The next best thing to eating good food, may be talking about it. Certainly asking in the Hobbs Parker offices about people’s favourite restaurants leads to a mouth-watering conversation about how spoilt for choice we are for good eateries locally. We’d like to share with you some of our favourite restaurants in this part of Kent and just over the border into East Sussex.
High on the list for most is Rocksalt in Folkestone. Clinging to the edge of the sea, this strikingly modern, glass-sided restaurant sits half on the harbour wall, half jutting out over the water. Regularly cited as one of the UK’s top coastal restaurants, diners are engaged in equal measure by the views of a working fishing harbour and the taste of expertly produced seasonal Kentish food. Head chef, Mark Sargeant, trained with Gordon Ramsay and shows an assured and confident hand with his use of regional produce, including – of course – the freshest fish and seafood imaginable.
Whilst the main event here is undoubtedly fine dining, Rocksalt also manages to deliver a relaxed and encompassing approach to food. As well as dinner, you can drop in for coffee or fabulous bespoke cocktails in the sleek upstairs bar. Lighter options are available too in the form of brunch, bar snacks or the well-priced set lunch.
One colleague confessed, ‘Rocksalt even passed the scrutiny of some foodie friends from London’. If you live in East Kent, you’ll appreciate that’s high praise indeed.
Webbe’s at The Fish Café, Rye
Another piscine favourite is Webbe’s at The Fish Café along the coast in Rye. Combining a restaurant, café and cookery school in an imposing four-storey building, this restaurant is a landmark in the town. Family owned and run – along with three other restaurants in and around East Sussex – the menu offers an eclectic array of dishes from cuttlefish and tempura, to first-rate fish and chips and Rye Bay fish stew. A star on the menu is the Fish Board – a wooden slab generously covered with pickled herring, crab, smoked mackerel pate and cayenne sprats.
Webbe's offers a delicious dinner and is now right on the map for us!
— Simon Godfrey, Director at our Tenterden Office
Tuscan Rye, Rye
Head up into the narrow streets within the city walls and you will find Tuscan Rye (also known as Tuscan Kitchen). It can be easy to miss: the restaurant sits behind the leaded windows of a centuries old house, giving it rather a muted appearance. Inside though, Florentine chef, Franco, and his engaging British wife, Jen, will transport you straight to ‘Mama’s kitchen’ in Tuscany. The couple pride themselves in serving faithful Tuscan regional dishes – and they do so with immense charm.
Franco grew up on the family vineyard where he was taught to cook by his Italian grandmother. The green and zesty olive oil served in the restaurant is pressed from the family’s own groves. Each dish is homemade, with carefully crafted ingredients and detailed authenticity, from the artisan cured meats and salamis, to the perfect pasta including the delectable potato and thyme tortellini served with a rich meat ragu.
Franco’s love and passion has been suitably rewarded through his receiving of an ‘Ospitalità Italiana’ which is awarded in recognition and to certify the best Italian restaurants all over the world. Tuscan Rye is only one of 12 restaurants outside of London to have received such accreditation.
Come with a gaggle of friends (tables of six or more) and you will be served ‘family style’, with a chef’s banquet of sharing dishes. Or turn up as a drop-in before or after a trip to Rye’s art-house cinema, The Kino, around the corner and you’ll be welcome for a one-dish supper – perhaps rabbit served with rosemary and black olives. For more formal or celebratory occasions it’s best to make a reservation as Tuscan Rye gets booked up weeks ahead. Believe us, it’s worth it – and if you refer to Harden’s or even the Michelin Guide, you’ll see they agree.
The Landgate Bistro, Rye
For a more intimate evening, The Landgate Bistro, definitely fits the brief. Set in two interconnected Georgian cottages, this pretty restaurant sits just below the arched stone gate of the same name – the medieval entrance to the Citadel of Rye. This is one of those places ‘where chefs come to eat’, tucking into the best and freshest local ingredients. The kitchen takes pride in its relationships with the fishermen, farmers and hunters around Rye as well as their own forager who supplies wild garlic, mushrooms, alexanders, sea kale and nettles to the restaurant. All these ingredients are imaginatively used in a menu which combines classics with the best of modern British cooking.
The dining area is small, but the tables are nicely spaced with crisp white linen cloths and elegant artwork on the walls. Diners are a mix of young and old, local and visitors. For a restaurant serving such accomplished and seemingly formal food, the atmosphere is relaxed and inviting. We think The Landgate Bistro is a charming place to eat where everyone feels welcome. Indeed, the owners say it all, ‘come as you are’.
The Sportsman, Seasalter
On the subject of chefs’ favourites, another lauded restaurant is found on Kent’s north coast close to Whitstable. The Sportsman at Seasalter is a former pub set in the scrubby hinterland that edges the Thames Estuary. Difficult to find, at the point at which you think you must be lost, just keep going… When you finally arrive at an unremarkable looking pub, it’s possible to think you’re still in the wrong place, surrounded as you are by flat marshes, desultory caravans and old bungalows. Even the sea is hidden by a defensive wall.
Once inside though, all is forgiven – especially when it comes to the Michelin-starred cooking. Chef, Stephen Harris, is largely self-taught and it’s clear he has made it his mission to take his inspiration from the unlikely landscape around him. The marshland, fertile local soils and sea provide a showcase for his skills and show his engagement with the local environment. Slip sole is grilled with seaweed butter; rock oysters come with pickled cucumber and Avruga caviar whilst smoked mackerel is served with Bramley apple jelly and horseradish. There is plenty of locally-reared meat and game on offer too.
The Sportsman, Seasalter – TripAdvisor; Telephone: 01227 273370
Chalked-up blackboards list the daily menu options. Choose à la carte, or go for the clever daily tasting menu – an indulgent but wonderful five courses which allows you to sample all that is best from the kitchen. For an even more greedy but sublime extravagance, book ahead for the nine course tasting menu.
For some, the wooden floorboards and scrubbed tables of The Sportsman suggest more gastro-pub than top-ranked restaurant, but it feels refreshing not to be distracted by the fancy formalities of a more traditional establishment. And frankly the food is so stonkingly good, you won’t care.
I took my wife here as a surprise and after a brilliant lunch, The Sportsman has remained one of our favourite restaurants in Kent.
— Simon Godfrey, Director at our Tenterden Office
Tenterden, like Rye, is a Cinque Port town. Similarly to Rye, the sea has long since retreated, but there’s still good, fresh fish on offer at Montalbano, a popular Italian restaurant housed in a handsome Georgian villa at the end of the high street. This is a family run enterprise, staffed by cheery Italians who are happy to explain the menu and the daily specials.
The décor is modern yet elegant so that dining here feels like an occasion, as reflected in the groups of people celebrating birthdays and anniversaries alongside tables of friends and office workers. The bread and the pasta are all homemade and very good; and whilst some old favourites are to hand – as you’d expect or even hope to see in your local trattoria – there are some unusual treats too, such as Burrata Pugliese (pouches of mozzarella stuffed with cheese – and who doesn’t like a cheese-on-cheese combo?) and a classy Bresaola served with walnuts and a creamy dressing. There are robust flavours and verve in other dishes too, including pear and goats’ cheese ravioli and a colourfully presented sea bass served with tiger prawns and cherry tomatoes. New to their exciting menu is the introduction of the Flambé Experience which takes place on a Wednesday night – a night when things really hot up… Make way for Salvatore as he conjures up a feast in a flash as he flambés his customers’ dishes right before their eyes! Last but by no means least there is the drinks menu. Sassy espresso martinis keep the younger set happy in the cosy bar area plus there are good bottles aplenty on the well-appointed wine list. Giorni felici!
Montalbano, Tenterden – TripAdvisor; Facebook; Telephone: 01580 388182
The Swan at Chapel Down, Tenterden
There are many things to commend Tenterden as a place to live, and one of them has to be the Chapel Down Vineyard – home to some of the very best sparkling wines, whites, reds and roses in the world. Don’t just take our word for it, check out the awards on their website. Tours and tastings at their site in Smallhythe make for a great day out in their own right, but the restaurant at the vineyard – The Swan at Chapel Down – is pretty special too.
Set in an elevated position with heavenly views across 22 acres of immaculate vines with rolling hills and woods beyond, it’s tempting to just stare out of the restaurant windows or take a balcony seat with a lingering glass or two of wine … But that would be to miss out on some very imaginative and deft cooking from head chef, Tom Genty. Contemporary British is the flavour of the seasonally changing menu, with combinations such as duck breast with glazed radishes; venison ragout with kale pesto and baked elderflower cheesecake with almond crumble.
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The main restaurant building – with a smart Wine & Fine Food Shop below – has the appearance of a black-clad barn. Inside it’s fashionably and industrially glamorous with exposed metal struts, hefty wooden tables and show-stopper chandeliers. At night, the soft lighting pools over the tables in a very seductive way and there are alluring glimpses of the ‘chef’s table’ – a private dining room perched up above the main restaurant with views direct into the kitchen.
The zinc-clad bar with its studded leather chairs, light installations and contemporary wood-burner feels more ‘hipster club’. There you can snack, have afternoon tea or quaff artisan beers, including Chapel Down’s phenomenally successful, Curious Brew.
News note: In 2018 Chapel Down is opening a destination brewery for Curious Brew in central Ashford. Exciting! Watch this space…
Heading north out of Tenterden brings us to a couple of very different husband-and-wife team restaurants. Apicius – named after a Roman gourmand – serves exquisite food with confidence and simplicity in this acclaimed high street restaurant in the Wealden town of Cranbrook.
When the restaurant first came on the scene, Tim Johnson was able to put his culinary experience and training into full action. His CV not only boasts training under Nico Ladenis in London but also Roger Verde in the South of France. With increasing confidence in his newly opened kitchen, a Michelin star for Tim’s cooking swiftly followed, along with all the hoopla that ensued: pressure to accommodate more covers, extended opening times, more staff … It all detracted from Tim’s vision, along with that of his front-of-house wife, Faith, of simply cooking and serving good food to a few people in their own restaurant.
So they closed for a while and Cranbrook mourned. But then a new and simplified Apicius re-opened its doors late in 2016 with a notably pared down menu which changes fortnightly, offering just six dishes. Strictly adhering to whatever best local ingredients are on offer, diners can choose two or three courses, or to cherry-pick across smaller portions of them all.
Inside the former shop, it’s a bit like a pop-up restaurant with a few modest tables dotted about and clean, simple décor. Clearly the focus here is all on the food. Deft and intricate, you might enjoy asparagus and girolle risoni with parmesan and crème fraiche, or honey roast quail with Jerusalem artichoke purée and crisps. Tim cooks away in the kitchen and Faith does all the rest. You don’t get much simpler – or better – than that. Booking is essential.
The West House, Biddenden
Nearby, in the historic village of Biddenden, it’s possible to drive through without actually noticing The West House at all. Based in a 16th century weavers’ cottage, the restaurant is one of a row of higgledy-piggledy period buildings that line Biddenden’s pretty high street. Its discreet signage and low-slung doorway and windows make it all but anonymous to those who don’t yet know of its impressive reputation.
Having held a Michelin star for 15 consecutive years and winning numerous other accolades (far too many to fit on a 16th century mantelpiece), the team are no strangers to success. You may have also seen The West House feature in a variety of TV programmes over the years, or come across chef-proprietor, Graham Garrett’s autobiographical cookbook, ‘Sex and Drugs and Sausage Rolls’, which celebrates his life so far as a rock-star-turned-Michelin-starred chef. Yes, really.
But step over the threshold and rock star bling is definitely not on the menu. The dining area has plenty of stylish art and smart soft furnishings, but the feeling is more rustic with ancient beams and exposed brickwork and the service is intentionally informal. You might imagine you’ve had a dinner invitation and arrived in someone’s home, for this is truly a family affair with both Graham’s wife, Jackie, at front of house along with the couple’s grown-up son.
Described as ‘ruthlessly seasonal’, the food is top-notch with noteworthy depths of flavour and imaginative presentation. Graham, who trained with Nico Ladenis and Richard Corrigan, serves up complex dishes delivered with a deceptive simplicity of style. On the menu you may find skate wing served with mussel masala or smoked haddock with a bacon dressing. Local and foraged ingredients abound – such as the rosehips and nettles used in the aperitifs.
The West House is a special place with a beguiling sense of a well-run family business. Push the boat out and book ahead for a truly memorable meal out.
The West House, Biddenden – TripAdvisor; Facebook; Telephone: 01580 291341
A must for any special occasion – the radish appetiser was delicious!
The Wife of Bath, Wye
Further unusual cuisine is to be found at The Wife of Bath in Wye. A sister restaurant to Rocksalt, this impressively restored village house couldn’t be more different in style or cooking. Northern Spain is the influence, with many of the ingredients imported direct from the Basque, Cataluna and Galicia. The food is adventurous, combining rustic flavours of saffron and smoked paprika with refined re-workings of English classics, such as the rice pudding gratin with Seville marmalade. Enjoy croquettas and sardines tapas-style at the friendly bar, or go the whole hog with shared platters of Iberico pork or rabbit served with chorizo in the main restaurant.
The Wife of Bath, Wye – TripAdvisor; Facebook; Telephone: 01233 812232
Whatever type of meal you decide on, the welcome from the staff at The Wife of Bath will be friendly and it’s hard not to be enthralled by the chance to sample such excitingly different dishes and flavours. This is a really interesting newcomer and one to watch.
This is just down the hill from my house and serves up some lovely grub and offers a great service – what more does anyone want?!
— Bill Lightfoot, Director - Development Consultancy
Destination restaurants in Ashford itself are perhaps thin on the ground, but we rate a number of local favourites. Of particular note is Amici which takes everything that is good about a neighbourhood trattoria and gives it a modern twist. Nino and Massimo are the Italian chefs and the fact this is a family run business is evidenced by the friendly welcome.
Housed in a little nook of 16th century buildings off Ashford’s high street, the restaurant is bright and cheery inside with colourful décor and a bar piled high with salamis, bottles and coffee paraphernalia. In the summer there are tables outside on the cobbled pavement.
On the menu you will find traditional favourites, plus some bolder choices such as spaghetti n’duja or a starter of creamy chestnut mushrooms with sliced steak. They also serve cicchetti, the Venetian version of tapas, along with homemade gnocchi amongst other well prepared and presented dishes. Amici also serves a varied and impressive range of vegan and vegetarian options – often commended in diners’ reviews.
We think the place is a little gem, offering particular value at lunchtime. And looking at the buzzy tables of friends, office workers, families and shoppers who regularly crowd in, we’re not alone in that judgement.
Trattoria Romana, Ashford
Similar in offering good value, authentic Italian food is Trattoria Romana in Bank Street. Another family owned and run restaurant, here you will find all the favourites honed from 30 years of serving up what Ashford loves best. From spaghetti carbonara and lasagne, to fillet of sole Aurora and a juicy veal Milanese with braised celery, everything is freshly prepared and carefully put together. Much celebrated is the famous Trattoria Romana sweet trolley, groaning under the collective weight of homemade cakes, profiteroles, tiramisu and a renowned banoffee pie. Is it on the trolley? Yes, it most certainly is….
It’s a popular venue for date night or friend reunions so booking ahead is definitely advised (I’ve never yet managed to ‘drop in’ …). Don’t come for the style or the cachet, come for the food, the value and the good cheer.
Pizza Express, Ashford
Another place that deserves comment is the old faithful, Pizza Express. We have two branches in Ashford. The first, in North Street (just along from Amici – see above), is in a handsomely restored period building with a pretty courtyard garden to the rear. Tables are squeezed in – dictated in part by the building’s layout, but the feeling is cosy and welcoming.
The second Pizza Express is at the McArthur Glen Designer Outlet close to Ashford’s train station. Here, in a building designed by Richard Rogers, you will find a dramatic, contemporary space with banquettes and over-sized lighting above the tables. It’s super stylish and perfect for a drop-in either as a break from shopping or during the early evening when the outlet quietens down.
The thing we love about Pizza Express is the consistency of good food and good service. The best of the original pizzas still line up on the menu (American, Fiorentina, La Reine), but just when you think maybe it’s all getting a bit sames-ville, they reinvent themselves with new recipes. At the moment we’re loving the Zapparoli – a pizza with chicken and n’duja sausage loaded on top of cheese and smoky creamed corn.
You can order takeaway pizzas too. Yum. Pass the phone, someone please….
Po Thai, Ashford
For somewhere with more eastern promise, the recently opened Po Thai has filled a gap in Ashford. In what was once an old school (and latterly even a nightclub apparently), we now have an authentic Thai restaurant, something that has been a rarity in this part of Kent.
It makes a handsome restaurant with huge arched windows, a vaulted ceiling and even a gallery with romantic tables for two along its length. The bar area is a fun place to meet for a pre-meal Singha or cocktail. There’s outside seating too in the fairy-light filled forecourt.
The food offers the best of Thai favourites along with excellent homemade dim sum, fresh seafood, crisp sea bass and some more unusual dishes including Weeping Tiger (made with 28 day matured beef) and Sweet Mango with Sticky Rice.
This is great spur-of-the-moment place as they welcome drop-ins, although booking may be advisable on busy evenings, especially on their increasingly popular buffet nights.
Now, everyone has their favourite Indian restaurant and there are several that could be recommended in and around Ashford, but two that consistently appear on our list of favourites are the Kennington Tandoori and The Everest Inn.
Kennington Tandoori, Kennington
Whilst the Kennington Tandoori doesn’t look too alluring from the outside, just one in a line of unremarkable shops in an Ashford suburb, inside the food is a definite cut above average with fine flavours and good spicing. There is a light touch too with minimal use of ghee and oils, making the food feel fresher and healthier. And it is with good reason that the coconut chutney has a keen following. You can eat in or take away.
The Everest Inn, Ashford
The Everest Inn is more of a place for an occasion, set in a large converted building close to the town station. Here the speciality is Nepalese food so that some of the menu choices and ingredients seem excitingly different. Favourites included the Lakeside Fish Dry-Fry where fried fish comes crusted with mustard, garlic, lemon juice and ginger; along with Gorkhali lamb with Nepalese spices and yoghurt; or Momo, The Everest’s signature steamed chicken or lamb dumplings served with fresh tomato chutney. With lots of room, it’s popular with big parties, so if you want a quieter time, head there midweek.
The Everest Inn, Ashford – TripAdvisor; Facebook; Telephone: 01233 643643
Eastwell Manor, Boughton Lees
Sometimes though, only extravagance and the best will do. In terms of grandeur and impact, Eastwell Manor has it by the Bentley-full. This quintessential English country house, close to the village of Boughton Lees, is now a Champneys Hotel & Spa. It’s like Downton Abbey, but with fluffier towelling robes and impressive food.
The house itself is a neo-Elizabethan masterpiece. Turretted and creeper clad, it dates back some 450 years and is surrounded by magnificent parkland and formal gardens. The terraces at the back, popular for afternoon tea or drinks, have far-reaching views.
In cooler weather, there’s an oak panelled bar with a cosy feel. Roaring log fires, antique furniture and towering displays of fresh flowers add style. For fine dining there is The Manor Restaurant, with crisp white linen and a lighter touch than the main house. On the menu you will find traditional British food with European nods. Think risotto of beetroot with goats’ cheese, or a smooth celeriac and apple soup before slow-cooked venison.
Despite the evident grandeur of Eastwell Manor, service is friendly and it feels accessible, making it an excellent choice to mark a special occasion.
Eastwell Manor, Ashford – TripAdvisor; Facebook; Telephone: 01233 213000
For more gastronomic flair, head a bit further north to another grand if slightly less imposing house, Macknade Manor, on the edge of Faversham. This elegant Georgian house is home to Read’s – ‘a restaurant with rooms’. Professionally run by Rona and David Pitchford, this feels like a family home, albeit grander than most!
David trained at the Dorchester and held a Michelin star for over 20 years (the only chef who has held one longer is Aaron Patterson of Hambleton Hall fame). His refreshingly restrained menu is full of unfussy, contemporary British food, largely sourced from within a few miles of the restaurant. A large walled garden within the grounds provides many of the vegetables, soft fruits and herbs.
Our Directors recently enjoyed a fabulous lunch at Read's in a lovely private dining room to mark the retirement of our Finance Director after an amazing career at The Hobbs Parker Group spanning 48 years.
— Roger Lightfoot, Group CEO
Examples of David’s assured and precise cooking include leek veloute with confit potato and 63°C egg; Lamb, Lamb, Lamb, Lamb & Lamb (yes, really) with fricassee of peas, broad beans and rosemary oil; and Cox apple mousse with toffee apple jelly. There are options for set lunches and dinners as well as an extravagant tasting menu. Along the way, enjoy David’s selected foodie quotes, such as Miss Piggy’s observation: ‘Never eat more than you can lift’.
And such sensible advice seems a fitting point to conclude this gastronomic tour of Kent before any permanent damage is done, other than to ask what other foodie haunts you may have discovered around the county that you’d like to share? Do let us know.
Thank you for reading and bon appetit!