Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in a damp building there. Jerome K Jerome ensured his three men in a boat passed by in their skiff. Nowadays, though, Marlow is getting more of a name for its food than its writers.

A plan to open a branch of the London restaurant Aubergine, where Gordon Ramsay began his career, has shone a spotlight on the Buckinghamshire town's growing reputation as a gastronomic hot spot.

Several top chefs including Adam Simmonds, Tom Kerridge and Michael Macdonald have moved into the Georgian settlement and gourmet day trippers are arriving from the capital to sample their menus. Such is Marlow's alimentary affluence, it is claimed, it is now threatening to overthrow Ludlow in Shropshire as Britain's premier foodie town.

More broadly, the town's rise highlights the emergence of culinary centres across England, where talented chefs and fine local ingredients combine to forge national reputations. Padstow in Cornwall, for instance, has several acclaimed restaurants, in addition to the four belonging to the seafood cook and television presenter Rick Stein and his ex-wife Jill.

Mark Hix's well-received restaurant in Lyme Regis is a few miles from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage HQ, which attracts guests to its courses and demonstrations.

On the east coast, Aldeburgh and Whitstable are receiving plaudits for the quality of their oysters and other fruits de mer. In Lincolnshire, Stamford's 18,000 residents have a choice of three Michelin-acclaimed restaurants within 15 minutes' drive of its historic centre.

Most spectacular of all, though, is the village of Bray in Berkshire which boasts six Michelin stars – three each for Michel Roux's Waterside Inn and Heston Blumenthal's Fat Duck – and two bib gourmand awards for affordable dining – the Royal Oak and the Hinds Head. Bray has 504 residents. By contrast, the four million people in Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool and Manchester have not a single starred restaurant. There are only two stars in Wales and 11 in the whole of Scotland.

While London remains the UK's hub of fine dining, a position reinforced by the arrival of French super-chefs Alain Ducasse and Helen Darroze, standards are rising outside the capital, according to Derek Bulmer, editor of the Michelin Guide Great Britain and Ireland 2008 .

"We are finding more and more good restaurants whether they are in pubs or restaurants," he said. "It's natural that some areas stand out more than others. Wiltshire and Lincolnshire have traditionally been very strong. But that is partly down to supply and demand.

"All these hot spots are usually linked to areas where there are people with a high disposable income that can support these places to eat." Which is why Bray is so good for food, he says. Marlow is just along the Thames.

London Fine Dining, the group which owns L'Orange, Zafferano and Aubergine, believes its new branch will be viable in Marlow because its diners can afford to pay £60 a head for meals. Its other establishments include the Vanilla Pod, which serves Anglo-French dishes such as honey and fennel glazed chicken, and the Hand & Flowers, Tom and Beth Kerridge's lavishly praised coaching inn.

Marlow is not guaranteed to remain on top. Ludlow shows that gastronomic hot spots can cool, especially when chefs seek more rewarding opportunities elsewhere. In 2004 and 2005, Ludlow had four Michelin stars, an unlikely achievement for a town of 9,000 souls. In 2008, Ludlow has lost many of its star chefs and all but one star. Shaun Hill left the Merchant House for a new venture, while Claude and Claire Bosi uprooted the two-star Hibiscus to Mayfair.

Nonetheless, Ludlow still has Mr Underhill's at Dinham Weir and its renowned butchers, bakers and cheese and beer shops.

"I think it's retained its interest," Derek Bulmer said. "There's one Michelin star still there and there's another trying for a star [La Bécasse] and there are other good restaurants," he says, praising the Japanese eatery Koo.

The veteran reviewer identified Whitstable in Kent as an upcoming area of excellence. At the starred Sportsman pub at Seasalter, two miles away, Stephen Harris, the chef, churns his own butter, cures his ham and even collects his own salt. The Sportsman notes that a common theme of reviews is that it is "remote, bleak and a bit of a dump".

Padstow is a more picturesque magnet for diners. "There's an inordinate number of places to eat and Rick Stein has only four of them. Jamie Oliver is just down the road," said Mr Bulmer.

Market towns for food-lovers



Population: 17,552

Michelin: one restaurant

Restaurants: Hand & Flowers (Michelin star); The Vanilla Pod; Two Brewers; Danesfield House Hotel; Aubergine



Population: 9,548

Michelin: one restaurant

Restaurants: Mr Underhill's at Dinham Weir (Michelin star); La Becasse; Roebuck Inn; Koo; The Clive (Bromfield)



Population: 4,406

Michelin: no restaurants

Restaurants: Hix Oyster and Fish House; River Cottage Canteen (Axminster)



Population: 2,449

Michelin: one restaurant

Restaurants: Rick Stein's Café (Michelin Bib Gourmand); The Seafood Restaurant; St Petroc's; Margot's; The Metropole; No. 6



Population: 504

Michelin: four restaurants

Restaurants: The Waterside Inn (3 Michelin stars); The Fat Duck (3 stars); The Hinds Head(Michelin Bib Gourmand); The Royal Oak (Michelin Bib Gourmand)



Population: 30,194

Michelin: one restaurant

Restaurants: Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company; The Sportsman (Michelin star, Seasalter); Jo Jo's



Population: 2,654

Michelin: two restaurants

Restaurants: The Lighthouse (Michelin Bib Gourmand); 152; Regatta; The Trinity (Michelin Bib Gourmand, Orford)



Population: 19,526

Michelin: two restaurants

Restaurants: Jim's Yard (Michelin Bib Gourmand); Olive Branch & Beech House (1 Michelin star, Clipsham)