Are the restaurants serving us well?

Are the restaurants serving us well?

Foodie Damian Cotton gives us his feedback about what delights, or not, are on the table in Tunbridge Wells. It makes fascinating reading…

What do you want, good people of Tunbridge Wells, when you eat out? Are you concerned with quality ingredients, responsibly sourced, cooked and served with flair and passion? Or do you want something salty, hot and full of glutamate like a ready meal, plated up and garnished?

Would you prefer innovative or authentic cuisine or is the lure of safe and familiar going to win out? Does the food and drink even matter – is it more important to see and be seen? Or is it a bit of everything?

As a critic and a food professional, I am in search of quality above all, and desirous of learning something new. This pushes me towards independent restaurants most of the time as it is there that the love of food and hospitality has its natural home. Chain restaurants are dull and safe and boring, and however good they are when they first open, they reach a point where the initiating spark has burnt out and all that remains is business managed by ring-binder to maintain margin. And in all fairness, some of the Tunbridgian chains are all right – I’m not such a grump as to refuse to accompany friends to places that I would avoid otherwise: I recall an excellent pizza in Strada (although the pasta was grim), superb service in ASK on a quiet Monday afternoon when nearly everywhere else was closed, and Wagamama and Carluccios produce a reasonable facsimile of the cuisines they lay claim to, although both are designed to make conversation impossible for anyone who does not have perfect hearing.

I also understand the need for familiarity for people taking their children out for meals; that price may be an issue and that chains can be cheaper (although you do get better value in the independents). And it is good that kids get taken out – how else can they become socially adapted to restaurant culture? Yes, there must be active parenting and an understanding of the difference between sitting at a table and the ball pit at the daycare centre, but restaurants should be for everyone.

So what do we like in TW? The backbone of British eating out is small ethnic restaurants and there are plenty of curry houses, Anglo-Cantonese places and kebab shops as there are everywhere- and you go to the one you like and eat the same thing because you like it. But let’s look at the next level: Cochin Marine is a funny little place that hides some decent Keralan and Sri Lankan delicacies amidst the standard curries – try a dosa or some traditional fish – likewise, the Himalayan Gurkha produces real Nepalese dishes.

The most impressive food from the subcontinent served in the Wells is probably found at Spice Club even if the atmosphere is a bit lacking – sufficiently morgue-like that I quite expect to see Emilia Fox carving someone up. I took the editor one evening – for his sins, he is a vegetarian – and we ordered most of the vegetable sides with rice and bread and feasted happily on a colourful, varied and delicious repast that both felt was memorable.

Chinese of true quality seems to be missing, as Thai appeals more – sadly, the best Thai has gone – Preedee on Camden road was fabulous, but it seems you would rather have the formulaic and Europeanised version at Giggling Squid. Sucheera’s is still popular, but not as good as when it was Suchitra’s, and Kai’s kitchen is getting rave reviews.

Fine dining has really only one contender, our star of modern dining, Thackeray’s. Not always popular according to Tripadvisor, but I’ve never had a mouthful that wasn’t exemplary and the service and wine knowledge is impeccable in my experience. And what superb value for the set lunches with wines – if you haven’t been then may I urge you to do so, especially for lunch as all the online complainants seem to go on a Saturday night and are probably best avoided.

But what you really love is Italian, isn’t it? There are more Italian and Italian-inspired joints in our town than anything else. Leaving the chains aside, we have the return of Don Giovanni and his charming sons – slightly retro menu delivered with panache and a bit of a dull wine list so far, but such lovely people and service – we have Max’s Genuine Italian Food in Monson Road with some classy northern specialities and great wines and sandwiches, and we have my beloved Il Vesuvio whose Neapolitan cuisine is outstanding, whose Maria is a shining beacon of loveliness who makes us all feel like we just got home, and Franco the wine genius at whose feet I have learnt so much.

Then there are the delicatessens and coffee shops with smashing produce. It is the one cuisine that we have really taken to our hearts – and I for one am not complaining. Just don’t ask for pineapple on your pizzas.

What else? One of my favourite places to eat is Juliet’s Café on the High Street – fab food with some interesting innovations – I just can’t get in very often past the forest of prams. Do we like fish in Tunbridge Wells? Well, not old fashioned fish and chips, as the quality of the chippies would be actionable in the north. We do seem fond of more formal fish, as long as it says Sankeys- the main restaurant is worth a visit for the dressed crab alone. There are also a fair few places where food is not central but socialising is, and they seem to do a good trade, but anyone serving mostly pre-cooked frozen stuff won’t keep my attention and shouldn’t merit yours either.

And what do we lack? There isn’t a good burger joint (not GBK or Byron but someone who cares). We are entirely deprived of the food of the Levant and the Ottoman Empire unless prepared to eat standing up – it baffles me that a large, fairly wealthy town cannot support at least a 20-cover Turkish or Lebanese restaurant. The joys of sharing mezze seem to escape us, sadly – I haven’t had the chance since the old Persian diner Shiraz closed (good traditional food, but an ambience that made Spice Club look like Rio on carnival day). There is certainly scope for a top-end Chinese, or maybe a small family-run Hunanese or Sichuan, and maybe just maybe a Korean?

All in all, we are fairly well served with restaurants – for somewhere that isn’t London, we have a good range of cuisines, price points and quality. It’s just up to us to keep going out, to keep asking the right questions of the restaurateurs, and please, please try different things…..don’t go straight for Pinot Grigio or chicken because they are safe, known quantities – just try one new dish or glass each time. Happy dining.