Agog at the conversation at the next table, I have to keep reminding myself to concentrate on the food. Grandparents, new parents, their adorable baby and a youngish chap (uncle?) are discussing their preparation for being filmed: walking through the town, at the house, having tea and discussing the options… I can only assume it’s one of those property programmes that are maddening and gripping in equal measure.
Who wouldn’t want to move to Cheltenham, frankly. It’s got the lovely “wedding cake” houses of London’s Holland Park without the ego, and some elegant parks, chic boutique hotels and shops befitting its well-heeled residents.
And it’s got The Tavern. This gastropub/restaurant is part of the Lucky Onion group (which owns some of those chic hotels in the area) and has a Michelin Bib Gourmand – the helpful guide to less formal, more fun places to eat out.
At first look, The Tavern is less gourmand, more gor blimey – there are 39 dishes (not including sides and puddings), everything from oysters to burgers, soft-shell crab to gnocchi. Printed on brown paper and used as a place mat, you could still be reading the menu while on to your second pint of artisan beer (and there are 21 of them if you count bottled).
But there ends the resemblance between this place and your average “boil in the bag” identikit pub-grub place. The kitchen might be trying to be jack of all trades, but the cooking is confident and imaginative, master of at least some. And the details are good, such as a side of whole roasted cauliflower that couldn’t be more 2015. Pleasingly burnished, it comes with a heap of piquant salsa verde (£10, for two).
I start with this and build my order around it. Sticky chicken wings and mac and cheese are both standard but can easily be duffed up. The wings (£7) are plump, as sticky as advertised and strewn with coriander (but could have been spicier); the macaroni (£7) has “caught” on the edges of the metal dish, which means lovely cheesy nubbins to chisel off. Mac and cheese often doesn’t have enough flavour for my jaded tastebuds, and although I can’t detect the Gruyère and Parmesan that can make this sing, it’s a long way from the insipid offerings I’ve had in more illustrious rooms.
The shoestring fries (£4) are less than uniformly crisp and a tad bland but have the virtue of being home-made and come with a scattering of rosemary leaves and salt, while a bowl of purple slaw (£3) cuts through the sticky, carb-y mains nicely.
Meanwhile, the televisual family next door has vast, jaw-challenging burgers and steak sarnies (all around £10), which look done properly, but it’s the very distracting, very loud conversation about how to avoid sweat stains on your tight grey T-shirt (among the men) that has me gripped. I suspect that on a busier slot than a Tuesday lunchtime the place is heaving, allowing for the privacy of being in a crowd.
It’s only after they head off for a very considered impromptu tea on camera that I can properly concentrate and look around. The room, like the menu, ticks lots of boxes (bare brick wall, refectory chairs, the odd vintage light fitting and – in the upstairs dining room – a stonking great, distressed, framed Union Jack flag). But it feels eager to please rather than desperate to impress, and a perky soundtrack and friendly staff help things along.
At the risk of sounding like a metropolitan douche, there are quite a few places in London and the bigger cities that do “haute pub”. It would be easy to run a capital slide-rule over The Tavern and praise it as a dear little homage. But I think it can stand on its own two feet.
It’s a shame then, that a very agreeable lunch closes with a less-than-stellar peanut butter and popcorn sundae, a dish that should be off-pat for a kitchen trained in American classics. It comes with a gaggy, claggy thick layer of jam in the middle that negates the other flavours. This PB doesn’t need any J.
The owners of The Tavern are couple Sam and Georgina Pearman, who now have two further pubs and two hotels in their Lucky Onion group. When little companies grow, it’s easy to take your eye off the ball. The Tavern certainly needs an eye kept on it, but has a settled-in charm that’s a keeper. And the location, location, location? Happily for Cheltenham’s weary consumers, just off the “Prom”, where the town’s chicest shops are.
5 Royal Well Place, Cheltenham, Tel: 01242 221 212, £50 for two, with drinks
Foodie notes from the past week
The doyenne of celeb restaurants reopens after refurb, as glamorous as you’d expect. And fellow diner Goldie Hawn seemed to agree!
At Action Against Hunger’s Street Feast, the slider from this east London burger joint was terrific (50-day aged beef will do that).
Arrived too late for my seasonal cookbook round-up but worth a special mention: Skye Gyngell’s recipes are captured beautifully.
To my shame, on tidying up my kitchen cupboards, I found some spice packets dating back to 2011. Must. Try. Harder.