7th January 2016
The World Heritage Site of Bath owes its name and fame to Britain’s only naturally occurring warm springs. The Roman bathing complex is Aquae Sulis’s most famous legacy, but courtesy of the state-of-the-art Thermae Bath Spa, which opened in 2006, modern visitors can soak in the hot, mineral-rich waters in much the same way as the Romans did 2,000 years ago.
There’s more to this place than hot water, though. There’s Bath Abbey, the last of England’s great medieval churches, more museums in one square mile than most cities on the planet and some of the UK’s finest examples of Georgian architecture. Together they attract an annual 4.8 million visitors.
Literary and artistic connections draw the crowds, too. It was in Bath that Jane Austen set Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, and it’s here that Thomas Gainsborough established himself as a painter and Charles Dickens placed part of The Pickwick Papers.
Prefer designer boutiques, independent shops and high-street stores? There’s a remarkable number – all easily reached on foot in the city’s compact centre.
Bath also has strong foodie connections. Austen writes of overindulging in the famed Sally Lunn bun, which dates back to the 17th century, try it at Sally Lunn’s Historic Eating House, one of the city’s oldest residences. Then there’s the Bath Oliver biscuit (so good with cheese) invented here in the 18th century, but sadly no longer made locally. In 1957 The Good Food Guide declared Bath’s Hole In The Wall the single most influential restaurant of the post-war years. And in 1987, the city hosted the UK’s first farmers’ market – now a weekly fixture at Green Park Station.
The restaurant scene continues to be buoyant. Thirteen entries are listed in the 2016 GFG, an excellent mix of eating houses and pubs, including a handful of good quality, reliable mid-price places that are a treat to visit – among them Robert Clayton’s multifaceted Clayton’s Kitchen at The Porter, and Aió Sardinia with its taste of the Mediterranean island.
Higher up the scale is The Dower House at the Royal Crescent Hotel, where David Campbell’s cooking is appropriately luxurious. Also top of the tree is Menu Gordon Jones, considered by many to be the hardest-to-book restaurant in town – but then it does have just 22 seats.
In a nutshell, Bath is a city with something for everyone.
Treat yourself £££
The Olive Tree | (01225) 447928 | olivetreebath.co.uk
Built in 1771 for the Marquis of Queensberry, this palatial Georgian townhouse still sells the full-on Bath heritage experience despite its lavish transformation into a modern boutique hotel. In the flagship Olive Tree restaurant in the bowels of the building, chef Chris Cleghorn is on top form judging by what local spies say about his food (above). His crab lasagne with mousse, bisque, basil and ginger continues to be singled out, but other classy fish dishes have included a ‘beautiful’ plate of halibut with leeks, shimeji mushrooms, salt-baked celeriac, Noilly Prat sauce and winter truffle. Seasonal ideas also shine through in the meat department, from braised pork belly with pumpkin purée to venison loin with quince, spiced red cabbage and Brussels sprouts.
The Bath Priory | (01225) 331922 | thebathpriory.co.uk
This Victorian pile (right) exudes country house elegance – even though it’s only a mile from the city centre. Everything soothes and cossets, from the landscaped lawns to the vintage paintings, sumptuous furnishings and dutiful service in the handsome dining room, which provides a moneyed backdrop for Sam Moody’s take on refined contemporary food. Expect a procession of finely honed miniatures ranging from seared scallops with St George’s mushrooms, apple and hazelnuts to a three-part ‘plate of local pig’ accompanied by cheesy mash, spring onions and paprika jus. The kitchen’s search for rare regional delicacies might also yield goose ‘ham’ from Woolley Park Farm, perhaps served with gingerbread crunch and confit orange.
Great value ££
Allium Brasserie | (01225) 461603 | abbeyhotelbath.co.uk
There have been a few modifications to the menu of this all-day brasserie with the introduction of a burger and sharing plates. That could be seen as a distraction, but not with an experienced chef like Chris Staines. In a former life, he was a major player on the London scene and has been around long enough to know what people want, whether it’s Japanese salmon tartare with avocado, pink grapefruit, pickled Thai shallots and squid ink crisp, roast loin of pork with creamed leeks, mashed potato, gooseberries and fried sage, or a burnt butter parfait with roasted plums, blackberry sorbet and hazelnut crumble.
Casanis | (01225) 780055 | casanis.co.uk
Named after a type of pastis, this relaxed, family-run bistro occupies two floors of a handsome Georgian building in a pretty pedestrianised street adjacent to the Assembly Rooms. Chandeliers, antiques and crisp white tablecloths accentuate an unmistakably Gallic air for Laurent Couvreur’s bistro classics: a Provençal fish soup with rouille, croûtons and cheese, perhaps, followed by duck magret, fig tatin and fondant potatoes with port and honey jus (left). Finish with pear and vanilla crumble with salted-caramel ice cream or choose from a board of unpasteurised French regional cheeses.
Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen | (01225) 446059 | acornvegetariankitchen.co.uk
When the long-standing vegetarian restaurant Demuths closed in 2013, chef Richard Buckley became the owner, and kept this meat-free establishment very much on the veggie radar. Set across two floors, with wonderful rooftop views of nearby Bath Abbey from the intimate back room, Mr Buckley’s menu follows the seasons to the letter and the creative dishes champion local ingredients. At dinner, truffled broccoli with cauliflower panna cotta and pickled kohlrabi might precede a main course of smoked field mushroom with potato galette, greens and salt-baked celeriac purée, while a lunchtime selection of ‘small plates’ to share is a popular way to explore the menu further.
The Circus Café & Restaurant | (01225) 466020 | thecircuscafeandrestaurant.co.uk
Regulars love the conversational mood of the place, its telling blend of intimacy and bonhomie, and staff with that caring touch – although coming here is mainly about the food. Open for elevenses and light lunches, Circus (above) ups the ante in the evening with candles and simple, ingredient-driven dishes that reveal chef and proprietor Ali Golden’s deep understanding of flavour combinations, underpinned by a love of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson. She proves her mettle with the likes of potted rabbit with carrot, radish and mustard pickle and smoked bacon jam, and Basque-style guinea fowl with peppers, olives, chorizo, wild thyme, tomatoes and sweet paprika.
Article originally published in Waitrose Weekend, 07 January 2016. For more news stories, life-style features, wine recommendations, recipes and weekend entertaining, download the Waitrose Weekend app.
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