Eating out: The Wykeham Arms: Inn heaven
75 Kingsgate St, Winchester, Hants, 01962 853834. Lunch Mon-Sat noon-2.30pm. Dinner Mon-Sat 6.30-8.45pm. Three-course dinner pounds 20. Service not included. All major credit cards accepted
But then, in a notorious incident, old Coeur de Lion offended the natives of the Itchen Valley no end by taking his own cupbearers with him from London to Winchester, implying that the local ones weren't up to scratch, and bringing down the curtain on a centuries-old tradition of equality between the two cities. With the subsequent loss of Normandy, which undermined Winchester's strategic value, the more easterly city strode ahead as top capital, and all the big catering cash bailed out for London. Ever since then the South-East has to put up with takeovers of local hostelries by Caffe Uno, Starbucks, Ask Pizza and their legions, creating grim facsimiles of suburban life in formerly thriving, culturally independent communities.
Which is why places like the Wykeham Arms are the lifeblood of most of Britain. Yes, it has been there for 250 years. No, Chris and Ginger probably won't have their engagement party here, and I doubt very much that the chef spent three years scoring sprouts at Le Gavroche before going on to have his own cookery gameshow called Who Wants To Learn To Jug A Hare? But it offers hospitality the way English inns used to, before everything went wrong.
This is the sort of place Dick Whittington would have stopped to beg succour, or where Tom Jones might have had high-jinks upstairs after too much ale, and then run out in his breeches to hide in a cabbage-cart on its way to London.
In you go, through a corner door in a run-of-the-mill street in the shadow of the cathedral, and the impression is immediate. It is toasty warm, for a start, with three vast log-fires in wall-deep chimneys that open into two rooms at a time.
The Bear in Oxford may have the largest tie collection of any pub in England, but in the all-rounders category the Wykeham wins hands down. The walls are covered with pewter tankards of long-deceased regulars, as well as old teddy bears, First World War spiked helmets, faded flags, a vast array of walking sticks, pictures of Churchill's funeral, old cartoons about the glories of booze. It's all here, and it all works. Works because it does not come from the Faded Flag and Tankard Warehouse in Thurrock, but contributes modestly to a sense of history. Many of the dining tables are old desks from the adjacent Winchester College, with holes for inkwells, rivulets for spilt ink, and carved imprecations not to forget Bloggins Minor, terror of the Lower Fourth of 1923.
From the main double bar, other rooms sprout and blossom. There are butteries and smarter dining rooms, as well as sculleries and pantries and all sorts of little rooms that pay homage to the scatty minds of mid-18th-century commercial architects. Through them bustle hundreds of staff - old plates don't hang around, appetite does not wait too long on hunger, and drinks get served as soon as thirst rises.
At lunch you must eat pies. I've had a chicken and something one in the past that was quite wonderful, and most recently the "Wyk" cottage pie, which is the best I've had since the ones at Mrs Yates' Junior School in Crediton Hill, where they promised to put your plate on the wall if you finished the lot. Here there is no space on the wall, but the spirit of heartiness is the same.
Soups are perfect - roast tomato and pepper, for example, is properly thick and sweet, not nearly as poncey as it sounds. The "Wyk" rarebit, made with beer, is crunchy and tangy and, I would guess, unavailable in London at a restaurant of this calibre (well, maybe Foxtrot Oscar).
If lunch is an 18th-century novel, then dinner is Romantic poetry. Candlelight renders an atmospheric transformation, and the food is more ambitious, as pithiviers and polenta poke their noses in. But it is too tempting not to stick with the locally-sourced flesh-feasts such as the roast rack of Hampshire Down lamb or the duck with kumquats. Steaks are thick as a farmer's thigh, and pudding is the stuff of Just William's dreams.
If you had to look for negatives you'd say the fruit juice isn't up to much and the vegetarian options don't come close to the carnivorous fare. But then Dr Johnson would not have sauntered in with Tobias Smollett and asked for a grapefruit and soda while he dithered between the strudel of Provencale vegetables and the onion and feta frittata.
Nor, indeed, would Richard the Lionheart, who doesn't know what he's missing.
WHAT'S ON THE WINE LIST
Richard Ehrlich's selection
I've never seen such a loquacious list. Its 88 wines take up 19 pages. If you want merely to choose, however, there's an un-annotated "index". The wines are not only good but very reasonably priced. As for the prose style, here's a sample: "This really is a wine to chew on and enjoy as the full thrust of 13.5 per cent alcohol-driven beauty fires down your throat."
Joseph Perrier Cuvee Royale 1990, pounds 27.50
If this is the same cuvee of JP 1990 that I've tasted, it's the Champagne bargain of your dreams. Quality: exceptional. Mark-up: where did it go?
Savigny-Les-Beaunes 1995, Vincent Girardin, pounds 22.50
Too young, like almost all restaurant Burgundy; but the appellation turns out top-value middleweight wines, and the producer is of sound quality
Chablis, Domaine Ste Anne 1997, JM Brocard, pounds 16.95
At basic DOC level, Brocard makes a lot of good Chablis; this specimen is well-priced by comparison with many
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