Come dine with me around the Roman city of Chester and find out where you can find a bargain bite to eat during your city break
Cuisine has come a long way in Chester since the days of Roman occupation when wheat, barley and oats were daily staples.
The hungry legions
These days it’s legions of tourists and hungry locals - not soldiers - that can be found in hot pursuit of their next satisfying meal. After all, it’s hard work taking in everything Chester has to offer: you’ve got the most complete Roman walls in Britain; the striking black and white buildings; The Rows (unique medieval covered walkways above the ground level shops – look out for vault-like interiors on the ground level); there’s Eastgate Clock, supposedly the most photographed in the UK after Big Ben; Chester Cathedral; the constantly enchanting River Dee, with its ornate bridges and boat trips, plus ducks, swans and determined Arctic Terns hungry for a feed if you’ll indulge them; The Dewa Roman Experience; heart-pounding action at Chester Racecourse; and Chester Zoo on the outskirts of town. Phew!
If that’s got your appetite raging there are dozens of restaurants and cafés to be found within the city’s ancient Roman walls (plus some worthy of mention on the outside of the brick fortress). But with some hidden up in The Rows, some off the trodden tourist trail, and some just plain failing to advertise their deals, how are you meant to find a decent, cheap place to eat?
How I chose my top ten (now eleven!) restaurants and cafés
My opinion is humble, and simply my own. I’ve eaten at all these places, I’ve enjoyed them, they are all in the city centre (you can see a map of my recommendations here). And I would go back to every single one of them. Let me tell you about some of the best (and budget) eateries in Chester. My awards go to:
GAL – best mid-week cheap cuisine
13 Frodsham Street, Chester; 01244 342384
Though its location isn’t up to much (a relatively unremarkable thoroughfare), there’s a reason GAL is always busy – the price.
From Monday to Thursday (5pm - 10pm) you can dine really, really well on three courses, with a bottle of wine per two diners (£16.95 pp). You don’t need vouchers; you should book. Sadly the offer no longer exists early on a Friday and Saturday.
Choose from a varied and constantly changing set menu (my favourites are the deep fried chilli squid or scallops to start; the char sui pork, and I always order the crème brulee – only once has it failed to reach excellence) and enjoy the sparse, bright but comfortable setting.
Near: three minutes to Chester Cathedral (12 Abbey Square; 01244 699 049; www.chestercathedral.com).
STAY: It might not be an inspiring choice, and it certainly lacks the character of Oddfellows and the Grosvenor (my other accommodation recommendations), but you know what you’re getting with the Premier Inn Chester. You get a cheap (rooms can start at £29), basic but comfortable and efficient hotel room. Everything worth seeing in the city (including all the restaurants mentioned here) is within walking distance.
La Fattoria – best Italian
25 Lower Bridge Street, Chester; 01244 317 330; www.lafattoriachester.com
Don’t be put off by the stained plywood exterior – or the bus stop out front. Do drink in the activity of the place, with staff shouting in Italian, and lap up the rustic, heartiness of the meals.
Are you of the ilk that snort at stingy bowls of pasta? La Fattoria is for you. I love the fusilli with king prawns, courgettes and cream sauce (£8.50). Plus there are truly decent house wines for £10.90 and calzones bigger than your head.
Near: it’s a short detour uphill where the walls meet the river at the Old Dee Bridge.
Ruan Orchid – best Asian
14 Lower Bridge Street, Chester; 01244 400 661; www.ruanorchid.com
Faultless and unobtrusive service, authentic food, and an intimate and warm venue, this isn’t the sort of place that reaches 11pm to be drowned by loud and iniquitous beer orders from large groups of revellers.
Get here between 5.30pm and 6.45pm to take advantage of the early sitting menu: two starters and a main course (with rice) for £10.95 per person (I adore the stuffed chicken wings and minced pork money bags, plus a good ol’ Thai Green Curry).
Near: Across the road from La Fattoria. Follow with a drink at Oddfellows next door (see below).
Moules a go-go – best early eats
39 Watergate Row South, Chester; 01244 348 818; www.moulesagogo.co.uk
Though the beat the clock offer has ended (the price you paid was the time you arrived), there's still a decent daytime menu that allows you to indulge on a budget. Choose two courses for £8.95 (Mon - Friday noon until 3pm and 6pm - 7pm, Sat and Sun noon - 6pm); as with the beat the clock offer, the starter menu is limited but the mussels make up for it as a main dish. Choose from sauces like Thai, classic, or, my favourite, Italian (white wine, basil, pesto and cream).
If I’m ordering off the main menu I can’t resist the tree bark garlic and rosemary flat bread (I’ve no idea why it’s “tree bark” either) for £2.95 and the kilo pot of moules and frites with mayo (£10.95). Despite the awful name and the somewhat limiting theme, this good looking and friendly establishment up in The Rows provides for most occasions.
Near: A short walk along one of the main streets (a Roman original, don’t you know) from Grosvenor Shopping Centre (www.thegrosvenorcentre.co.uk), making it a perfect post-shopping lunch with a glass of wine.
Aquavitus – best ambience
58 Watergate Street, Chester; 01244 313 721; www.aquavitus.co.uk
You must forgive the uninspiring frontage. Inside you’ll find a candle-lit affair reminiscent of a large French bistro, with random antiques accompanying the splattering of photographs and maps. It’s haphazard but charming in style and the clientele is a jovial mix of after-work diners, candlelit doe-eyed couples and larger groups of sophisticated partygoers.
We settled on this place after failing to find a table at six other restaurants and couldn’t believe our luck. Saturday nights mean two courses for £15 (between 6pm and 10pm). Just like the restaurant hasn't really decided on its name (you'll see Aquavit and Aquavitus), the kitchen hasn’t really decided on its style (mainly French but you’ll find strange additions such as stir fry and fish kebabs), but when chef whips up the most tender and flavourful Beef Wellington (£20.95) you’ll taste in a long time, you can forgive the indecision.
Ok, so you’ve got to forgive Aquavitus for a lot, but go on, show your merciful side.
Near: Almost opposite Moules a go-go, the racecourse is five minutes away (Roodee Lodge, Watergate Square; www.chester-races.co.uk).
Oddfellows – best style and celeb-spotting
20 Lower Bridge Street, Chester; 01244 400 001; www.oddfellows.biz
Footballer Michael Owen, Davina McCall, presenter Nick Knowles, Ainsley Harriot (who announced his toilet activities to the men’s room), Masterchef presenter Gregg Wallace being unwell in the bathroom sinks, even Daniel Craig’s mum - just a few of the recent celebrity spottings at Oddfellows.
This is not the cheapest option, but you’ll find a profusion of style. I love the giant lamps that act as tables, alfresco pool-side dining and the Bedouin tents. There are specials on throughout the year (check the website or call). Sunday lunch is more of a budget treat with two courses for £12.95 or three for £14.95 (noon until 7pm).
Near: Walk off your lunch on the walls.
STAY: Oddfellows also does a quirky line in boutique-hotel-style accommodation. There are only four suites, each with exquisite details like roll-top baths, exposed beams and designer furnishing. It can be noisy at weekends, thanks to the jumping bar downstairs. Advertised rates start at £200, but check with providers on Simonseeks (see the Make it Happen box above) for prices from £99, especially for last-minute bookings.
The Fat Cat Café – best for kids
85 Watergate Street, Chester; 01244 316 100; www.fatcatcafebars.co.uk
You’d be lucky to just stumble on this one (cross the Ring Road from Watergate Street and keep walking – checking out the cellar-level doors). The Fat Cat is worth it. A sign on entry proudly announces the café/bar “hearts” kids. They do. It’s a very grown up and well turned-out venue (funky patterned wallpaper, chunky leather chairs, library-inspired nooks) and the management request little ones behave themselves. The child in my party was rewarded for her best behaviour with a slice of chocolate brownie and a wave from the jovial chef. The kids’ menu is the main menu at 50% off.
Visit Sunday to Wednesday and grab two courses for a tenner. I could hardly eat the toffee banana pancakes after a very healthy dose of fish and chips, but I soldiered on.
Near: Pick up the walls here, or visit the racecourse (Roodee Lodge, Watergate Square; www.chester-races.co.uk).
STAY: Again, there's little character on show, but the rooms are comfortable and the racecourse is on the doorstep at the Holiday Inn Express Chester Racecourse (rooms around £50 including breakfast). Also just outside are train tracks, so ask for a room on the other side if you're a light sleeper.
The Living Room – best pub-style grub
13 St. Werburgh Street, Chester; 0870 442 2805; www.thelivingroom.co.uk
One of only two awards on this list to a chain restaurant; it’s given for superb food in swanky surroundings (chunky wood, brown silk drapes on walls, modern chandeliers – and check out the white John Lennon-style grand piano downstairs). Some hate the snooty vibe of neighbouring Living Rooms (you know who you are Manchester and Liverpool), but Chester is a bit more chilled – though you’re still likely to have your fashion sense analysed of a busy Saturday night.
It’s pricey, but register on the website to claim vouchers (like 20% off your food bill all week, until 5pm Friday and Saturday), or choose from the £9.95 menu for two courses (all day Sun-Thurs; Fri until 5pm). I’ve never experienced plumper or tastier rope-grown mussels (starter, in white wine and cream sauce; £5.85) and the sharing board of desserts (five for £12.95) is a great way to see how nice your friends really are.
Near: you can almost smell the pews of Chester Cathedral (12 Abbey Square; 01244 699 049; www.chestercathedral.com).
The Blue Moon Café – best for a quick, groovy lunch or coffee
23 The Groves, Chester; 01224 322 481; www.bluemooncafe.eu
One of the reasons I love this joint is I can see it from my house. The others extend to: the jukebox; the 50s/60s décor; the amazing cakes and coffees; random items on the menu such as Scouse (a lamb casserole from not too distant neighbour Liverpool); the riverside location; the friendly staff. Breakfasts, paninis, sandwiches and heartier meals (no frills) start at around a fiver.
Near: Right on the River Dee, with enviable views, Grosvenor Park is behind the café.
The Chester Grosvenor and Spa – best fine dining
56-58 Eastgate Street, Chester; 01244 324 024; www.chestergrosvenor.co.uk
We’re talking the Simon Radley-run fine-dining restaurant; we’re talking a Michelin star; we’re talking smart attire and no kids; we’re talking money.
The tasting menu weighs in at a healthy £80. Don’t be put off. This is an amazing experience. I dined here for my 30th and we still, excuse the pun, “dine out” on the story: a waitress just for the freshly-baked bread; gold on my dessert (gold!); the most incredible panna cotta in my starter (which also included oysters and caviar but the panna cotta is what struck me as simply the highlight of my life’s dining experiences. Yes, it was that good).
But there are special offers to be had. **OFFER EXTENDED** Enjoy a three course meal in the Simon Radley plus coffee for £45 (see www.chestergrosvenor.co.uk; now until August 31 from Tuesday to Friday). Booking is advised, though when we asked we got a table that night (it was a Wednesday). You can also dine on three courses plus coffee in La Brasserie (not as fine as the Simon Radley, but nice and less formal) for £29.50 Mon - Thurs until August 31.
STAY: If flushness has overcome your wallet, you can of course stay at The Chester Grosvenor and Spa. You really are at the beating heart of Chester in this location, with the Eastgate Clock ticking away right outside. Prices for the standard bedrooms start at £205 on the hotel’s own site, but check the providers above to find rates from £99. Every review you read raves about the attentive staff, rightly so.
**UPDATE - new addition**
Francs - best bistro
14 Cuppin Street; 01244 317952; www.francs.co.uk
The oldest independent restaurant in Chester knocks the socks off some of its chain neighbours. It’s unlikely you’ll stumble on this little place, but make sure you seek it out; you won’t be disappointed. I’m a fan of Francs for an early dinner or boozy lunch: that Parisian buzz and clatter of cutlery could drown out the romance of intimate conversations of a Saturday night.
A friendly welcome is followed by an immediate jug of water on the table, chased by attentive and speedy table service. Large ornate mirrors, globe lamps and old French posters adorn the walls; naked wooden tables are dotted here and there; and beams criss-cross the ceiling to complete the look of this grand old terraced building. The lighting is bright and the business of mouths –with both the consumption of food and the telling of tales – makes for a lively and jovial atmosphere.
Wikipedia describes a bistro as “a small restaurant serving moderately priced simple meals in a modest setting”. Francs fits the bill perfectly. There’s nothing pretentious about the menu: moules, Toulouse sausage, pan-fried chicken, potato rostis, steak hache, beef bourgignon, belly pork with a red wine jus. It’s simple French food done really well. It also offers extremely good value. The early bird menu (between 5pm and 6.30pm Tuesday to Saturday and all day Monday) represents fantastic value for money with two courses and a glass of wine for £10. The £7.95 two-course lunch menu is a bargain and on Wednesdays if you buy a large glass of wine it will be topped up all night for free. Main courses average at £12.
Joseph Benjamin (140 Northgate Street; 01244 344 295; www.josephbenjamin.co.uk; mains around £14) - best for food with a conscience (lots of locally-sourced fare), though you’ll rarely find a deal here.
Duttons (10-12 Godstall Lane; 01244 401 869; www.duttonschester.co.uk) - best for lunch, if you have time on your side. I could love this place: good food, nice surroundings, but the service needs to pick up pace.
Lakota (2-3 Music Hall Passage; 01244 344 802; www.lakotachester.co.uk) – best hangover cure. It’s minimalist, but there’s something missing in the decor for me. However, a big breakfast, unlimited coffee, the papers and some chilled out tunes earns the honourable mention.
Yet to be visited…
…and I think they’re going to be good.
The Loft & Terrace at Number Ten and 1539 Restaurant.
I’d love to hear your views on all the eateries mentioned above: those I recommend and those I haven’t visited yet.