You may find this hard to believe, but Marlborough, in Wiltshire, home of the prestigious private boarding school, alma mater of our future queen, with the longest Georgian high street in England, voted flagship market-town by prime retail names, is, in fact, a foodie Kalahari.
Other than the ubiquitous, branded, corporate empires of Ask, Pizza Express, Costa Coffee and Brasserie Gerard, it is absolutely devoid of anywhere really good to eat. Except for one place, away from the centre of town, mid-way up Kingsbury Hill, nestled in amongst the residential enclave of merchants’ houses, dog walkers and pebbled driveways, sits Coles Bar and Restaurant. As one estate agent put it “When you buy a house in Marlborough, Coles is the only ticket in town”.
One foot inside the doorway and you are so happy it exists. So cheerfully, yet unassumingly decorated, in pale tones of string, grass and straw, with tongue and groove woodwork and big, squashy, tapestry cushions lined up on banquettes against wide bay windows, you have arrived chez une maison de campagne. Friendly and fast, the staff look after you in the old fashioned way, gossiping and laughing with locals, some of whom I know come several times a week. Many St. John’s School, Marlborough College and St. Mary’s School Calne parents come here at half term and end of term, to take their offspring out for lunch to celebrate the passing of life’s milestones. Business people from the town come here for Christmas parties, when it becomes practically impossible to book a table.
There are tables at the front of the restaurant, in beside the bar, and in a long dining room on the ground floor as well as upstairs on the first floor, which overlooks the main room from a minstrels’ gallery. Perched on the bar shelves are little terracotta pots filled with herbs and flowers and on all the walls are beautiful watercolour paintings, framed tapestries, old maps and naive art woodcarvings. There are old books, watering cans, logs and beeswax candles: you are in the town but feel as if you have momentarily stepped into the country.
The Menu is always seasonal, mainly European, with six starters and six mains, and there is always a set price Menu, a steal at just £13.25. We ate our way through wild mushroom, feta cheese, spinach and tomato frittata with crispy new potatoes, chargrilled mature aged Aberdeen Angus sirloin steak with French fries, herb butter and a mixed leaf salad and a pan fried sea bass fillet on sautéed new potatoes, English samphire and saffron beurre blanc. The cooking is very simple and flavoursome, with minimum fuss and decoration.
Puddings were equally delicious: an Amalfi lemon tart with fresh summer berries, a vanilla panacotta with apricot compote and vanilla ice cream with honeycomb pieces, with a hot toffee sauce and spun sugar. Coles is a friendly bistro-style restaurant, serving delicious and well sourced ingredients in a fast and uncomplicated way. How rare this is in the new culinary landscape of molecular gastronomy with its awful drizzles, foams and gels, and how very fortunate are residents that this place exists.
So why, in comfortable, affluent and patrician middle class, middle aged, middle-England Marlborough are they the only good eatery? Maybe the high street rents and rates have driven all the independents out, the economic recession putting the final boot into already fragile livelihoods. Or maybe it’s because Coles makes it all look very easy, but in fact, it takes a great deal of consistent and unrelenting hard work, focus and talent to become such a popular neighbourhood restaurant.