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Review: The King’s Arms, Dorchester

Thomas Hardy was a regular. Queen Victoria stayed here. So did The Beatles. But would any of them recognise the place in its £5m reincarnation as laid-back hotel and foodie pub?

LOCATION

In the heart of the Dorset county town of Dorchester, between Bridport and Poole, about seven miles north of the Jurassic Coast and surrounded by a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The King’s Arms, founded in medieval times, was rebuilt in the early 19th century – cue the Doric columns, portico with cast iron railings and beautiful bow windows – as a stopping off place on the main road between London and the South West.

Previous guests include Thomas Hardy (he wined, dined and may have written The Mayor of Casterbridge here), Queen Victoria, King George IV, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

Now in the hands of Stay Original (the clever people behind The Swan in Wedmore, The Grosvenor Arms in Shaftesbury, The White Hart in Somerton and Timbrell’s Yard in Bradford-on-Avon), the former coaching inn has been reincarnated as a super laid-back hotel and foodie pub.

After you, madam….

THE VIBE

As soon as you enter the imposing Georgian façade you understand why the restoration has taken four years and cost £5 million. Exquisite geometric Victorian tiles have been revealed on the entire ground floor.

The period detail has been complemented with contemporary lighting, vintage fabric and bright splashes of colour throughout, giving the place a warm and welcoming feel. The sweeping central staircase is illuminated by a skylight from which this stunning light feature is suspended. Wow.

Love the original stained glass windows almost as much as their extensive range of booze.

The restaurant is expansive, airy and relaxed.

It’s divided from the open plan kitchen by brick archways of former stables covered in shiny ‘subway’ tiles.

Original red brick walls now form part of an intimate private dining space.

At the rear of the hotel, a cosy covered terrace has seats slung with faux fur throws and has been imaginatively planted up.

The staff are extremely friendly and attentive and clearly excited by the stylish transformation which has breathed life into this lovely place.

SCOFF & QUAFF

Time to peruse the menu on the terrace with a refreshing Bloom Jasmine & Rose Gin & tonic and some bread, olives and a little charcuterie.

Headed up by Steve Yates (formerly at Charlton House) and overseen by Executive Chef Tom Blake, the restaurant serves ‘modern British’ cuisine with European and North African influences and is admirably focused on celebrating the wonderful local produce and thereby reducing food miles.

To start, some scrumpet (aka a type of rissole), made with seasoned beef shin, which was bread-crumbed, deep fried and served with edamame bean salad and crispy noodles, and rich with oriental flavours.

The smoked haddock & River Fowey mussel chowder with chorizo and chervil was a comforting bowl of deliciousness.

For mains: rotisserie chicken with tomato panzanella (a Tuscan bread and tomato salad), romesco sauce and triple cooked chips. Bellissimo!

The whole fried sole with brown shrimp, capers, charred lemon, potatoes and fennel was buttery and sublime.

The owners unashamedly love their wine and the extensive wine list includes a good number of mid-priced bottles. They like to buy from artisan, carbon-conscious producers and there are some unusual/less celebrated wines including organic wines alongside the more familiar classics. The staff are encouraged to try all the wines and are happy to share their knowledge, which led us to a full-bodied, delicious Bourgogne Chardonnay’ Les Truffierres’ 2018, a perfect accompaniment to both fish and chicken.

For desserts: an unusual combination of elderflower and coconut parfait with blueberry sorbet, lemon curd and crunchy granola was inspired.

You’re lucky to get this pic of baked vanilla cheesecake with meringue, raspberry gel, cardamom and orange flower ice cream – it was so good it disappeared in seconds.

After dinner, we repaired to a large olive-panelled bar to lounge in velvet club and dining chairs covered in woven textured Jean Paul Gaultier fabric.

PILLOW TALK

There are 34 bedrooms to choose from – with king size, super king size or twin beds – all designed blending traditional with modern styles. Our ‘Epic’ room’ at the front of the hotel lived up to its name, being genuinely huge with a huge and super comfy bed and Scandi-inspired, mid-century furniture in a subtle palette of muted golds and creams.

Pen a few lines of your novel?

Or just chillax on the sofa.

All rooms have en suite bathrooms with rain showers, Smart TV, Pure radios, Nespresso machines and little cupboards with teas, coffees and treats.

No need to be an exhibitionist when you take a soak in the claw-foot roll top bath with views through the sash windows across the high street – pull the drapes!

Take a shower in the beautiful ceramic-tiled bathroom which comes complete with your favourite Bramley products.

For breakfast: rich smoked salmon and scrambled eggs on toast was nicely off-set with chive crème fraiche.

Avocado, mushroom and tomato on toast was given a bit of a kick with chilli and ginger jam.

OUT AND ABOUT

This is Hardy country, with his birthplace, where he walked and Stinsford, where his heart is buried (his ashes are in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey), all within a few minutes’ reach. Plenty of gorgeous beaches – bucket-and-spade Weymouth, secret Ringstead, spectacular Burton Bradstock and the iconic Lulworth Cove – are close by. Browse the independent shops in Dorchester (which also has some quirky museums like The Shire Hall and Tutankhamum Exhibition) and nearby Bridport.

THE MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: Anyone wanting a stylish weekend away; a special meal with family and friends (with enough space in the main areas for larger groups and a private dining room); for business travel (there’s plenty of space to tuck yourself away if you’re travelling solo). Come for breakfast, brunch, tea and cake or dinner. Super dog-friendly, canines are welcome in the bar and Old Smoking Room (which serves the full restaurant menu) and in the 1st floor bedrooms. Private car park for guests.

Not for: Maybe not ideal for families staying with young children, although children are welcome, with kids’ menus and smaller versions of dishes on the main menu and they’ll put cots into the rooms free of charge and extra beds for children up to 12 years into the larger rooms for £20.

The damage: Starters £7-9; mains £14-22; desserts £7-9; farmhouse cheese selection £8. Double rooms from £105/night; the Epic room from £190/night.

The Kings Arms, 30 High East Street, Dorchester, DT1 1HF. Tel 01305 238238. thekingsarmsdorchester.com

Photos: Rick Foulsham

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