The Grosvenor Arms, Shaftesbury
Come for the location but stay for the food: Tom Blake's locally-sourced, changing seasonal menus bring an inventive, fresh spirit to brasserie classics.
Bang in the heart of this ancient Saxon hilltop town, the Grosvenor Arms has been welcoming travellers and tending to their refreshment for many centuries more than the imposing Georgian façade suggests. We are a bread-roll throw away from the cobbled and vertiginous Gold Hill, forever famous after Ridley Scott’s Hovis ad had the baker’s lad push his bike up its steep and bumpy slope. Shaftesbury sits high over the Blackmore Vale and appears as “Shaston” in many Thomas Hardy novels. King Alfred founded an abbey here and you can still visit its gardens or follow Jude the Obscure’s steps through the avenue of limes in Trinity Church. Historic and literary then? Oh yes.
Imposing Georgian pillars and huge sash windows promise style and elegance but step inside and there’s nothing Jane Austen about the modern rustic style.
Staff are professional and friendly; the floors are polished oak; the large, airy spaces (formal restaurant; pizza oven with tables; al fresco terrace with central fountain; bar area; snug) all flow into each other.
The make-over a few years ago has made the most of the Grosvenor’s fabulous Georgian bones but removed any sniff of stuffiness. Here you can hang out, using the free Wifi, with your faithful mutt at your feet (dogs are welcome throughout) while enjoying a pint of something local or a pot of tea. There are quirky touches that add character to the spaces – a large wooden horse in the restaurant, a wall of antlers in the bar, a lovingly scuffed and distressed wood base to the bar.
The lunchtime clientèle included a table of probably local girlfriends out for a Friday celebration, a family of London weekenders, an older regular enjoying a pot of tea in the snug, and a businessman celebrating a deal somewhat loudly on his mobile. In the best coaching-inn tradition, all society is here and all are welcome.
SCOFF & QUAFF
Come for the location but stay for the food. The kitchens are overseen by the renowned Tom Blake and it shows. Locally-sourced ingredients and changing seasonal menus bring an inventive, fresh spirit to brasserie classics. The lunch menu has four starters, seven mains plus pizzas, a couple of sides and four desserts to choose from. But each dish is a revelation.
The sweetcorn chowder, with smoked mackerel and crab fritter, toasted chorizo and tarragon oil was a meal in itself, perfectly balanced, hearty but subtly blending smoky with sweet.
The pulled ham hock terrine was enlivened with a beetroot tartar and bitter caper salad sitting on a crispy crostini and dabbed with chipotle ketchup. The blending of sweet, smoky meltingly soft ham with these sharper, spicier accents elevated a terrine to new heights. It’s the attention to detail that marks out the food.
My generous helping of flat iron chicken came with perfectly crisp, slightly charred skin, roasted smashed jersey royals and a fresh salsa verde elegantly circling the plate.
The wine list is well thought-out and unusually offers a wide range of options by the glass, large glass, half-litre as well as the bottle. The trifle presented a pretty take on the Victorian favourite, with a foaming cream head topped with not-quite-bitter marinated raspberries and a fragrant elderflower jelly bursting with fruit at the base.
The New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc was served correctly chilled and came bursting with gooseberry fruit and fragrance while the inky Argentinian Malbec was complex and plummy with a long finish. Not a wine fan? No problem. The bar has an impressive range of beers and, of course, local ciders.
First – book ahead. The 16 spacious rooms are almost always fully-booked and no wonder. Each has a different style in keeping with the modern rustic style: zingy, colours in single wall wallpapers are picked out in pops of colour in lampshades and cushions, while the rugs, beds and paintwork are all neutral. White, crisp cotton sheets cover mostly King-size beds and all have well-appointed en-suites…or for the romantically-minded, in-room bathtubs. Each room is individual, so if you’d rather have a power shower than a clawfoot tub, be specific when you book.
One suite, popular with honeymooners, has its own large balcony overlooking the fountain terrace below. No room service, though, so you need to make friends with hotel staff to bring you breakfast in bed. Of course, you can make yourselves coffee and tea thanks to the in-room facilities. As you might expect, rooms are large and spacious with sash windows spilling with light. Rooms are on both the first and second floors, with some second-floor rooms tucked into the roof-space – not so good for the tall and handsome. There is a lift to the first floor for those with limited mobility. Generous wide staircases and passages make you feel as if you’re staying in a rather large house for the weekend rather than a hotel, and that intimacy will appeal to many. Dogs are welcomed.
Good for: Londoners looking for a weekend base to explore the fabulous local countryside and nearby attractions (eg Stourhead); dog-lovers; foodies who don’t like a formal atmosphere; locals seeking great food in a congenial space. Families (there’s a children’s menu).
Not for: Luxury-seekers who might miss room service, linen table cloths, silver service, pomp and ceremony.
The damage: Starters £7.75 –£10.50; Mains £13.75 –£21.50; Pizza ££8.50–£12.50; Desserts/cheese £7-£8. Double room from £105 per night.
The Grosvenor Arms, The Commons, Shaftesbury, Dorset SP7 8JA. 01747 850580. grosvenorarms.co.uk