Like manna from heaven

A converted church in Surrey offers celestial surroundings, angels who look after the children, and righteous servings
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

Bel and the Dragon, Bridge Street, Godalming, Surrey, 01483 527333, Mon-Sat 12-2.30pm, 7-10pm, bar 11am-11pm. Sun 12-3pm, 7-9pm, bar 12-10.30pm. All cards except Diners accepted. Disabled access

Bel and the Dragon, Bridge Street, Godalming, Surrey, 01483 527333, Mon-Sat 12-2.30pm, 7-10pm, bar 11am-11pm. Sun 12-3pm, 7-9pm, bar 12-10.30pm. All cards except Diners accepted. Disabled access

As a child there were times when I had to be dragged kicking and screaming from the vicarage to church. Repeating the pattern of familial dissent, my own little pagans drag their heels on the way to any meal where they're expected to sit and wait for their food and make do without chips. Hence we hadn't planned to take them to Bel and the Dragon, Godalming's abandoned congregational church recently converted into a restaurant. It sounded surplus to their requirements, but suitable for a Saturday night out with friends who are impecunious by local standards, and eager to try anywhere new in one of the wealthiest parts of the country, which nevertheless suffers from a dearth of reasonably priced restaurants.

As it was, in a strange but successful inversion of the original plan, we spent Saturday lunchtime in church with our children, and passed the evening among adults in the grounds of a primary school. The friends roped us into a surreally entertaining evening of fund-raising for their kid's school PTA, where we sat on the juniors' chairs hunched over a low table eating quiche, before dancing among parents in slacks on grass marked out for egg-and-spoon races to a band playing Dire Straits and Fleetwood Mac covers. Raffle prizes were tennis lessons and rounds of golf, and our hosts informed us that their county has the highest divorce rate and greatest number of two-car households. It just went to show that Bel and the Dragon's owners have an instinctive understanding of demographics.

This restaurant is not unique to Godalming. Three years ago, a couple took over the Bel and the Dragon pub in Cookham; six months later they opened another in Windsor. This is the latest notch in their commuter-belt restaurant group.

Although not in the Laughing Cow mould of cheesy family dining - no nuggets, kids' portions, or even straws for bottles of classy, bitty orange juice - it was immediately apparent that this was a broad and welcoming church. Staff sweetly took the children by the hand as they led us up wide stairs to a table overlooking the nave, then returned with cushions for them. Ecclesiastical gothic details have been faithfully added to the ground-floor bar and dining area, and to the gallery above. All the furnishings familiar from wine bars - the chairs with slots at the back for hymn books, pews and architraves - look just the job in their rightful place. Behind a refectory table bearing massive circular loaves of bread, a chef manned an open grill sending out sizzling-sardine smoke signals up to the gallery. But most of the work must have been done in a kitchen hidden from view, and rather than rush to keep the kids quiet by putting food in front of them double quick, they took time cooking carefully to satisfy everyone.

We amused ourselves scribbling on the paper rings wrapped around linen napkins, then kept the wolf from the door with "a bowl of rustic country breads, served with roast garlic, olive oil and olives". At £3.95 a throw, it's more sacrilege than sacrament, but that's Surrey manna for you. The menu's long windedness: "Pan-fried breast of chicken with a roasted field mushroom on a salad of vine tomatoes, olives and pesto dressing" suggests a pretentiousness that the food, when it comes, belies. It's bright, bold, well made and in quantities that justify the prices. Starter-size dishes begin at £5, mains range from £9.95 for "a trio of sausages" to £18.95 for a 10oz rib-eye steak. We ordered a starter each for the kids, a main course apiece for the adults, and could have distributed the leftovers among the poor of the parish. With plenty of raw spinach and a fine lemony sauce, a salmon fishcake, coated with crispy bread crumbs and packed with identifiable chunks of fish was more substantial, complete and pleasing than you expect of a starter. What was called a kebab was more like three chunky kofte - cumin-flavoured meat balls - on a Greek salad, and equally good.

Haddock fillet on spinach and potato cake with a poached egg and "Welsh rarebit" sauce was a splendid plateful, with a fine mustard and cheese sauce made piquant with paprika. Bel's "posh" chicken 'n' chips put in the least polished performance. The roast chicken was a dry and undistinguished fowl, but full marks for a slice of herby stuffing, for bothering to add bread sauce, and for plenty of delicious gravy. The potatoes, evenly cut into fat, golden sticks and neatly stacked, sought to be superior to chips and were less successful because of it.

All that is meagre about Bel and the Dragon is the choice for vegetarians. Maybe the Green Belt is a misnomer, and vegetarians are scarce here, but only a couple of dishes were meat-free and even the "fresh market vegetables", an imaginative stir-fry of leeks and cream, had bacon in it.

More out of duty than desire, which had been blunted by the preceding amount of food and by a hefty-sounding selection, we ordered puddings for £4.50 each. A disc of chocolate meringue came sandwiched between slices of chocolate brownie with white chocolate ice cream on top. Sprinkled with icing sugar and chocolate powder, it had ideas above its station but was attacked with relish all round nonetheless. With a couple of glasses of wine, the equivalent of three courses for two, coffee and soft drinks, it came to £70 without service. Family value? Not quite. But what do they know about that in Surrey? It certainly restored our faith in eating out en famille.

Comments