Continuing Palate’s series of staycation travel pieces, we turn to Exeter: the de facto ‘capital’ of the UK’s third biggest county, Devon.
At first blush, the independent dining scene in Exeter looks somewhat thin on the ground – especially since Michael Caines’ restaurant opposite the cathedral burned down in 2016 (he has since taken over Lympstone Manor, his new flagship restaurant). Like any other medium-sized city, Exeter has not been able to resist the inexorable spread of chains with their plastic menus and conveyerbelt food. But, if you peel the onion you will see that there’s much more than meets the eye in Exeter, with great bars, restaurants, coffee shops and quirky hidden gems. This makes Exeter well worth a visit, whether for a city break in its own right or as the base for a gastro tour of the South West.
If you’re looking for a staycation idea centred around good food and drink, Exeter is certainly worth consideration, as is the Pullman dining service for your means of travel
But, first of all, how do you get there? If you’re coming from London and don’t want to drive, there is only one way for the true bon vivant: hop on board one of the new Great Western Railway trains from Paddington. During the week these are now fitted with a Pullman dining car. That’s right – a full-blown restaurant car!
Dining cars on trains had all but died of death until this recent revival: they remain de rigeur on the continent (I’ve enjoyed restaurant cars on the trains from Berlin to Prague and Prague to Vienna to name a couple), and of course we still have The Orient Express and Belmond’s various plush services in the UK, but these remain a rare treat and are prohibitively expensive for most people. When it comes to ordinary long distance train journeys within the UK, why should the only food offering be just a crisps trolley?
With the GWR’s Pullman dining car it doesn’t matter if you’re travelling standard or first class, and you don’t need a reservation: you simply turn up, announce yourself to a member of staff and as soon as a table becomes free, you will be installed and a menu presented to you.
The tables are dressed in tablecloths which create a restaurant feel (as well as disguise their alter ego as an ordinary train table – presumably when the train is really busy the dining car is decommissioned and becomes a normal carriage). As you read the menu of British classics (potted shrimps, Devon brill and West Country cheeses all enticed) you hear the satisfying clink of wine glasses making contact with each other – the light percussion section of the train’s orchestra.
The service is like silver service, almost amusingly so, with your bread and side orders served to you from a silver platter using forks and spoons (something I once did in my brief experience in hospitality, so I feel the waiters’ pain – even more so because these guys have to contend with G-forces, narrow aisles and the movement of the train). Food-wise, I wasn’t expecting anything fancy – it’s a train, for crying out loud. I wasn’t surprised to see that my salmon starter with crème fraiche had basically just come out of a packet in the fridge – a dish that had been merely assembled, but at least it was assembled with an eye to good presentation. The litmus test was the main course of duck leg on a white onion risotto – a dish which actually needed cooking – and it was surprisingly good! The duck had not dried out and the risotto was well-made. No complaints there at all.
Le Gavroche on wheels it is not… But all in all, the return of Pullman dining on such an ordinary intercity route restores some of the romance of train travel that we’ve lost in this country
But let’s manage expectations: Le Gavroche on wheels it is not. The coffee is still train coffee. The toilets are still train toilets. The wine selection by the glass is not great (next time I will enquire as to corkage!) and it’s a bit pricey for the ingredients used. It may not be perfect. But all in all, the return of Pullman dining on such an ordinary intercity route restores some of the romance of train travel that we’ve lost in this country. I loved every minute of it. The two hour journey to Exeter just seemed to fly by and before I knew it I had arrived at St David’s station.
Exeter is well-known for being a city that’s easy on the eyes with its Georgian townhouses, its bustling waterfront, pleasant gardens and progressive politics (I randomly bumped in to local Labour MP Ben Bradshaw in a pub by the river – nice chap). Its vibrant, youthful feel was made all the more evident by the graduation celebrations that coincided with my visit. The cathedral is a magnificent Gothic building located in an attractive square (where Michael Caines’ restaurant was until the fire of 2016). It has all the usual shops, a free museum and The Picturehouse is a decent art house cinema. There is a lot to like about this city.
After a wander about the centre, it was time to meet up with my local photographer friend who suggested we rendez-vous at Artigiano on the High Street, an all-day coffee shop and bar. For ages I’ve banged on about the need for the UK to have places that serve both decent coffee and booze – in France this is standard, as it is in most European countries (one of my favourite of such places is Café Hawelka in Vienna where I once spent an entire day reading Dostoyevsky as I alternated between red wine and espressos). Only until relatively recently have places started to break free from the strict separation of powers between coffee shops on the one hand and pubs/bars on the other. To my knowledge, Artigiano was one of the first places in the UK which started to blur this line, and still does so very well (it has even turned into a small chain). The venue itself has a slight Berlin ‘industrial chic’ feel to it, with its expansive space and exposed air ducts. It got a bit lively as the evening progressed, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but my student days are long behind me and I like to be able to converse in peace.
Having decanted a few brews to my digestive system, it was time to get stuck in to some food. I’ve already alluded to the apparent dearth of independent restaurants in Exeter – they are indeed few and far between – but the first place I tried out, The Conservatory, was a real find, despite being on an insalubrious back street behind a bingo hall.
I was actually glad to discover that it was open, as the online booking service I tried said it wasn’t (sometimes in life it’s best just to turn up and chance it – otherwise it would’ve been an emergency rib eye at Cote). Perhaps they weren’t expecting anyone to turn up as it was quiet and I caught the chef having a fag break outside (more on him in a moment).
The Conservatory’s layout and design delighted me: it has lots of cosy nooks and crannies, mezzanine floors and antechambers. Its price point is also attractive: their set three course lunch is £12.95, whilst a la carte main courses in the evening are around £17-20.
The food is competently prepared but nothing earth-shattering. It was pleasing to see sustainable fish from Cornwall on the menu and the general use of local ingredients. I surmised that the fag-smoking chef must be French-trained given his predilection for garlic and heavy sauces (which seemed to please the French customers on the next table). The butter with my bread was as soft as you like, gently salted and studded with herbs. My goats cheese soufflé was a little lack lustre and came with an intense garlic jam which would give anyone vile garlic breath for weeks (don’t come here if you have romantic intentions). My steak was good, though it was drowned in too much creamy pepper sauce – I prefer to be able to pour my own so I can test the quality of the steak cooking first. Indeed, the best steaks need no sauce.
it was like a 90s party but without the great soundtrack
My only issue with The Conservatory is that it’s still stuck in 1996. There was a pre-touch screen cash register complete with a drawer that pings when opened; espresso machines haven’t yet been heard of so the only coffee available is by cafetiere (and weak at that); there wasn’t much of a cocktail offering and my G&T was poorly made, with no choice of gin and no garnish; the waitress seemed to think it was OK to put her hands all over my plate; and they also started cleaning around me at 8.50pm. 8.50?? Each of these things in isolation are forgivable – like minor faults in a driving test – but put them together and it paints a picture of a restaurant that doesn’t really care about moving with the times. The 90s thing can be quite kitsch and fun, if nostalgia is the intention – you can picture yourself sitting there as if you’ve walked off the set of This Life in round glasses, tapping your feet to Britpop. But this isn’t the case here: it was like a 90s party but without the great soundtrack. The Conservatory could realise its potential if it caught up a bit with current service standards.
In nearby Topsham The Salutation Inn and its Glasshouse proved to be a better experience overall. Despite the slow service it is worth the 10 minute bus or taxi ride out of central Exeter. The vintages on the wine list and I were probably the youngest things there: a mid-week lunch in a small maritime community will always be the graveyard shift for clientele who – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – are in the winter of their lives. But there’s no winter of discontent at The Salutation Inn (the need for hip replacements notwithstanding): it’s a happy place and the good food makes people even happier. The pace of life around Topsham, and indeed the service at The Salutation Inn, is more larghetto than Exeter’s allegro. My arancini may have taken 20 minutes to arrive (by which time I had heard all the gory details about the blue-rinsed lady’s knee operation), but when it did arrive it was a lovely dish: the perfect spring/summer starter, gently seasoned with poached quail eggs oozing yolk over the asparagus pieces and peas (who doesn’t like an oozing yolk?). Gorgeous. The main course of coq au vin was less impressive and just seemed a bit ordinary, really. But things picked up again with the desserts: a waitress came over with a colourful selection of pastries on a tray looking like something from Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory – hats off to their pastry chef, he or she is doing a fine job.
My little jaunt to Topsham complete, something simpler beckoned back in central Exeter. My photographer friend and I were suddenly in the mood for a classic Indian, that staple of British high street cuisine. On the basis of its name alone Real India on South Street showed real promise. Indeed, I was hoping it would be (drum roll) second to naan… but no. No puns are worthy for this blot on the gastronomic landscape. It was an unforgettable experience – but for the wrong reasons.
To be fair, the food itself wasn’t that bad. My chicken bhuna was delicately spiced, whilst my friend’s pasanda was nutty and creamy. These dishes met expectations. But the restaurant’s interior is in serious need of an upgrade and, above all, it was the comically poor service that made it such a bizarre experience. The main person working front of house seemed to be in a foul mood, as if serving customers was not in her job description, whilst one of the waitresses seemed to be too nervous to even speak to us. And then two staff saw fit to have a full-on argument right in front of the customers, one of whom said out loud “just do your f***ing job will you?” There were no apologies for this ‘entertainment’, by the way. It was really quite surreal. We refused to pay the discretionary service charge and even that nearly brought about World War Three. The whole experience became a lesson in how one should not necessarily go by a restaurant’s name and certainly not by positive reviews on TripAdvisor. Real India was a real embarrassment. It was the only bum note of the trip, but there had to be one.
I was hoping it would be second to naan… but no puns are worthy for this blot on the gastronomic landscape
I should leave you on a couple of positive notes. The first is The Glorious Tea House on Fore Street, a delightful independent coffee shop and art gallery with homemade cakes, soups, snacks, and all members of the French pastry family present and correct. I had breakfast here each day of my trip and the lady on the counter memorised my order by day three (I love places like that).
Just further up the same road, and the final place I’ll mention is The Bike Shed Theatre Bar. As its name suggests, it is a fringe theatre and a bar in a former bike shed – you can come here for a play, a cocktail, or both! It’s a quirky place which is quiet during the week but gets busier at weekends, frequented by actors and arty people of all stripes. I felt quite at home conversing with the French barman who made a decent Negroni and an Aviation. I was also pleased to see they have a selection of Beavertown beers in cans – it was as if I was in London but saving a heck of a lot of money.
So there you have it. If you’re looking for a staycation idea centred around good food and drink, Exeter and its surrounding area is certainly worth consideration, as is the Pullman dining service for your means of travel.