Oh, I do like to be beside the Riverside: Emily Green goes to Dorset with her bucket and spade, to dig for treasures of the table

Dorset is lovely, if a bit twee around the edges. It has rolling countryside, thatched farmhouses, thatched barns, even thatched petrol stations, and some of the cleanest beaches in Britain. Where there are 'sights', there are bound to be tea shoppes. But there are only so many cream teas a tourist can take before the search for a square meal begins.

This can be a hit and miss business. The Good Food Guide, perhaps harshly, gives the whole county only 16 full entries, and accords none of these particularly high ratings. Most of these places are concentrated to the west and north of the county. To the east, Poole has no entries, and Bournemouth squeaks by with one.

Yet what that seaside town lacks in numbers it makes up for in eccentricity. Sophisticats, 43 Charminster Road (0202 291019), its number-one-out-of-one restaurant, is effortlessly kitsch. Twelve years ago, when newly opened, the name might have seemed witty. Today it has gone beyond a joke. The tiny dining room is crammed with cat-shaped knick-knacks. There are cat-shaped statuettes, wicker basket cats, glass etchings of cats, and cat-print cotton oven mitts. Ironically, the host, John Knight, doesn't even particularly care for cats. His was simply the restaurant that launched 200 bibelots: 'People just kept bringing them and bringing them,' he said.

This is because the people keep coming back. For all its feline clutter, Sophisticats is comfortable: even the side of the bar is padded. Yet it is this tiny restaurant's out-of-time quality that soothes. It appears to have decided on its formula in the Seventies, and stuck with it. Even the choice of bar snacks ignores the enthusiasms of the Eighties: you get green olives stuffed with pimientos, probably from a jar.

The cookery of Bernard Calligan is equally conservative, and very sound. A chilled lettuce and watercress soup was silky and cooling. Roast duck had good crackle, flavoursome meat and its black cherry and port sauce was a sour-sweet combination to tickle Constance Spry. Prices are fair, approximately pounds 20-pounds 30 per person, all-in.

Where Sophisticats displays cats, The Sea Cow, Customs House Quay, Weymouth (0305 783524) has accumulated a considerable collection of ducks. One of the larger duck-knacks sports a ribboned medal, and there is a curious cabinet full of medals next to the bar. These, it emerged, were awarded to the chef, a member of some sort of British culinary Olympics team. Perhaps they were for ice-carving, for there was nothing prize-winning about my dinner. Two fillets of mullet, one grey, one red, sank in a congealing pool of creamy, Pernod-enhanced sauce. Split mussels were displayed on the half-shell around it, a bordello on a plate. The main dining room is dull, done out in mud-browns. There is respite for the eyes in the view straight on to the old harbour.

Clean beaches suggest clean water. Abbotsbury oysters, seeded in the Fleet Lagoon, then purified in holding tanks, will be on the menu of most good Dorset restaurants. However, the cheapest and most refreshing place to eat them is at the oyster farm itself: Abbotsbury Oysters, Ferry Bridge, Weymouth (0305 788867). Here, sitting by the lagoon at rough-hewn picnic tables made of driftwood, six Pacific oysters served with French bread and a glass of wine will set you back pounds 2.95, a dozen oysters pounds 4.95. To take away, they are from 20 to 40p each, about half as much as they cost in London. (Abbotsbury also does overnight delivery mail orders.) There is a playground for children, but they will likely be found in the lobster hatchery around the back, where there are lovely clawed beasties, from one day to 10 years old.

If you have a car full of children, The Riverside Restaurant and Cafe in West Bay, near Bridport (0308 22011), should be your next stop. Equally, it is ideal for adults in search of a good, honest fish dinner. The key is not to be put off by the location. West Bay was once a rough little port; it is now a living testament to tourist pollution, with caravans, fast-food stalls and holiday flats crowding its shore and lagoon.

Over a small footbridge, the restaurant shares a building with the local post office. Its dining room is long, airy and whitewashed. Pine tables might be decorated with a Perrier bottle holding a couple of carnations. An espresso machine whistles, kitchen orders are shouted, and waitresses sing along to La Bamba on the radio.

The fish you eat will be local, a sensible house policy of proprietor Arthur Watson. Crab might be spiked with ginger and baked in puff pastry, or mackerel simply baked until its silver skin is papery, and meat juicy and a point. Red mullet, John Dory, Dover sole and lemon sole are simply grilled. Or there is poached egg on toast. Or chips with chips. Two courses, a glass of wine and coffee cost me pounds 12.50.

Not far inland, in a dense maze of wooded country lanes, a similar workaday grace informs the running of the Three Horseshoes Inn at Powerstock (0308 85328). Here, children maul the placid house labradors while their parents choose mainly fish meals from a blackboard menu. The cooking of cod in fresh tomato sauce with onions was simple and perfect. A half-pint of Bridport bitter, the cod, and fresh cafetiere coffee cost just over pounds 9.

And so to Evershot, through lanes where you rarely need to leave second gear, to the Summer Lodge (0935 83424). A cynic might say this is country-house-by-the-yard, right down to the gravel on the drive. So, with its lawn tennis and croquet, it is; yet the place reeks of care, and of flowers. There are great arrangements everywhere. Nobody died: they just like it this way.

Staff like their jobs and appear genuinely to like their guests. Like the tiny Sophisticats dining room, Summer Lodge was full of return visitors. Most were, judging from the pre-dinner chat, keen gardeners touring nearby estates and commercial nurseries.

Set dinners are pounds 32.50. The meal I had was worth it. Plump scallops, full of flavour, were served fresh with earthy lettuce, straight from the ground, dressed with a combination of nut oils. Whether it needed a palate-freshening beef consomme to follow is debatable; if so, then the liquid should have been lighter and finer.

main course of little lamb fillets was perfectly cooked, the meat gutsy enough to stand up to wild rice, some bold rosemary seasoning, sweet creamed leeks and kidneys. The dessert, a blazing hot pithivier, which tasted of apple rather than the more traditional almond cream, was superb. For the cheese course there is no better option than the Dorset Blue Vinney, as it is served here, perfectly ripe - at which stage it is smoother than Stilton - with a lovely tang off the blue.

North of Evershot, pushing on for Somerset, is a country house hotel that could be on the outskirts of Vienna. Set in a classical English garden, Stock Hill House, Wyke, Gillingham (0747 823626) is a grand Victorian home decorated with a certain mittel-European camp. Golden gilt coffee tables and bold bits of statuary have their way with the entrance hall and at least one of the sitting rooms. Even the dining room chandelier was enamelled, like an Austrian stove. The women who run the front-of-house wear identical printed frocks and French braids, updated Heidi garb.

It came as no surprise to learn that the chef and co-proprietor, Peter Hauser, is Austrian. The man can certainly cook. His pre-meal snacks were little tarts with smoked salmon, or goat's cheese and a walnut. Brown bread rolls were spiked with nutmeg, white ones with lemon.

'Braised Cornish Octopus with Fried Filo Pastry' read like a wild lampoon of menu-writing. This was no joke, but one of Mr Hauser's starters last Sunday lunchtime. The octopus was very tender in a sort of spicy tomato sauce - superb glop. Over and beneath it rested tough filo pastry.

A main course again displayed an adventurous streak: pork fillets came in a light, sharp, curry sauce. As cooling notes, there was a dice of cooked apple and tomato; to the side, perfect vegetables. Dessert was a boozy cake that would have passed muster in any neo-baroque Viennese patisserie, but defied my capacities on a summer afternoon. Total damage, including a kir, a glass of house white, a coffee, petits fours and a tip: pounds 27.

While by no means a comprehensive list, here are the best farms and shops I visited.

Near Bournemouth: High Mead Farm Shop, Simons Ground, Stapehill Road, nr Wimborne (0202 574252).

Near Bridport: Denhay Farm in Broadoak (0308 22770). Respectable pasteurised cheddar, but the star item is the smoked ham. Farm shop open Mondays and Thursdays, 9.30am-5pm.

R J Balson & Son, 9 West Allington, Bridport (0308 22638): excellent pork, venison and boar sausages.

Near Sherborne: Woodbridge Farm, Stock Gaylard, Sturminster Newton, near Bishops Caundle (0963 23216). Dorset Blue Vinney cheese. Appointments by phone: mail orders welcome.

(Photograph omitted)

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