The Albion in Chester doesn't do chips, peanuts or crisps. But it does serve heaps of delicious, hearty grub for a fiver

I was in Chester last week, visiting my actress friend Helen Atkinson Wood. She's been appearing in a very funny play called Mr Wonderful at the Gateway Theatre, which has meant she's been living in a hotel for two months. It's a very posh hotel, 24-hour room service and all that. But a girl can get tired of room service.

I was in Chester last week, visiting my actress friend Helen Atkinson Wood. She's been appearing in a very funny play called Mr Wonderful at the Gateway Theatre, which has meant she's been living in a hotel for two months. It's a very posh hotel, 24-hour room service and all that. But a girl can get tired of room service.

"When you're away from home, what you really want is lashings of cabbage and mashed potato smothered in onion gravy," she sighed. So when we were fixing our lunch date, she requested a trip to The Albion, a small pub with a big reputation for traditional home-made food - onion gravy a speciality.

The Albion is tucked just inside the city's Roman walls, at the intersection of two neat terraces, and at first sight, it looks like a typical Victorian back-street boozer, albeit one whose owner has invested heavily in Union Jack bunting. But as you get nearer, you notice the closely-chalked sign beside the door. "Real Ale, Real Food, Real Pub" the sign announces. "No plastic jungle, no chips, no fry-ups, no UHT, no silly foil portions, no big screen." The eccentric litany climaxes with the phrase "Family Hostile", a warning rendered even more intimidating by its missing hyphen.

Push open the door (with additional "No Children" sign), and you step into a crepuscular lounge bar which has apparently remained unchanged since the turn of the century - if the producers of 1900 House wanted to do a follow-up called 1900 Pub, they need look no further.

The walls are crammed with collectibles, many of them relating to the First World War, and tin signs for long-forgotten products such as Virol. There's a stand-up piano, and brass plaques commemorating young men who died in action, and seating is on wooden banquettes at traditional cast- iron tables.

I approached the bar with some trepidation; given the peculiar sign outside, I half expected some crazed Basil Fawlty type to spring over the counter in full battledress and frisk me for hidden toddlers. But it was presided over by two serene women, one of whom was taking a customer's food order. "Sorry, we don't do chips," she was saying in long-suffering tones. Other things they don't do at the Albion are crisps, peanuts, or lager drunk from the bottle - the landlord, apparently the Nico Ladenis of the Licensed Victuallers Association, has been known to throw people out for less.

The menu is predominantly meaty: regular dishes include haggis and tatties, home-made corned beef hash, and boiled gammon and parsley sauce. There are also daily specials, chalked on a blackboard, such as Somerset honeyed pork stew with blackeye beans, and local venison sausages with redcurrant gravy. Prices seem to have been fixed at pre-war levels, with all main courses costing just £4.95.

The low prices are all the more astonishing considering the size of the portions. At a neighbouring table, a lady was brought a mountain of liver and bacon, so big that she and her companion broke into spontaneous laughter. His pile of minced beef and peas was also comic-book huge, with the kind of tempting sheen last seen in TV commercials for Oxo cubes (before Katie and co fell victim to the fluctuating stock market).

We began by splitting a helping of Staffordshire oatcakes served with Stilton and mushrooms, one of the pub's specialities. "They're not crunchy, like Scottish oatcakes," Helen explained, drawing deep on her ancestral Macclesfield wisdom. "They're more like crepes, and you buy them fresh from the butcher." Dark, soft and comforting, each oatcake enfolded a silky filling of sauteed field mushrooms, bound with just enough Stilton to add bite.

Helen's choice of main courses was limited by the fact that she's a non- meat eater. But she was quite happy to order any dish which involved mash and gravy, and to fork the meat component my way. Which is how I came to be eating two stout pork and herb sausages in addition to a home-made cottage pie roughly the size of an actual cottage.

The pie was made with the same savoury mince that Desperate Dan was tucking into earlier, and the potato, spiked with cheese and fried leek, was hand- forked and grilled to a golden crunch. Cold pickled red cabbage was the only accompaniment. "That's traditional with shepherd's pie up North," chipped in Helen, warming to her new role as my Northern affairs correspondent.

She was blissfully happy with her pile of mash, which had been finely pureed, drowned in onion gravy and served with a wodge of gloriously green, squeaky cabbage.

Around us, all our neighbours seemed to be talking to each other,. They were even switching seats to sit at the tables of apparent strangers. "It's just Northern friendliness," Helen suggested, while I maintained they were swingers who'd met via the alt.liverandbacon newsgroup on the Internet.

Puddings, which change daily, showed the same attention to detail as the savoury dishes. Baked rice pudding was infused with cinnamon and given extra texture and creaminess by the addition of coconut. Athol brose, served in a wine glass, consisted of whipped cream, oatmeal, and enough malt whisky to send an old soldier over the top.

Including a pint of Everards' Equinox, the pub's guest bitter, our meal totalled around £17, a bargain considering the unusually high quality of the ingredients and the care with which they'd been prepared.

Sadly the family-hostile landlord didn't make an appearance while we were there, but his wife told us that last week she'd taken a call from a local hotel, asking her to hold a table. "This little group of people turned up and sat in the back bar. After a while, our barman came rushing through, saying "it's The Pet Shop Boys!" No one else knew it was them. Now if it had been George Formby, our regulars might have recognised him."

The Albion, Park Street, Chester (01244 340345). Lunch noon-1.45pm, dinner 5pm-8pm Tues-Fri; 6pm-8pm Sat; 7pm-8pm Sun. Limited disabled access. No credit cards.

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