Who’d have thought that Essex would have so many desirable foodie hotspots that also serve up great accommodation? In fact, the county has been something of a pioneer in this respect – home to everything from a couple of trail-blazing gastropubs to a terrific local hotel group whose food offering is as classy as its rooms. Essex’s coastal bounty is also well represented in a number of venues that deliberately make the most of the fish, seafood and in particular the oysters and mussels for which the destination is famous. The county may have plenty of lovely places to stay, but here's our pick where food is very much the real star of the show.
There are influences from the United States, Scandinavia and elsewhere in this cool harbourfront hotel, which trades on Harwich’s maritime heritage and has at the same time reinvented itself as one of East Anglia’s best places to stay, eat and drink. The upstairs restaurant is crisp and contemporary, and makes the most of the views from its floor-to-ceiling windows and the handful of tables out on its wrought-iron balcony. The cooking is high quality and there’s a deliberate emphasis on the sea, with three or four fish and seafood options (including local oysters and mussels, and crabs and lobsters in summer). The downstairs Navyard bar (pictured) is an appealing place for a drink, popular with locals for cocktails and its 140-strong 'Gin Library'.
This well-known Essex country inn was formerly run by Jamie Oliver’s parents, and was recently taken over by the East Anglian Chestnut Inns group. Conscious of its long-established reputation for food and hospitality, they aim to maintain the status quo while sprucing the place up, and so far they’re doing a great job. The food is unashamedly British pub-style, with classics like steaks, pies and fish and chips regularly featuring – plus local lamb, homemade pasta, and lots of options for veggies. Lunch and dinner menus are short – just five or so starters and mains – while on Sundays there is a special lunch menu that includes slow-roasted lamb cooked in the Olivers’ old pizza oven, alongside vegetarian Wellington and various other roasts.
The restaurant is at the heart of this hotel set in the middle of Constable Country, and offers food all day, in a bright and modern setting that makes the most of the views of the garden outside. It’s a popular place to eat for non-residents, so the atmosphere is usually one of buzzy good cheer, which spills out onto the large terrace in summer (and even in winter they keep some outside seating on a heated, enclosed terrace). The menu changes with the seasons and is supplemented with a range of daily specials, but their steaks, fish and chips, and Mr G’s shepherds pie (made to the owner’s mother’s recipe) are always available and very good.
The hotel of the highly regarded and long-established Le Talbooth restaurant down the road, Maison Talbooth was the first in the excellent Essex-Suffolk Milsoms group, and it opened almost half a century ago when en-suite facilities were a rarity and black-and-white televisions considered an innovation. These days its style is that of a relaxed country house, at which standards are high and nothing is too much trouble. The hotel serves an excellent breakfast in its Garden Room from a menu of cooked options and a buffet with the usual cereals, fruit and pastries. They also serve lunch and afternoon tea but the main event is dinner at Le Talbooth, where you're whisked in two minutes by the hotel's Range Rover, and which occupies the almost ludicrously picturesque beamed old tollhouse on the tranquil river Stour.
This formerly defunct old pub was transformed into a comfy restaurant with rooms and is thriving under the guidance of the current chef-patron Paul Croasdale, whose perfectly pitched British menus set the tone for what is a thoroughly enjoyable stay. The food is meticulously prepared and presented and delivered from the calmest open kitchen you’ll ever see, with an emphasis on simple, almost entirely British produce and unfussy techniques. Post-meal, head to one of the three bedrooms; each named after rare breed pigs, they are individually furnished according to shape and size in a contemporary style, with bright splashy fabrics and king or super-king beds.
This Essex bolthole couldn’t help but be a winning combination, blending all that’s best about English pubs with some great Italian cooking. Plus it’s located in one of southeast England’s most attractive and historic villages – Dedham, on the Essex-Suffolk borders. Italian food is very much the focus of the menu here, and they really get it right, with a regularly changing monthly menu that not only uses good quality local produce but is also flexible in its definition of ‘Italian’. That’s not to say it’s not authentic, but it has an earthiness that is perfectly in tune with the pubby surroundings. There’s always pasta and a risotto – homemade pappardelle with lamb ragu, linguini with clams – a choice of hearty meat and fish dishes and a range of good quality steaks that takes in everything from hangar to prime rib-eye.
Current owners Diana and James Donoghue took over this establishment 10 years ago but it remains at heart a country pub – very cosy, with mismatched furniture (including a few family heirlooms), wood-burning stoves in each of the three rooms, wall brasses and real ales. A dedicated husband-and-wife-team (who have worked in the hospitality business for years) the food is seasonal and unfussy while the rooms – in a separate, purpose built structure behind – are spacious and contemporary. There are a few staples they always have – fish-and-chips, a homemade pie of some description and always roast beef on a Sunday. Otherwise expect half a dozen starters –a soup, some pâté, a goat’s cheese salad, maybe a scotch egg – followed by roughly the same number of hearty meat and fish main courses and the wine list is equally as crowd pleasing.
Owner Sherri Singleton is a long way from her roots in California but seems thoroughly at home in the backwaters of Essex, having rescued a grotty pub over a decade ago and turned it into one of the foremost places to eat in the area. To be honest, it's not really a pub anymore and doesn't try to be; it's a self-confessed 'restaurant with rooms' and has all the contemporary style that implies – a dining room where you want to linger, some very up-to-date rooms, and the bonus of a cookery school and kitchen shop if the food so inspires you. The menu is changed regularly and always accompanied by daily specials but usually full of things you want to eat – desserts include fashionable Italian classics like affogato and pannacotta, and most requested; Sherri's mum's cheesecake.