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Where to Go Next | English Countryside

Gastropubs have been big news in London for the past few years, but the rest of England has been slow to catch on. Now these British dining spots, which combine the atmosphere of a pub with a menu that aims higher than chicken-and-chips and Scotch eggs, are making their way outside the capital. What's driving the trend in the countryside? City chefs sick of city rates (Americans aren't the only ones who find London costly) are decamping for taverns outside town, and country chefs, keen to keep up, are experimenting with more adventurous flavors. The best country gastropubs reflect the national obsession with fresh, local, organic ingredients. Because the places are informal, you can often eat in either the bar or the dining room, and sticker shock is usually low. Then there's the beer. Most gastropubs are "free houses," meaning that, unlike most pubs, which are owned by major breweries, they can serve any beer they wish. (Some have impressive wine cellars too.) Here, we've focused on the top gastropubs in three slices of the country, and while many offer lodging, we've suggested additional hotel options nearby.

Central England and the Cotswolds

This region—including much of Gloucestershire and parts of Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Warwickshire—is as quaint as the Hobbits' Shire and only about a two-hour drive from London. Some of the prettiest of the centuries-old honey-stone villages, with their buildings topped by mossy slate roofs, are Stow-on-the-Wold, Upper and Lower Slaughter, Broadway, Bourton-on-the-Water and Chipping Camden. Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace, is close by, as is one of the most important stately homes in England, Blenheim Palace, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. For the horticulturally inclined, there are two phenomenal gardens: plantings of old roses and rare shrubs in the Arts & Crafts Hidcote Manor Garden, near Chipping Camden, and the legendary Rosemary Verey's masterpiece at Barnsley House, near Cirencester.

The Gate Hangs High This weathered stone manor house has been much improved by its food-centric managers. The dishes are plainspoken English with ethnic influences and a nod to the Continent: black pudding and bacon rösti (grated and fried potatoes), pork crackling with applesauce, roast duck with orange marmalade. The beer is as excellent as ever, and the management is justly proud of its four new, comfortable crimson bedrooms. The inn's name comes from a tollgate used for taxing ye local farmers (Hook Norton, Banbury, Oxfordshire; 011-44-1608-737-387).

The Fox Australian Ray Pearce turns out staples of the modern bistro—seared scallops, slow-cooked lamb shanks, pâtés—plus a popular Sunday lunch of roast beef with Yorkshire pudding. The interior is all 18th-century charm, with polished stone and terra-cotta floors and giant fireplaces, and the exterior is swathed in Virginia creeper (Lower Oddington, Gloucestershire; 011-44-1451-870-555).

The Lamb Inn Intelligent new-Brit food at a 14th-century Cotswolds stone coach house: This is the very definition of gastropub. An unbroken 300 years of crowd-pleasing service might account for the Lamb's ultraconvivial atmosphere—that and the wide polished floorboards, the worn flagstones, the oak settle (a high-backed wooden bench) and the patina a million tankards have stamped on the bar tables. Dishes are bolder than you'd expect from the rural setting: creamed turnip and smoked bacon soup; seared salmon with pea, coriander and horseradish risotto; marinated venison with a bitter-chocolate-and-orange jus; lime-leaf-and-lemongrass panna cotta. The sunny garden, elegant bedrooms and peaceful setting not far from the center of this charming market town make it an ideal Cotswolds destination (Sheep St., Burford, Oxfordshire;011-44-1993-823-155).

The Trouble House Inn This long, low, whitewashed 18th-century house feels deeply rural, despite having an address in Tetbury, one of the bigger towns hereabouts. The name stems from the terrible farming land around the inn, not to mention its former tendency to inspire agricultural riots and—don't let this spoil your dinner—suicides. But the inn's young owners, Michael and Sarah Bedford, reversed the bad juju when they took over about three years ago. Bedford cooks simply—and extraordinarily well. Braised ox cheeks with wild mushrooms and roasted lemon sole with a potato and bacon cake are typical dishes. You order at the bar and sit on a shabby Chesterfield sofa by one of the stone fireplaces—it's that informal (Cirencester Rd., Tetbury, Gloucestershire; 011-44-1666-502-206).

The Eagle and Child/947AD Restaurant Officially the oldest inn in England, this stone house is as ancient as the restaurant's name, and it comes complete with titillating evidence of medieval witchcraft and bearbaiting. Last year, Alan and Georgina Thompson completed a refurbishment, sensitive to both thousand-year-old beams and diners' cravings for wasabi and quail eggs. There are different menus for the restaurant (rillettes of crab and house-smoked haddock; duck with foie gras, bok choy and braised figs) and the homier pub (local sausages with onion gravy). The town of Stow is among the Cotswolds' most popular, so either go out of season or be prepared for crowds (The Royalist Hotel, Digbeth St., Stow-on-the-Wold, Gloucestershire; 011-44-1451-830-670).

Where to Stay
Whatley Manor You can easily visit the Cotswolds and tour the Georgian city of Bath from this privately owned year-old country hotel styled in a modern vein. The luxuries in the hotel's 23 rooms include antiques and custom furnishings, costly linens and super connectivity. There's also a La Prairie spa, a movie theater for private screenings and bucolic gardens complete with woodland, meadows and swans (doubles from $510; Easton Grey, Malmesbury, Wiltshire; 011-44-1666-822-888).

The Home Counties

Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Hampshire (Bucks, Berks and Hants), in the part of southeast England informally known as the Home Counties, are close to the capital, making them eminently suitable for day trips from London. The Thames Valley, which runs through part of the region, winds between undulating green hills that are lovely for hiking. One of Queen Elizabeth's homes, modest little Windsor Castle (the largest occupied palace in the world), is among the area's major draws. There are two other important piles hereabouts: the early-17th-century Hatfield House, in Hatfield, and the medieval and Georgian Stonor, near Henley-on-Thames. At the opposite end of the grandeur spectrum is the house of the artist Stanley Spencer, with a nearby museum of his quirky work, in Cookham, Berkshire.

The Greyhound Inn, Chalfont St Peter This 14th-century inn is ultrahistoric: The room above the restaurant is where the infamous (at least to every English schoolchild) Judge Jeffreys sentenced hundreds to hanging for such heinous crimes as stealing a loaf of bread. Now his court has become five comfy bedrooms where you can spend the night after feasting on (and paying for) accomplished true-Brit food on the order of shepherd's pie, beef-and-Guinness stew with herb dumplings and calf's liver with pancetta in a red wine sauce. The chef's preparations may be simple, but his ingredients are beautiful, so even dishes that might look boring on the menu never are (High St., Chalfont St Peter, Buckinghamshire; 011-44-1753-883-404).

The Greyhound Inn, Stockbridge This 17th-century hostelry was recently transformed into a 21st-century fishing inn—in back is a tributary of the River Test, famous among fly-fishing folk. Ex-Londoner Darron Bunn cooks plenty of fish too. At lunch the food is simple. Evening menus are ambitious and classical French in inspiration: foie-gras terrine with ham hock and pineapple chutney; pan-fried turbot with scallops and bacon confit. But note that the check has more to do with the foie-gras ambitions than with the village-inn ambience (31 High St., Stockbridge, Hampshire; 011-44-1264-810-833).

The Mole and Chicken As with many gastropubs, you'll need a reservation to eat here, but the atmosphere makes it obvious that this is a pub at heart. The walls are of pink-painted plaster and rough stone; there are Windsor chairs and low tables, and log fires arranged around a central bar. Choose from 40 malt whiskies and a menu that goes pan-Euro and beyond (satay of chicken and shrimp; lamb shoulder slow-roasted with honey, garlic and rosemary). In the summer, the garden is the scene of whole-hog roasts (Easington, Buckinghamshire; 011-44-1844-208-387).

Bel and the Dragon The unusual name belongs to four sister pubs, all owned by Michael and Andrea Mortimer, who have a passion for finding wrecked historic buildings close to water, restoring them and installing great chefs. The one in Cookham, a stunning Tudor house near the River Thames path, was the first to open. (The fourth, in Reading, opened in March.) All four share a culinary philosophy: The food is seasonal, and much of it is cooked on the grill in the center of the room. Here that might mean lamb kebab with eggplant salad, or tuna loin with tomato chutney. The room is rustic and cannily lit for maximum ambience; service is especially friendly—another Mortimer priority (High St., Cookham, Berkshire; 011-44-1628-521-263).

Where to Stay
The Grove This manor house secluded in its own 300-acre park was England's most impressive hotel opening of 2003. Even if you're not staying, go gawk at the opulent decor. There's also a huge spa and three excellent restaurants, of which the star is Colette's, featuring Chris Harrod's masterly haute British-modern menus (doubles from $400; Chandler's Cross, Hertfordshire; 011-44-1923-807-807).

Thamesmead House Hotel A chic B&B-size villa stands next to the cricket green in Henley-on-Thames, the town famous for the annual Royal Regatta in July. The rooms have fresh flowers and tiny bathrooms with powerful showers—never a given in England (doubles from $160; Remenham Lane, Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire; 011-44-1491-574-745).

East Anglia

Most of East Anglia has scant tourist trade...except, of course, for Cambridge. But there are many attractions in the region besides Cambridge, the town an hour's drive from London that's famed for its university and for medieval buildings like the Round Church. Suffolk has postcard-ready cottages; Norfolk has flint seaside towns, medieval churches and a sweet capital, Norwich, about two and a half hours by car from London. And you'll find stately homes all over the place: the Jacobean Blickling Hall and the Palladian-style Holkham Hall, both in Norfolk; Audley End, in Essex; and the Earl of Bristol's eccentric Ickworth House, in Suffolk. The region, which grows high-quality malting barley, is also known for its new-wave microbreweries: In 2002, the owners formed a co-operative (East Anglian Brewers) with the intention of turning East Anglia into the Napa Valley of beer.

The Cricketers "Naked Chef" Jamie Oliver first stood by a stove here—the place belongs to his mum and dad, Sally and Trevor Oliver. While Jamie tends to lean more Italian, Oliver père has strong multi-culti tendencies, but he keeps his Asian, French, Italian and Brit seasonings in their separate dishes, which veer toward the classic: lamb and rosemary pie; fresh tagliatelle with lemon and ricotta. The dining room is old-fashioned cozy, down to the floral fabrics and exposed black beams (Wicken Rd., Clavering, Essex; 011-44-1799-550-442).

The Crown Hotel, Wells-next-the-Sea This former coach house, with 11 bedrooms, rises above a pretty fishing port. The marvelous Euro-meets-Pacific Rim menus in the restaurant match the restrained decor of color-washed walls and cool linens. Among the dishes are braised lamb shanks with tamarind jus and pease pudding (made with that English classic, mushy peas) and a chocolate mousse flavored with olive oil. The pub has its own specialties, like a sharing plate (smoked chicken salad, seafood spring rolls) served on a slate slab (The Buttlands, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk; 011-44-1328-710-209).

The Crown Hotel, Southwold Not long ago, a place like The Crown would have been all chintz, horse brasses and pewter tankards, but this recently redone restaurant-pub-hotel is pared down, with country kitchen tables and high-backed wooden benches. Bistro-style dishes (leek terrine with a poached quail egg; pigeon with sauerkraut and mustard potatoes) are paired with a wines-by-the-glass list that changes monthly and—since Adnams, the local brewery, is the owner—the entire Adnams range, fresh and perfectly kept (High St., Southwold, Suffolk; 011-44-1502-722-275).

The Hoste Arms Already one of the most renowned gastropubs in England, this lemon-yellow manor house has just raised its standards a few more notches. There are air-conditioned dining rooms, more bedrooms (for a total of 36) and a design scheme that features a chocolate-and-cream palette and leather sofas. The unbearably pretty village is a favorite of London escapees, who are not easily impressed—hence the scope of the menu: foie gras with black pudding risotto; hoisin-marinated pork belly with Thai rice noodles; and a 180-plus-bottle wine list (The Green, Burnham Market, King's Lynn, Norfolk; 011-44-1328-738-777).

The Three Horseshoes What looks like the quintessential English country cottage turns out to be a very rare bird indeed: a chef-managed pub with a magnificent wine list. Chef Richard Stokes produces big flavors with interesting U-turns, but no gimmicks: "bacon and eggs" of twice-cooked pork belly and quail's eggs with sauce gribiche; roast pigeon with mascarpone and cotechino sausage. But be sure to make reservations, as this place, an easy drive from Cambridge and no secret locally, gets packed (Madingley High St., Madingley, Cambridgeshire; 011-44-1954-210-221).

Where to Stay
Strattons One glance at the eight incredibly detailed, very comfortable and slightly fanciful (Botticelli's Venus on a bathroom wall!) rooms will tell you why this Queen Anne villa is always booked solid. Secreted in its own close off the market square, it's peaceful—and unfailingly eco-conscious, from the organic bath products to the bantam hens on the front lawn (doubles from $120; 4 Ash Close, Swaffham, Norfolk; 011-44-1760-723-845).

For more information on travel to England, check out visitbritain.com and virgin-atlantic.com.

Published May 2004
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