Restaurant review: Thackeray's, Tunbridge Wells

Thackeray's, Richard Phillips' flagship restaurant in Tunbridge Wells, remains the perfect choice for a special occasion or even a surprisingly affordable lunch

Restaurant review: Thackeray’s, Tunbridge Wells  

Thackeray’s, Richard Phillips’ flagship restaurant in Tunbridge Wells, remains the perfect choice for a special occasion or even a surprisingly affordable lunch

Perched prettily on the green off the main London Road in Tunbridge Wells, the Grade II-listed former home of novelist William Makepeace Thackeray is not only the oldest building in this spa town, but today houses one its most renowned restaurants.

Behind the weatherboarded and tile-hung black and white exterior you’ll find an intriguing mix of ancient floorboards and low ceilings with modern touches like the new wallcoverings seen in the two cool and contemporary downstairs dining rooms. Look out for a natural grass weave on some walls (it has a softening effect on the light, apparently), and a couple of feature walls with a large, swirly floral patterned wallpaper that seems to have divided diner opinion right down the middle (I loved it, my young dining chum really didn’t).

Climb up the slightly perilous original wooden stairway, and two further private dining rooms, a lounge and bar await. The larger, African-themed room can seat up to 18, “at a push”, while the other is slightly smaller at 14 covers, the thinking being that downstairs there are no tables seating more than eight, so that couples, for example, don’t get disturbed by the noise from bigger parties. It’s all very charming and really rather unexpected, this slightly eccentric and cosy secret upstairs world.

Kentish-born Richard Phillips, chef and co-proprietor, needs little introduction. He started his award-winning food career under the wing of Albert and Michel Roux, gained a Michelin star in his first year of operation at Thackerays (it opened in November 2001 – the star, alas, has yet to be regained) and is a regular on TV cookery shows.

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On this occasion, however, we were in the very capable hands of head chef Chris Bower who, I think I can state with confidence, produced the most enjoyable starter I’ve every had. But I’m leaping ahead of myself…

The menus, devised by Richard, are modern French, preparation and presentation is meticulous yet artful and the service discreet, efficient and not at all stuffy or scary, as some fine dining experiences can make you feel.

This welcoming approach is epitomised by general manager Gary Beach, who has been in position four years and clearly loves his work. He talks us through the menus, emphasising Thackeray’s ‘green credentials’, with Kentish and Sussex vegetables, local game and dairy products, home-made bread - and local wine (Richard’s latest addition to the fold is his restaurant at Chapel Down, the home of English wine, so it would be rude not to) all proudly featured.

A strong local link is the sustainably sourced fresh fish and seafood from Sankey’s Fishmongers, part of the well-known family-owned pub and brasserie also in Tunbridge Wells.

There’s a choice of three menus: the chef’s tasting menu, at �65 per person (or �95 if you include a recommended glass of wine with each course), which enables you to enjoy smaller portions of Thackeray’s signature dishes; the market menu (available Tue-Fri, 6.30-10.30pm) and the � la carte.

Rather taken with the idea that he could lunch here for just �17.50 for three courses (“which means we’re full every lunchtime, it’s ideal for a 16-year-old on their first date, a businessman with an hour for lunch or shoppers,” says Gary), The Hungry One decided to test the market menu for taste and seasonality.

His terrine of chicken with haricot vert and a confit shallot salad proved light and appetising, although he got a bit confused and thought the “green stuff” was cabbage – but it was, however, overshadowed by my outstanding pan-fried Rye Bay scallops. Served with crispy chicken wings and hazelnut foam, which sounds a bizarre combination but really did work and I could have happily eaten it all over again. Several times.

From a choice of three mains (cod and lamb being the others), THO tucked into a hearty dish of saddle of Chart Farm venison with a roast sloe crust, served with spiced red cabbage, braised salsify and crushed potatoes: “very pink, very tender, very tasty” was the satisfied verdict. A glass of C�tes du Roussillon Domaine Lafage, made a fine accompaniment.

My assiette of Romney Marsh lamb showed enormous versatility, with its beautifully presented combination of a mini shepherd’s pie, braised shoulder and roast saddle of lamb, marching diagonally across a big square white plate. Perfect fare for a chilly night out, especially paired with a glass of Ch�teau Senailhac, Bordeaux Superior.

Feeling really rather full now, I still somehow managed to get through the chocolate heaven that is the Valrhona: milk chocolate mousse, a clementine compote and white chocolate ice cream, while THO was rather more restrained with his refreshing blueberry delice: a colourful and very stripey terrine, sorbet and pear curd.

Consistently a winner in consumer polls, Thackerays remains a firm favourite and always delivers in terms of a special night out. As Gary Beach says: “There’s really no point star chasing, because it’s always at the expense of the restaurant. Customer ratings are what’s important.”


85 London Road

Tunbridge Wells


Tel: 01892 511921


Open: Tue-Sat, 12pm-2.30pm and 6.30pm-10.30pm, Sun 12-2.30pm

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Richard Phillips @ Chapel Down

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Tenterden TN30 7NG

Tel 01580 761616

Combining contemporary, locally sourced food with English wines is the winning combination at Richard Phillips’ latest addition to his culinary empire literally overlooking the vines. Try salmon and crab fish cakes with fennel and dill, grilled calves liver or Griggs of Hythe poached smoked haddock with bubble and squeak. There’s a range of private dining options and weddings are a recent addition to the site, with Richard preparing the wedding menus himself to suit all budgets, from fish and chips or bacon sandwiches to fine dining.

Open: Mon-Sat, 12-3pm, Thu-Sat 6.30-10.30pm, Sun 12-4pm

The Swan

35 Swan Street,

West Malling ME19 6JU

Tel: 01732 521910

A radical conversion of this 15th-century coaching inn mixes contemporary and classic as wood, granite and stainless steel meet original restored beams. The Swan, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this month, trades over three floors as a lively, spacious Michelin-listed brasserie, two bars and three private dining rooms. Look out for tasty dishes from award-winning head chef Scott Goss such as oxtail ravioli, red wine-poached halibut or Chart Farm venison. Full review in next month’s Kent Life.

Open: Mon-Sat, 12-2.45pm and 6pm-10.30 pm, Sun spitroast, 12-4pm, last orders 8pm

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Tel: 01892 513161

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Open: Mon-Sat, 12pm-2.30pm and 6.30pm onwards. Sun lunch all day from 12pm to 5pm (last orders 5pm).