Welcome to my Chester - a small city crammed with history, great shopping, upmarket hotels, lively nightlife and a tasty food scene. Ideal for a short break in the north west of England
You often take for granted those places of amazing beauty and history that you find on your own doorstep; but thankfully my love affair with the city of Chester continues to thrive.
I was brought up in The Wirral but my dad used to work in Chester so I’d be over there quite a lot as a kid - I’m still there a lot now. I must visit once a month, at least; as a family we love it. It’s a truly great English city. The river, the shops, the Rows, the pubs and restaurants, the amazing amount of family activities; it’s a city for everyone to enjoy.
My restaurant Greens (www.greensdidsbury.co.uk) is in Manchester and my television work takes me everywhere but I became patron of the Chester Food and Drink Festival pretty much when it first kicked off and I’ve been with them ever since (www.chesterfoodanddrink.com). It attracts tens of thousands of people every Easter thanks to a simply spectacular range of local produce. People know their food in Chester and they don’t take kindly to sub-standard offerings. It’s a brilliant city to come and tickle your taste buds in. For its size, there’s a great choice of cafés, restaurants and pubs and you find little evidence of the High Street chains that you’ll find in other cities of Chester’s size.
Where to go
My kids love Chester Zoo. Obviously it’s not right in the city centre but it’s easily reached by taking a bus or train from Chester. There are thousands of animals to see (www.chesterzoo.org; admission £12.95 adults, £9.95 children aged four and above).
I always tell people to head down to the river when they visit Chester. It’s a wonderful way to see the history and feel the atmosphere of such a vibrant and interesting city. Take a trip on a boat on the river, or just wander along the banks. I also love Grosvenor Park; it’s a beautifully groomed green space and the kids love feeding the squirrels. You can enjoy great views down over the River Dee.
You’ll also find lovely views of the city as you make your way around the city walls. They’re the most complete defensive walls in Britain and on a clear day it’s a lovely walk. Not that you get lots of clear, dry days in Chester. It does rain a lot! Be careful of planning a trip to Chester just for the walls, as currently there are a number of maintenance projects taking place so you can’t make the complete circuit without a few diversions.
If shopping’s your thing then my best advice is to simply wander around the city, making sure to head up the steps to the city’s famous upper level shops on the Rows, and ramble around the place. You’ll make lots of fascinating discoveries of little independent shops.
Where to eat and drink
The Old Harkers Arms (www.harkersarms-chester.co.uk) in Russell Street is my favourite pub in Chester; in fact, it’s probably one of my favourite pubs in England. It has good food and a nice atmosphere. It’s a proper traditional boozer and it just oozes everything you want from that kind of pub. I often order the braised lamb shoulder with redcurrant and thyme gravy and new potatoes (£13.95). You’ll find hearty meat dishes here, pickles, chips, crumbles and warming puddings; it’s pub grub done really well. They also have fifteen different beers on tap – what more could you ask for from a city centre pub?
If I’m feeling a bit flush I’ll head to the Grosvenor in Eastgate Street in the city centre (The Chester Grosvenor and Spa - www.chestergrosvenor.com; 01244 895618). The food is fabulous and the surroundings are incredibly opulent. Simon Radley at The Chester Grosvenor is the fine dining restaurant and boasts a Michelin star; rightly so, the food is something special. There’s also a bar and lounge and you can take the Grosvenor Tea in the afternoon (£21.50) or go for The Indulgent Grosvenor Tea (£29.50) with champagne and strawberries as fancy extras. You get little cake stands and finger sandwiches and lots of tea. It’s a real indulgence of an afternoon.
Another restaurant I can heartily recommend in the city centre is the Ruan Orchid (Lower Bridge Street; 01244 400661; www.ruanorchid.com). I cook loads of Thai food and this place serves seriously great dishes. I’ve been to Thailand a number of times and my best friend lives in Bangkok, so I know a few things about Thai cuisine. It’s a really decent place to eat, which won’t break the bank, and the staff are incredibly friendly.
I also love the Falcon pub (01244 342060), just up the road from the Ruan Orchid in Lower Bridge Street. It’s another good old-style boozer, which Chester has in abundance. Wood panelling, open fires, oak beams; you know the kind of place.
There aren’t many modern establishments that I can think of, let alone recommend. It’s all about the “old” in Chester.
Oddfellows, also in Lower Bridge Street, is inside an old building, but the interior has been completely revamped (01244 40001; www.oddfellows.biz). It has good food, good drink and good atmosphere – exactly the components you want from an evening dining out. It was completed and opened in the last half of 2009 and a lot of money has been invested to create a unique and quirky place. Giant Alice in Wonderland-type lamps adorn the tables in the bar and, whether you dine in the Pantry downstairs, or the restaurant upstairs, you’ll enjoy your meal and the surroundings.
Where to stay
Living in Manchester, I don’t have a lot of need to stay in Chester, but the odd times I do, and the places I recommend to other visitors, are The Chester Grosvenor and Spa, or if you’re on a smaller budget, the MacDonald New Blossoms Hotel Chester. Both are in the city centre and offer luxury five and four star experiences, respectively.
There are many other city centre hotels and Chester boasts lots of B&Bs for the smaller budget.
Doing the job I do, I’m always on the lookout for food and ingredients that have been produced locally. It sounds like the “in thing” these days, but it’s something I’ve always believed in as a chef. Any chef worth his or her salt will say exactly the same thing.
There’s a wealth of great produce from the Cheshire area and on a wider note the north west is blessed when it comes to fantastic produce. One of the best places in the city is the Chester Cheese Shop (Northgate Street; 01244 346240; www.chestercheeseshop.co.uk). It’s been going for a quarter of a century and has more than 200 different cheeses available made from cow, goat and ewe milk. My restaurant buys all our cheese from the wholesale side of the business; their cheeses are amazing and Chester is lucky to have such an incredible shop.
There is good produce to be found in Chester Market too (Princess Street; www.chestermarket.com). It’s not the most attractive market in the world, but the things available, and the sheer experience of being in a buzzing market atmosphere, is something people should experience.
Northgate Street is a good little foodie stretch actually. There’s a really great butchers on the street and a little deli called Joseph Benjamin (01244 344295; www.josephbenjamin.co.uk), which is run by two brothers who make their own breads and brown sauce; it’s incredible. When they say homemade, they mean everything is made on premises and their chutneys, pates and pastries are wonderful. They’ve also expanded and their small restaurant is cosy, stylish and dishes up some of the produce from the deli – followed by a fine cheese plate from our friends down the road – The Chester Cheese Shop!
My best advice is to visit Chester, and get your own taste of one of England’s finest cities.