Ever willing to play his part convincingly, my thespian companion resting between a run in the provinces and a corporate video rang before we set off for Ascot. "How do you want me?" he asked. "Eh?" "You know, City gent leaving work early, country squire in cords and Barbour or downshifted designer in black polo neck?" No point in saying "be yourself" to an actor. "Friday casual," I directed.
Determined to get out of London for lunch, but necessarily cautious about going too deep into the countryside, we compromised on Berkshire. The idea was to dress down, saddle up and head out west to a pub taken over by the Hartford Group, the expanding and reasonably well camouflaged chain that includes Dakota, Idaho, Canyon and Montana. With the exception of Pharmacy, the Damien Hirst folly which it bought, the group's restaurants offer American food spiced with a south-western accent.
If chipotle with your pork and tequila-cured salmon is your nosebag, they're the best of their type in London. Would they adapt the urban cowboy thing to semi-rural, genuinely horsey territory?
Not that there's much equestrian activity or anything very picturesque about out-of-season Ascot. The racecourse looks like a barracks. If you didn't know better about what lies beyond the wide main drag you'd call it a one-horse town. At the far end, opposite a sign to Cheapside, The Wells is surrounded by an unkempt garden with a well and a pond. Apart from these hazards and the constant rumble of passing people-carriers, there is potential here for a rambling beer garden come the summer. The Edwardian road house is freshly primped with sage greeny-grey woodwork, a tastefully neutral paint job carried through rather unremittingly indoors, too. Fashionably austere, despite a fire and a Chesterfield in the bar, charcoal carpet and unyielding leather chairs in the dining room, it's no cosy, bare-boards boozer turned foodie. But prices, with no main course more than £12, are reassuringly pub-like. There's Greene King beers, Ruddles and lagers on the bar, and a very accessibly organised list of wines, mostly just either side of £20, any of which can also be bought for a £10 reduction to take away.
More American-influenced than the usual pub, but with less of the south-western than the group's other restaurants might lead you to expect, the menu states that, where possible, local produce is used. When a meal begins with a little pot of olives and crumbled feta cheese, proceeds to grape pickle with the chicken liver terrine, and there's penne with chargrilled vegetables, mozzarella and red pesto, and salmon on fried new potatoes with tequila salsa, boasting about the use of local ingredients is a touch disingenuous. But alternating with the unseasonal imports (and where would we be without some cheering alternatives to home-grown in March?) there's a comforting showing of home-cured salmon and grain mustard sauce; braised lamb with roast root veg; haddock hash with spinach and poached egg.
Plenty worth trying, not so much that you fear for the freshness of supplies; it all adds up to a fairly familiar modern diner range of dishes. Not what you'd travel far to be transported by. But, and it's a but bigger than a jockey's boney buns, it was all well done. That's also how the burger (£8) will automatically be cooked, warned a friendly Australian waitress. What this medium rare as requested lacked in depth, it made up for in herby, juicy, meaty girth. Cushioned with half a roast beef-tomato, and with a tangle of crisp, golden onion rings balanced at a jaunty angle on top, it inevitably invited comparison with millinery. But as soon as we'd predictably remarked that it looked like an Ascot hat, the old boy at the next table cackled: "you've got a thatched roof there," adding more rustic character than the management has any right to expect.
Clearly the place already has a regular following of all ages and occupations. But back to what must be the best burger for miles around: the accompanying pot of sweetcorn relish wasn't your typical gloop, but seemed to have been made with kernels freshly stripped from a cob.
Preceding this had been a Caesar salad (£5) which was the equal of any. Romaine lettuce, marinated not tinned anchovies, hand-chopped croutons and plenty of parmesan added up to a version made quite superior by its simplicity.
Crab cakes (£6 as a starter, £11 as a main) were the Thai variety, which always seems to militate against the taste of the crab meat, but these were pleasingly springy. They came with light, creamy sauce spiked with smoked red pepper, and a varied jumble of little leaves probably plucked from a nearby polytunnel. The burger was also matched with this appetising greenery, rather than the dreaded salad garnish.
Even if these three dishes originate from elsewhere, the claim about local produce was ringing refreshingly true. Calf's liver lolling on a generous stack of braised cabbage and bacon with button onions and a good gravy was a more indigenous main course and a gratifying £10-worth. Finally, we raised our hats to a splendid apple and cinnamon crème brûlée with a chocolate cookie. A touch confused maybe, but delicious, nonetheless.
With so many chains replicating a formula that becomes less and less convincing the more branches open, this restaurant, diner, bar, pub or roadhouse, a copy of which opens in a converted pub in Loughton, Essex next month, performed surprisingly well. Like my actor friend, it may not know exactly what it's trying to be but it plays very well to an eager home counties audience.
The Wells, London Road, Ascot, Berks (01344 622757). Meals served Mon-Fri noon to 10.30pm, Sat 11am-4pm, 6-10.30pm, Sun 11am-4pm, 6-9.30pm. Disabled access. All cards accepted except Amex and DinersReuse content