Food & Drink: Eating Out: Signs o' the times

Dargate's The Dove Inn knows its place - it's a cheery, real pub with great food for diners, whatever their age

The desire to put up notices is the prerogative of the publican. "You don't have to be mad to work here but it helps", and my personal favourite, "Do not ask for credit as a smack in the mouth often offends", are messages typical of the jovial bad grace peculiar to the British pub. If you want to know the difference between a pub with food and a restaurant, look for the signs - they don't have to be insulting to customers, but they have to be there for it to qualify as a cheerful local. Some pubs get above themselves and forget that their purpose is to be a community bulletin board with booze as well as a place to eat. The regulars should still be able to drop in and say, "I'm only here for the beer".

Just inland from Whitstable, where the oysters come from, near Dover, source of sole, and surrounded by fields advertising Victoria plums, strawberries, new potatoes, beans and apples, The Dove Inn in Dargate is tucked away off the M2 in an area of outstanding natural bounty. On a late August afternoon, when the trees were drooping with fruit and dripping with rain, this little brick inn with its garden of gnarled apple trees and woody lavender bushes is Larkin-like (HE Bates's rumbustious family not misanthropic Philip) in its mimicry of a traditional Kentish scene.

The landlord is a chef who has turned his back on hotels and restaurants after working his way round a firmament of Michelin-starred establishments, and his food has earned a reputation that puts it up in the restaurant category. But The Dove Inn is defiantly still a pub. Garlands of hop flowers and old photographs of the premises and former tenants decorate the interior of stripped wood. But it's not the simply pubby appearance that shows it's true to its roots, nor the tip-top Shepherd Neame beers behind the bar, but all the other signs that prove the heart hasn't been taken out of this inn. The flip-side of the innkeeper's cheery officiousness is the genuine desire to keep customers informed in a way that restaurants don't feel the need to do. So roll up for the quiz nights, make a note of the opening times, marvel at the old saloon-bar tariffs. A scattering of plaques lets you know you're in the Shepherd Neame Good Food Pub of the Year 1997, a Highly Commended Pub of the Year, in the presence of Welsh Chef of the Year 1993, and a member of the Institute of Innkeeping. This pub has a sure sense of its role past and present, and it's not designed just to impress visiting diners, the food effortlessly succeeds in doing that.

No ceremony accompanies seating and on a blackboard is an eclectically rustic selection of bar food such as croque monsieur and salt cod with flageolets and chorizo - acknowledgements that we're close to the Continent, not marooned in the little Garden of England. The more structured menu, which changes regularly, lists heavily to the coastal attractions of the county, and we went overboard on fish.

To start with, four fab langoustines in gingery butter arrived almost too hot to handle, followed by the two most local-sounding fish - lemon sole and mackerel - rather than tuna, salmon or sea bass. Along came one big mack, cooked with a tarragon and shallot sauce swimming in butter and olive oil. This was excessive lubrication of an already oily fish; a bit of char-grilling would not have gone amiss. The lighter, sparkling lemon sole was better served by a herby butter, but the blackboard starter of pork rillettes with toasted brioche and a perky apple and tomato chutney could have done with more fat to bind the filigrees of meat.

These inevitably got stuck in my teeth. When I subsequently inhaled some mackerel, my consort observed that I must have reached the age where ladies have to take care with fish bones. Perhaps that's why the table of game old birds next to us started with avocado, spinach and bacon salads and moved on to rack of lamb with sculpted carrots and potatoes which demonstrated the professional precision which underlies this apparently homely cooking. With a family with small children at one table, businessmen at another and the quartet of septuagenarians, The Dove really could claim it caters for everyone between the age of eight and 80.

As we were down the road from Faversham, the epicentre of English apple- growing and home of the national apple collection at Brogdale, it was only right and proper that puddings were predominantly fruity. We shared a plate of perfect French and British cheeses, and an apple and almond pudding, like Bakewell tart, the only jarring part of which was a stripe of lurid jam: shop-bought, I suspected. Another pudding of orange and passion fruit creme brulee I sniffily thought seemed a shame when all around us were local fruit. But as we left we saw a rampantly luxuriant passion fruit climbing around the window.

What's so lovely about The Dove is that it knows its place, and though it has a contemporary understanding of good cooking, keeps it informal enough to fit snugly into the village and the landscape. They are restaurant prices - we spent pounds 30 a head - but nevertheless this pub is a peach, a plum, the cherry on the Kentish cake. One final sign: "Please note: no food will be served from 31 August to 10 September." You have been informed.

The Dove Inn, Plum Pudding Lane, Dargate, Kent (01227 751360). Tue-Sat lunch and dinner, Sun lunch pounds 10-pounds 23 without drinks. All credit cards except Amex and Diners Club. No disabled access

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