Legends in their lunchtime
You've had a good walk in the country, worked up an appetite, and now you want a really nice lunch before heading home. Look no further than the guide to gastro pubs by Diane Henry, published in the Guardian, who selects 10 of the best here. If you would like to recommend your favourite pub lunch, please send us details.
Too many pubs deliver soggy Sunday lunches, when what you really long for is log fires, real ale and a plate of something that makes the best of the produce you may have been admiring earlier at the farmers' market.
There have always been a few great country dining pubs - the legendary Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny started life as a pub, for example - but they are now on the increase and there is a real trend for talented chefs to leave their urban palaces in favour of the country pub.
For them, it means a chance to be nearer the produce with which they cook, the possibility of turning out non-luxury dishes and a less pressurised life. For us, it means food that ranges from the simple (a platter of local farmhouse cheeses at The Stag Inn in Titley, Herefordshire, for instance) to the sophisticated (a plate of unsurpassable crab risotto at the Greyhound in Stockbridge, Hampshire) served in an environment where we can dress as we like, eat only one course, and warm our feet by the fire.
Now my family sets off for days in the country armed with The Good Garden Guide, Rick Stein's Guide to the Food Heroes of Britain, a list of farmers' markets and The Gastropub Cookbook.
The Punch Bowl Inn, Cumbria
The next time you crave comforting country cooking - rabbit in a piquant mustard sauce, succulent duck confit, melting shank of lamb with braised white beans - don't assume that you need to book a flight to Lyons or Bordeaux; just get on a train to the Lake District.
Here, on the edge of a quiet valley filled with damson trees, you'll find an unassuming dining pub serving the kind of earthy, deeply flavoured dishes you dream of.
The Punch Bowl Inn looks pretty ordinary; it's built of local slate, with modern timbered windows. But the framed menus on the walls give the game away. These pay homage to some of the greatest restaurant chefs in the world - Alain Chapel, Michel Bras, Paul Bocuse - as well as Le Gavroche, The Waterside Inn, and various outposts of the Roux brothers' empire where The Punch Bowl's Steven Doherty was a star chef for more than 13 years.
Doherty left London , and his stellar career, because he was sick of city life. He decided to cook in a pub, rather than a restaurant, because, as he puts it: "I wanted to cook in a place where the car park would have Nissans beside Mercedes, where people could afford to eat good food regularly." At the Punch Bowl, you can eat something as simple as a great ham sandwich at lunchtime, and saddle of rabbit with wild mushrooms in the evening. And it'll cost you less than eating at many of the chain restaurants up and down the country.
Where: Crosthwaite , Cumbria 01539 568237, punchbowl.fsnet.co.uk.
Serves: lunch and dinner Tues to Sat; Sun lunch; bookings advised; children welcome; garden.
The Sportsman, Kent
Just before you get to the seaside town of Whitstable , take the slip road to Seasalter and you'll find yourself in a melancholy hinterland of pylons standing like sci-fi giants on flat marshland and beach huts in shades as colourless as the sea. The Sportsman, a scruffy, butter-coloured pub by the road, looks like the kind of place where you might meet trouble. But the inside is awash with light. Happy families squeeze round the scrubbed, rickety tables; hunks in leather jackets knock back oysters and chorizo and even the odd celeb can be seen tucking into chef Steve Harris's sublime slow-roast chicken.
Here is a chef - self-taught, obsessive, enthralled by taste - who really loves the flavours achieved by the culinary stars but hates the ponciness of restaurants. "I wanted to do haute cuisine stripped bare," he says.
Lucky for diners, because here you get knock-out food at bargain prices, and Stephen's experiments with culinary science push his cooking ever further. His rhubarb sorbet, for example, is made by macerating the raw fruit in sugar for two days and then using the extracted juice. Paired with burnt cream, this is a sensational taste experience, and it's only one of the many pleasures here.
Where: Faversham Road , Seasalter, Whitstable 01227 273370
Serves: lunch and dinner Tues to Sat; Sun lunch; bookings advised; children welcome.
The Stagg Inn, Herefordshire
Trelough duck with elderflower; lamb with fennel and garlic purée; roasted pineapple with vanilla ice-cream: it's difficult to believe, as you read chef Steve Reynolds' menu, that he used to be "a doner kebab and six pints of lager man"; that, apart from a short stint at the Roux brothers' Le Gavroche restaurant, he is entirely self-taught; and that he's never been to France . Difficult because his pub, the Stagg Inn (the first pub in Britain to be awarded a Michelin star) is the kind of unpretentious country eatery you find in provincial France : it serves delicious but restrained cooking, it's doggedly regional and it's full of locals.
Nearly all the food he serves is right on his doorstep, not because he has a romantic notion about "localness", but because the produce here is very good, and because he and his partner Nicola want to support the community. In this, as in so much else, the Stagg Inn is a beacon.
Where: Titley, near Kington, Herefordshire 01544 230221, thestagg.co.uk
Serves: lunch and dinner Tues to Sat; Sun lunch; bookings advised; children welcome; garden.
Three Horse Shoes, Cambs
Richard Stokes, the chef and co-owner of the Three Horse Shoes, has worked at the River Café and numerous restaurants in San Francisco . But he likes cooking in this thatched English pub better than anywhere. "I'm not hide-bound by an unchanging à la carte menu. If a local shooter brings me 20 mallards, I can serve them until they run out. I can do a slow roast every day if I want to. I can serve puddings as simple as ripe figs with mascarpone and a honey that I discovered in Tuscany . I can tinker with ideas," he says.
The Three Horse Shoe's daily-changing menus are full of modern Asian and Italian touches that Richard picked up in San Francisco . You might find green papaya and crab salad with chilli, lime and soy, or a pizzetta with ricotta, pumpkin and rosemary. It is gloriously sunny food, modish without being overwrought.
And there's always something interesting behind the bar, such as home-made lemonade or prosecco with freshly squeezed blood-orange juice. Here is a chef who goes the extra mile.
Where: High Street, Madingley, Cambridgeshire 01954 210221, huntsbridge.com
Serves: lunch and dinner
Mon to Sat; Sun lunch; bookings accepted; children welcome; garden.
The Foxhunter, Monmouthshire
The menu at The Foxhunter reads prosaically: artichoke soup, herb risotto with mascarpone, smoked haddock fishcakes with wild garlic mayonnaise. There are no fancy phrases, or even much detail about cooking methods, so the impact - when the food is delivered - is all the greater. There aren't many meals that make you wonder what tricks the chef has pulled off to make the food taste this good.
Chef-owner Matt Tebbutt, who trained in London with Alastair Little, is a bold, confident, gifted cook. His risottos are among the best you will eat, here or in Italy . His sorbets are so intense they stop you in your tracks. There just isn't a duff dish on the menu. If Tebbutt's food were fancier, he'd be in line for a Michelin star, but thankfully that's not his aim. He just cooks modern classics, from the Med to Thailand , with skill and polish.
The place itself is contemporary-country: flagstones and woodblock floors, slick beech furniture, big church candles burning in uncurtained windows, and wooden bowls of pears and gourds on the shelves. There's a log fire, open to the bar and the dining room, and watercolours and pastels by local artists. The Foxhunter is a calming, civilised place - worth a trip even if you have to drive for miles.
Where: Nant-y-Derry, Monmouthshire 01873 881101
Serves: lunch and dinner
Tues to Sat; bookings advised; children welcome; terrace.
The Dartmoor Inn, Devon
When Karen and Philip Burgess bought the Dartmoor Inn five years ago, it had a juke box, four deep-fat fryers and eight microwaves. So, they set about transforming a run-down boozer into a country inn that would stop Martha Stewart in her tracks.
It's old England meets New England . A small bar, with a roaring fire, gleaming copper and a huge vase of flowers, is at the centre of a network of dining rooms furnished with colour-washed dressers, ladder-backed Goldilocks chairs and plants in aged terracotta pots.
The food is a touch American, too, though in style rather than flavour - the Burgess's favourite restaurant is Chez Panisse in San Francisco , the birthplace of modern Californian cooking, and you can see its influence.
The Burgesses spend a lot of time sourcing ingredients and forging links with small-scale producers who can provide them with the quality they want. With their butcher, they decide which breed of cattle, South Devon or Ruby Red, has the best meat for a particular dish. Fish - John Dory, scallops, crab and Cornish sea-bass - comes daily from the market at Brixham or from fishermen that Philip knows at Looe. Fruit and veg come from hand-picked local growers, and the cheeses are a changing selection of the West Country's finest.
The Burgesses want to offer their food to the widest range of people and believe a pub is the best place to do that. They're as happy to serve you fish and chips with half a pint of ale as they are to bring on a three-course dinner and a £40 bottle of wine.
Where: Moorside, Lydford, Okehampton, Devon 01822 820221
Serves: lunch and dinner Tues to Sat; Sun lunch; bookings advised; children welcome (although no under fives on Fri and Sat night); courtyard garden.
The Greyhound, Hampshire
Chef Darron Bunn came from London and was quite prepared for his romantic notions of cooking in the country to be dashed. "But it's the best move I ever made," he says. "When I've had enough of the kitchen here, I can go for a walk by the river. In the game season, I have a kitchen porter sitting by the back door plucking pheasants all day long. This is country living and I love it."
Darron and the owner, Barry Skarin, both have frighteningly impressive CVs - a veritable roll call of Nicos and Marcos and Schragers - but got fed up with the tortuous hours and the sameness of luxury London restaurants, and so opted to work in a simpler environment.
Not that eating at The Greyhound is slumming it. On the outside, it looks like an ordinary pub, but inside it's all chunky wooden tables, leather-backed chairs, and halogen lights. This is about as smart as a pub can get, but the place is nevertheless relaxed. And the food is brilliant. Risotto of Dorset crab with palourde clams, beetroot and goat's cheese tart, and Romney Marsh lamb with a navarin of vegetables, are all intensely flavoured, perfectly executed and served without any fol-de-rol. It's a class act. And a bargain.
Where: 31 High Street , Stockbridge, Hampshire 01264 810833
Serves: lunch and dinner Mon to Sat; Sun lunch; bookings advised; children welcome.
The Harbour Inn, Islay
Chef Scott Chance doesn't come from Islay - he moved here less than 10 years ago - but the dishes he serves at his white-washed pub are firmly built on the island's produce: oysters gratinéed with leeks and cream, baked crab with a soufflé topping, wild venison with rosehip jelly. The result is unfussy, modern Scottish cooking.
The shellfish, which you can see being unloaded at the harbour from the pub's dining room, are the star of the show, but the local game and meat are also superb. "Because it's reasonably mild, the cattle stay outdoors in every season, grazing on grass and wild herbs, and even eating the seaweed and drinking the seawater at the beach. It has an astonishing effect on the flavour," says Scott.
The Harbour was what you might call a "grotty boozer" when he bought it, so it had to be revamped and now has a little pine bar, where you can eat at lunchtime, with bare stone walls and an old porthole window in the door. The new, more restauranty, dining room juts out over the rocks of the harbour.
Where: The Square, Bowmore, Islay (01496 810330, harbour-inn.com).
Serves: lunch and dinner Mon to Sat (dinner in dining room only); bookings advised; children welcome.
The Three Acres, West Yorks
A stone roadside inn right by the Emley Moor TV tower, The Three Acres is totally distinctive. Enter through the Grocer - the Three Acres' deli, which sells its own pies and preserves - and you are immediately enveloped by warmth and easy-going luxury.
Apart from the bar, which runs the length of the room and is hung with pewter tankards, The Three Acres is not particularly pubby. The tables have cloths protected by glass tops, under which are displayed an eccentric collection of cuttings from magazines and interiors brochures, wine labels and postcards. There are comfy tub chairs, some of them in leather, and the room is broken up by alcoves and a big brick column right in the centre, which houses a glowing fire.
There's a seafood bar with fresh oysters, smoked salmon and bottles of Moët & Chandon on display, and the whole place, which serves as café, pub and restaurant, is more like a Parisian watering hole than anything you might expect to find in the Yorkshire moors.
The bar food is brasserie stuff with lots of British touches: cassoulet, lobster thermidor (made with lobster from Whitby ), and smashing renditions of fish and chips with mushy peas and tartare sauce, and steak and kidney pie under a mustard and onion crust.
Sandwiches, served at lunchtime, are so fabulous and original that they take the snack into another league. Try steak with caramelized onions and melting blue cheese. There are two gorgeous dining rooms, with bottle-green walls, tartan fabric, big fires and ironwork candelabras, if you fancy something more formal. Service is delightful.
Where: Roydhouse, West Yorkshire 01484 602606
Serves: lunch and dinner Mon to Sun; bookings accepted (restaurant only); children welcome; terrace.
Grace Neill's, Co Down
This is supposed to be the oldest pub in Ireland , established in 1611. Friendly staff will regale you with stories of sightings of Grace Neill's ghost (she owned the place in the 19th-century and evidently did not want to leave). The front bar hasn't been changed in decades: it's dark and snug, with low ceilings made of wood from an old ship. The room beyond that, which they call The Library, has been modernised, but is meant to feel old: lots of mahogany, green leather sofas, highly polished flagstones, marble-topped tables and a gorgeous copper-topped bar. A further room, right at the back, is done in French brasserie style.
Chef-owner Steven Jeffers goes for big flavours in stunning dishes, such as a soup of Strangford mussels and pumpkin with Thai spices, as well as more traditional Irish offerings, such as honey-glazed loin of bacon with plums and cabbage.
You'll have difficulty not striking up conversation with your fellow diners - Grace's is an ebullient place - and if you come for Sunday lunch, when there's live jazz all afternoon, just plan on writing off the rest of the day.
Where: 33 High Street , Donaghadee, Co Down, Northern Ireland 028 9188 4595
Serves: lunch and dinner Mon dinner to Sun lunch; bookings advised (dining room only); children welcome.