The Royal Well Tavern, Cheltenham
Classic bistro food in a setting resembling a gentleman's club has transformed this former town centre boozer
I knew I would like Humphrey Fletcher's food as soon as I read his list of influences and favourite chefs: Simon Hopkinson, Alastair Little, Fergus Henderson, Rowley Leigh, Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson.
And then I saw his menu at The Royal Well Tavern, a brand new Modern British-meets-rustic French restaurant in Cheltenham.
It contained Morecambe Bay cockles with garlic and parsley; chicken livers on toast, Middlewhite pork terrine; warm leeks vinaigrette with tarragon and chopped egg; Evesham asparagus with Jersey royals, pea shoots and crme fraiche; braised shoulder of lamb with garlic, shallots, flageolet beans and green sauce and lemon tart.
This was bourgeoisie French cooking of the highest order, but in a former pub near the bus station in the heart of Cheltenham.
The Royal Well Tavern is the brainchild of Sam Pearman, who went to school in Cheltenham before playing rugby for Gloucester for a couple of seasons and then working in London restaurants such as Langans and The Glasshouse (where he met Fletcher).
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Pearman also worked at Bibury Court Hotel and was also responsible for helping to launch The Kingham Plough, the Oxfordshire gastropub where former Heston Blumenthal chef Emily Watkins has been cooking up a storm for the past year.
The idea for The Royal Well Tavern was, according to Pearman, to bring high quality food to Cheltenham, but in a relaxed, informal setting.
With its dark wood tables, banquettes and gold-framed paintings, this former boozer has a gentleman's club feel to it, mixed with the look of a French brasserie. There is a small open kitchen in the corner and the menu is written as a straight list of dishes without sections for starters, main courses and desserts.
The idea is that people can pop in for a couple of hors d'oeuvres and a glass of wine at the bar, or stay for a proper meal and a bottle from the exclusively French wine list. Bookings are not taken which means that tables can be highly prized at the weekends.
Fletcher, who hails from Yorkshire, gained most of his culinary experience in London. His CV includes some of the most influential and respected restaurants in the country - The Glasshouse in Kew, Kensington Place, Chez Bruce and the River Cafe. He also spent some time in France working for English families as a private cook and worked in a brasserie in Toulouse, which is where he really discovered the classic bourgeois cooking that influences so much of his menu today.
Before heading to Gloucestershire, Fletcher worked for 18 months at The River Cafe in Hammersmith, where he learnt about the importance of sourcing good ingredients, as well as simple presentation.
"At The River Caf�, the presentation was the best I've ever seen. The food is very light and hardly touched by hands. But there is a trick to it because you have to make it look like it's dumped on the plate when it quite clearly isn't."
As a chef, Humphrey is fairly classic in his approach to food. He believes that people want to eat good food, but not necessarily have it dominate the meal. Too many chefs, he feels, think their food has to have a kind of 'look at me' factor and to be 'witty' and 'innovative'. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that he holds no truck with what he calls 'the square plate brigade'.
At The Royal Well Tavern, Humphrey aims to serve the classic bistro fare that he loves cooking, dishes such as a coarse terrine, fish stews, steak frites and vanilla ice cream - basically, all the things he loves to eat.
Most of the produce is being sourced locally from the Cotswolds, including the meat, which comes from the Cheltenham butcher MJ and JA Watts, who also supply the town's two Michelin-starred Le Champignon Sauvage.
Says Pearman: "Cheltenham has a good market for food-driven pubs and bars. It has a good business clientele, it has a good student population and a good residential clientele. It also has a huge number of branded chain restaurants so we want to offer something a bit more independent and special."
"I don't want to sound snooty," adds Fletcher, "but I think Cheltenham needs somewhere like this. I don't think people necessarily want fancy elaborate food any more and the people of Cheltenham are sophisticated enough to appreciate good food for what it is without all the frills."
The Royal Well Tavern
5 Royal Well Place, Cheltenham
Tel: 01242 221212