Stratford-upon-Avon

Quite a find, this. Access is excellent, plenty of space. Nice big windows where you can sit and discuss how this year the garden will be 'vintage boho'.  Knowing full well it will remain the same arid scrub-and-twigs look it has every season.

Food is excellent. It might even better deserve the appellation 'grub'. A basic menu - Fish and chips, jacket potatoes and sandwiches, cakes; but all made from local stuff and you can tell. My ham and cheese toastie was full of thick slices of ham and a generous wodge of cheese. Drew's jacket potato was overfilled with a creamy tuna mayo filling. Both had tiny salad accompaniments, consisting of a few leaves and a cherry tomato, but you won't care. Latte was mild and creamy, Fairtrade coffee, served in a good sized thirst quenching mugful. Join the Garden Club. Not because you can collect points but because it means you are eligible for some excellent meal deals. At one point earlier this year it was a mere fiver for two breakfasts if you had the Garden Club card. Ask for one as you order your food and on most occasions you are eligible for some sort of discount there and then.

Latte: *****
Access: *****

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Debenhams Cafe, Stratford-upon-Avon

A small place, situated in a windowless room on the top floor. Not good on a sunny afternoon but perfect to shut out wind and rain. One of the few places to have a good selection of comfy seats and armchairs rather than a token couple of sofas. Coffee is a sustainable, organic brand. My latte was very rich, quite strong. Sandwich was disappointing. Not made on the premises and you can tell. Though the egg and cress filling was generous and tasty, for the best part of four quid I expect something more than limp white bread, clearly from a presliced, prepacked loaf.

In honour of the bard's birthday I had a cupcake liberally coated in appropriately bright partyshade-lemon with edible glitter and silently toasted the big man's big day. Tasty cake, decent tooth-coating swash of icing.

Access was fine with a lift that takes you directly to the cafe. Such a small place can get very crowded very quickly which can make it awkward for getting out.

29.6.12 Just a head's up - on a warm day this place is stiflingly hot. If there was air con I couldn't feel it.

Latte: *****
Access: *****

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Caffe Nero, Stratford-upon-Avon

This is the nearest global coffee brand to Shakespeare's Birthplace; meaning that most of the other eateries on Henley Street might sell familiar brands like Lavazza but that does not form their raison d'etre. Consequently it can sometimes get full of younger tourists buying takeout and drinking in store. Not to say it is an objectionable practice but if you are concerned about access the clutter of people at the front of the store can be problematic. There are two steps to the back of the place that are not easily negotiable if you cannot get a table near the counter.

Staff are very helpful, though. And knowledgeable. Know all the regulars and their requests, know the music that is playing. My friend Kelley is right about one particular chair by the stairs. You are directly under the speakers so the music is loud in that spot. Check your mood and the music before you sit there. It is not a good spot if you are are feeling gloomy about the prospect of continued medication. Vivaldi's violin concerto in C, followed by Mozart's violin sonata in E Minor is not exactly conducive to a Patience on a monument mood.

But the staff are good. They even what the funny red bits were in my tuna melt panini. The latter was so-so; but then, we all know deep down that no matter what the advertised claims as to the artisan credentials of the food, if it is pre-packaged, it is not going to zing your taste buds. The coffee is too strong for me but I have a one shot and that is perfect. Creamy foam on the latte and one of the few places not to serve it in a tall glass. The cupcakes deserve a mention. They have the merit of being perfectly proportioned. Cake and icing are usually served in a ratio of CAKE: icing. In this case it is more cake: ICING. A small cake too; so at no point do you have to bite into plain cake without sweet sweet topping. It also serves the best cheesecake ever. The white and dark chocolate truffle cheesecake is truly magnificent. Marbled chocolate on a dense biscuit base that leaves very few crumbs and makes a satisfying clack when cut with a fork. A smooth, cloying topping with a firm texture. It is worth taking time over this. So dense is the topping that is retains its shape in your mouth. Resist the urge to plunge your teeth into it. Instead, hold it on your tongue for a while then compress it against the roof of your mouth. The cloying magnificence of it all might induce a fatal infarction; but what a way to go.

Access: *****
Latte: *****

Monday, 16 April 2012

Bella Italia, Stratford-upon-Avon

I am not a fan of pasta as a rule and have to be coaxed into consuming it by the promise of creamy white sauces and puddles of garlic butter; both of which this place happily provides. The starter was mini garlic bastioni with a garlic butter dip. Only here would one experience the joys of dipping bread into a bowl of melted garlicky fat, utterly guilt-free. The only danger is the scrum for the bread. The best advice is to divvy it up beforehand in a civilized sharing-platter way and avoid unseemly scrambles and a butter-spattered face.

My main was the spaghetti carbonara which was just how I like it. Spaghetti positively drowned in creamy sauce and cubes of salty ham. Drew's dish I can't remember but I know it had chunks of red pepper in it and chicken and he loved it.

We discovered a dessert offer that serves coffee and a smaller portion of certain puds at a reasonable £3.95. I had the latte, served in a glass, small amount of foam and piping hot. Drew opted for black filter coffee and chocolate torte. A generous cupful and the dearest, dinkiest slice of torte you have ever seen. If you are the sort that insists on dieting, it is perfect. Good for budgeting too; but I am too fond of pudding to make such unnecessary compromises. I can't comment on the flavour as I was not allowed to taste it.

Access is a little tight. There's a steep step up into the place but the tables near the window, if free, are roomy.

Access: *****
Latte: *****

The Cake Shop, Oxford

Once again the 'dreaming spires' of Oxford uplift the soul with unsurpassed beauty.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Costas, Stratford-upon-Avon/Maybird Centre

I can't really give an unbiased account of the coffee in this place as it is my favourite coffee shop. Latte is best suited to my tastes, creamy but not cloying; cup full to the top without losing half of the drink to a frothy head. The decaf version has a slight toffee aftertaste.

Sadly, access in this branch in town is difficult due to the nature of the building. There are a couple of wide-spaced steps to the entrance which do not make it easy. The corridor from the front door to the counter is reasonably clear, but the tables and chairs are so closely packed that access with a sholley is awkward and with a wheelchair impossible, unless the table nearest to the door is free. It is, in fact, impossible to be comfortable anywhere due to the furnishings being so densely packed. Manoeuvering the sholley and the tank is only possible if I have a companion. Wheelchair users would be best seated outdoors assuming the weather is conducive and the traffic around the island is calm.

For full access, the branch at the Maybird is best. The furniture is still crammed but there are more options for you if you are hampered by wheels of any sort. This store is used much more by families so on certain days you may find your lunch accompanied by the squall of infants. The heavy usage is taking its toll on the furnishings too, with some of the bigger chairs and cushions looking stained. Staff keep the store clean but overlords of Costa should note that in attempting to conquer the Universe by coffee shop cleanliness is next to Godliness.

Food-wise, the British cheese and ham toasted sandwich is nice enough. Of all the toasties in all of the places I have been, the cheese in this is the most likely to melt into a runny gloop when heated, so beware of puddles on your plate. Or lap. I also prefer the lack of garnish. No sneaked-in green bits. No trying to give it a chic Continental feel by introducing a teensy bit of sundried tomato. And no attempt to bulk it out with an accompanying salad and charging for the privilege.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Garrick, Stratford-upon-Avon

One of the few places you can go to in town where you get the 'olde worlde' feel without being kippered by smoking log fires. My haddock and chips was a generous portion of piping hot, crispy chips, crunchy batter, melt in your mouth fish, proper mushy peas. Drew had the chicken burger which was super spicy but he was disappointed that it was encased in a bog-standard bun. Latte was good, one of the few places to serve it with a small biscotti.

Just a heads up. This is the third time in a row we have been to the Garrick in the early evening and they have run out of something. The roast dinners there are to die for, but the last couple of times we went they had none left. This time we asked for a sharing platter of garlic and herb bread and were told that they did not have any.

Access can be difficult given the nature of the building. The entrance corridor is uneven and narrow so it is easier to let people pass rather than struggle on. The arrangement of chairs and tables can make the process of finding a table and getting seated a little awkward and if the place is crowded downright bloody difficult. There are suitable tables and chairs, such as where we were today where access is no problem, so I would advise going when the place is less busy. Staff go out of their way to help you, even, as they once did with us, clearing a route through to the only available table.

Update 15.4.12
The haddock and chips was as tasty as ever, full marks for consistency. Drew tried the gammon with pineapple this time and liked it a lot; a decent portion and well-cooked. In the interests of research we both had dessert. Mine was the banoffee tart, a tasty take on the usual pie. Crumbly pastry, sweet and sticky toffee sauce, generous on the banana. Drew's sticky toffee cheesecake was equally enjoyable according to him. I was not allowed to taste it.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Marks & Spencer's Cafe, Stratford-upon-Avon

This is an excellent place to hide in plain sight. If someone is hassling you to Take More Care and you are sick of the sight of broccoli, this is the kind of place you can get full fat lattes and brownies and toasted teacakes with actual butter. If caught, brazen it out. Have a bottle of water handy and insist that no one cleared the table so the sticky detritus of crumbs and cream cannot possibly be yours.

A medium cup of coffee is a generous slug of organic, Fairtrade coffee at an astoundingly reasonable £2.45. Very creamy, dark foam, quite a sweet chocolatey aftertaste. Food-wise the range is very limited. They seem to work on a 'once its gone its gone basis' rather than replenish stocks. I have turned up there at 3pm and been left with a choice of lemon drizzle cake or millionaire shortbread. No great hardship, I know, but worth remembering if you are in town late on and hungry. First thing in the morning there is a run on toasted teacakes, so get in quick. These are the best in town, warm, toasted in a palate of umbers and siennas, with pulpy fruit and a generous allowance of butter. Rest the pat of butter on the teacake to soften it a little, spread liberally and wolf it down in an unseemly manner.

Access is excellent as are the helpful staff. And the regulars are great. The sort that suggest you resolve a difficult sudoku by the diligent application of reason, logic and clear-headed conjecture.*

*and not, apparently, by shouting at it.

Latte: *****

Monday, 9 April 2012

Vienna Patisserie, Stratford-upon-Avon

Not really a lunch stopover although they do sell a token number of sandwiches and savoury filled croissants. My personal recommendation is the coffee eclair although it is considerably sweeter and more cloying than its chocolate and cream counterpart; but this place is cakes without compromise. Full on wodges of cream, confectioner's custard and flaky pastry. And be careful. One sugar-loaded cake and a large latte and you will have to be tethered to your chair. Latte is pleasant enough but to be honest they could knock up a Nescafe and froth it up by blowing through a straw and you would be too bamboozled to notice.

Access is not a problem but there is quite a steep step up into the place; helpful staff more than make up for this.

15.5.12 There is a new addition to the cake collection - a banoffee eclair. Covered in almonds though. Not keen on almonds. Bummer.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Stalls, Preston-on-Stour

A lifestyle emporium on the edge of the Alscot Country Estate that has a coffee shop. A bit of an out of the way find that serves superb coffee and accompanying home made cakes in which you can indulge whilst looking out over sumptuous grounds. Ideal for taking visitors and showing off, airily mentioning this chic little out of the way, off the beaten track, no-tourists-only-locals-go-there that does a-MAZE-ing coffee and if we're lucky we might get a teensy, tiny peek at the deer in the park.

Also a good venue to hole up if you find yourself in the area in the event of the oncoming zombie apocalypse. High walls, lockable doors and the wood store place next door handy for improvised weaponry.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

The Henley Street Tea Rooms, Stratford-upon-Avon

They're our neighbours. They gave us vouchers. We love them. End of.

Apropos of nothing, best ham, egg and chips in town and the only establishment around the Birthplace to have a alcohol licence. Best value breakfast in town.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Chestnut Tree, Bourton-On-The-Water

The ham and cheese toastie was lovely, generous portions of both ham and cheese. Though I don't claim to be salad's biggest fan the small portion surprised even me - shredded carrot and lettuce and a meagre half a tomato. Drew had a Spanish quiche and salad from the specials menu but the quiche itself wasn't fully defrosted. Passable latte.

To be fair, the couple at the next table were having the full roast dinner and they looked as though they were enjoying it. Seemed like a decent portion too.

A real bugbear is the minimum spend for the use of a debit card; here, an eye-watering FIFTEEN pounds. A real shame as most of the items on the menu are quite reasonably priced for a Cotswold village.

Ideal for taking your Mum for a cup of tea and a toasted teacake. Just don't forget to go to the cashpoint first.

Starbucks, Stratford-upon-Avon

Unable to give a true, impartial assessment of this establishment as I am still in thrall to the handsome, dreadlocked young man who held the door for me last time I went. I am sure the latte was very pleasant but I had fallen in love so I don't really remember much.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Broadway Hotel, Broadway

Best. Chips. Ever. Seriously. Served in a cone, which is a little bit naff; but crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside and piping hot. Just as they should be. Generous with the sandwiches too. Six dainty triangles of salmon and mayo for me, chicken for Drew. The content of the sandwiches is presented in a very plain way, meaning no dainty shreds of salmon and drizzle of mayo. This is a schmear of the mayo with folds of thin salmon. Not that it matters much as it is perfectly tasty. Tiny amount of salad though and a mere pinch of crumbs passed for the accompanying crisps; but, frankly would rather have the extra sandwiches. Brilliant latte, nice and creamy. It is served in a tall glass, decorated cappuccino-style with chocolate on top which gives it a pleasant cocoa aftertaste. Also one of the few places to serve coffee with a crumbly biscuit.

Castle Inn, Edge Hill

Impressive building and the views are breathtaking! Interior a little bit disappointing. It was fantastically busy and we were told that the food orders were taking an hour but the views meant it didn't matter; besides the food was worth waiting for when it came. I had ham, egg and chips and it was lovely. Thick chunks of ham and decent chips. Drew had the roast dinner. That and the drinks was a bargain £21! We thoroughly enjoyed just sitting in the sunshine. Main irritation was the hassle over the use of a card - barman declared 'Cash is King! Plastic is drastic!' and charged 50p for the use of a debit card.

Latte pleasant enough but only three quarters of a mug full both times.

Outdoor seating a bit uncomfortable, cheap plastic chairs brought out when it was busy.

Not good for access, due to the 'olde worlde' building and sloping, grassy outdoor area.

Ideal for: taking the family out for Sunday lunch and showing off, in a sort of 'don't-I-live-in-a-beautiful-area' kind of way. Not much information on the actual Edge Hill battle. Just a stand with a bit of information at the edge of the hill but nothing you did not already know about everyone's favourite warty old zealot.

Latte: *****
Access: *****
Chips: *****

Old Stocks, Stow-on-the-Wold

It was nice and olde worlde although vaguely seventies in the decor which we couldn't decide whether that was deliberate. The food was good. Meat and two veg, chips and stuff. I had a cheese and ham panini and was quite delighted that it was just served as is, any salad was on the side and the accompanying crisps were clearly Walkers plain crisps and not Tyrrells organic or anything. There's a lot to be said for basic English home cooking and sometimes you just want what it says on the tin. A cheese and ham panini, no rocket salad drizzled in olive oil or chunky home made chutney. Drew had coronation chicken sandwiches and we shared a bowl of chunky chips with a coke and a latte. It came to about £15 which is perfectly respectable for a tourist hot spot. If I had a complaint at all it would be that the latte was very bog standard but that is the price you pay for the 'plain fare' establishment. You are really only a hair's breadth from boiled milk added to coffee powder as in days of yore! The chips were nice but reheated. The family on the next table were clearly there for Mothers Day and they all had the roast beef dinner which looked great. Big chunk of beef, plenty of roasties and generous portions of plain boiled broccoli, sprouts, carrots and swedes. Not a honey drizzle or goose fat morsel anywhere - but nothing wrong with that! There are undoubtedly pubs in Stow where you can get the more gourmet or gastro stuff but neither of us really felt like it today!

Access is limited due to aforesaid 'olde worlde' decor - there is a narrow doorway and steps that are not easily negotiable.

Latte: ***** 
Access: *****
Chips: *****