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Exploring restaurants, cafés and bars in Mid Wales – a Welsh Food-fest.
With St David’s Day on 1st March fast approaching, what better reason to head off to Mid Wales to discover some of the region’s exceptional pubs, restaurants and cafés.
Due to its fabulous mountains and green rolling hills, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a straight road to take you from north to south. It’s a land of stunning scenery where you’ll find many friendly people who are happy to take time to share the best their world has to offer. A trip to wonderful Wales is likely to involve a circuitous journey through small towns and villages, which, happily, offer the opportunity to sample welcoming hospitality and delicious local food and drink along the way.
The historic county of Montgomeryshire (now part of the modern administration of Powys), has much to offer the food and culture enthusiast. South of the awesome Snowdonia National Park, it’s a road less tourist-travelled but no less lovely. Bordering England, in the Middle Ages its county town of Montgomery was once of huge strategic importance. Now it enjoys an atmosphere of safe gentility although the castle ruins, clinging steadfastly to the hill above the pretty town square, are a reminder of more turbulent times.
In the town centre, Checkers Pantry with Rooms provides the perfect base for exploring this region. Once a coaching inn and now a chic café with five bedrooms, Checkers provides a couth, calm environment to enjoy light lunches, coffee, cake and afternoon teas.
Stay overnight and enjoy luxurious beds (feather duvets, Egyptian cotton linen, L’Occitane toiletries and ground coffee) and a perfectly cooked, and beautifully presented, breakfast in a rustic dining room adorned with fabulous pieces created by Ralph Jandrell, one of the UK’s leading artisan potters who is local to the area (items available for purchase).
You’d expect nothing less from the team behind this family-run establishment who, having won their Michelin star, decided to concentrate on raising their families and focus on providing a more informal daytime offer.
The nearby Dragon Hotel is everything you’d expect from a 17th-century coaching inn: an eye-catching black and white exterior with a wonky wooden interior featuring lots of nooks and crannies! Here you can enjoy a pint of delicious Sunshine beer from the local Montgomery brewery while you choose from the eclectic menu in the cosy and relaxed Bistro 7.
With produce sourced as locally as possible, there’s something for every taste. In a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere friendly staff serve good-sized helpings of classic meat, fish and vegetarian dishes alongside Mediterranean favourites. Examples from the daily specials include a fresh Tuna Nicoise priced at £6.95 and a tasty Aubergine Parmigiana at £5.95 to start with a hearty Chicken and Chorizo Sofrito main course priced £16.95. The wine list includes a good range of popular wines at under £20 a bottle.
Part of the charm of this area is its timelessness, and you’re never far away from a pub or inn which hasn’t been upgraded to offer a modern take on quality within an atmospheric, historic environment. The black and white building housing the Bull & Heifer in Bettws Cedewain was refurbished from the old village post office in the heart of the village. It’s now a popular gastro-pub attracting a crowd of village residents discussing rugby in the locals’ bar while people come from near and far to enjoy well-executed lunch and dinner during the week and a very much above average Sunday lunch.
With a two-course menu offered at £17, (or £22 for three), lunchers can choose from a tempting selection of starters and classic mains. A rich lobster served with saffron risotto or pheasant served with “drunken date puree”, leek ribbons, a cider cream reduction and game chips classic may take you straight to the choice of four delicious home-made puddings.
But then you’d miss out on the roast beef or loin of pork with all the trimmings; the succulent cod with brioche crumb, or a very neat collection of artichoke hearts, Jerusalem artichoke puree and Basil pesto contained within a puff pastry case. There’s a broad wine list available, with bottles starting at £15.50 and £3.40 for a 125ml glass and plenty of space to sit outside and watch the world go, slowly, by.
A short drive north of Montgomery you’ll find The Nags Head Inn at Garthmyl, a lovely independent B&B and restaurant. Wales Pub of the Year for 2018/19, the bar displays a wall full of trophies and accolades including its AA Rosette for culinary excellence which it has been awarded for the third year running.
Staff are professional and welcoming and the restaurant ambience is created with a mixture of oak floor, book-cases, plants and open beams combined with contemporary colours and fabrics. In the evening the mood is cosy and during the day sun shines through the double doors leading out into the garden and patio.
All dishes are prepared in house using fresh local produce (herbs direct from the garden) and the menu makes you sigh contentedly. Choose from classic comfort food: slow-cooked Bwydlyn pork belly; Crow Wood Farm venison haunch steak; 21-day aged Morwen’s Montgomeryshire steak; creamy butternut squash risotto or wild mushroom, chestnut and spinach tart.
Leave enough space for the Homemade Desserts which is literally a list of everyone’s favourites. Who could resist a White Chocolate and Limoncello Panna Cotta? The Welsh Cheeseboard comes with Bara Brith (Wales’ wonderful fruit bread) and once tried you’ll never eat cheese with crackers again.
Four miles from Montgomery is Berriew a charming village of black and white timbered houses clustered around the River Rhiew and the beautifully located St Beuno’s church. Here you’ll find the 400-year-old Lion Hotel and Restaurant, from the outside yet another coaching inn – but step inside for something quite surprising.
The hotel is now owned by architect and interior designer Michael Davis and his partner, the world-renowned artist and sculptor, Andrew Logan. Nearby is the Andrew Logan Museum of Sculpture, a celebration of the artist’s wonderful world and work, and the interior of the Lion feels like an extension of this. After the tasteful but muted sage and creams favoured by many country hostelries, the bold colour scheme of the Lion’s dining rooms can draw a gasp.
The vibrant blue and red walls and carpets, plush fabrics and huge, glorious multi-coloured glass mosaic mirrors are delightful. The food will also make you smile. The menu is a happy mix of country favourites with a modern twist. Venison meatballs in a rich tomato sauce sit alongside parsnip fritters with red onion jam, blue cheese and walnuts in the “Course One” list. Steaks, lamb, duck and pheasant all feature in “Course Two”. With a nice gin menu featuring Welsh favourites, the delicious Brecon juniper, and a couple of Aber Falls, take time after your meal to relax in the bar and lounge and find out what the locals make of this hidden jewel.
If extravaganza is your thing then you’ll enjoy popping into The Bay Tree Vintage Tea Rooms & Cocktail Bar in Welshpool. With a programme of special events, music nights and cocktails, this cosy, eccentric venue is decorated with vintage advertising and travelling fun-fair paraphernalia. At lunchtime, it’s busy with friends and family catching up over a perfect café menu.
The Morgan’s Brew tea list includes such wonders as “Dragon’s Breath” (chai tea, aniseed, cinnamon and cardamom), “Cardigan Caravan” (ooligan, lapsan and Chinese black tea) and, one for Gavin and Stacy fans, “Barry Island Tea” (green tea, spearmint and sunflower). Along with standard bakes, quiches and macaroni, at £8.95 is the perfect Welsh Rarebit to die for: Welsh beer and cheese bechamel sauce toasted on thick toasted bloomer (happily served with a healthy salad…and chips).
If you’re looking for something a little more earthy but no less delicious, head down to Llanidloes, the first town on the River Severn and the gateway to the Cambrian Mountains. On a street housing a great bookshop and a terrific delicatessen you’ll find The Great Oak Café. This light, spacious café serves up tasty vegetarian and vegan hot food, as well as delicious fresh cakes and pastries in a convivial atmosphere of locals and shoppers.
At first glance, the quiche & salad/ bake & salad combos seem like an homage to the 1970s, but look closer and, more importantly, taste. The flavours here are very much of today. The brown lentil salad with roasted sweet potato and kale, butternut squash, cranberries all laced together with crème fraîche and a mix of spices is delicious and a hot pot of vegan and gluten-free aubergine, spinach and tomato jalfrezi is tastiness in a bowl. The café is one of ten businesses from across the UK which have been shortlisted for the first-ever Vegan Café of the Year Award.
Not strictly mid-Wales, but nestling on the border between the stunning Shropshire Hills and north Herefordshire you’ll find the Lion at Leintwardine. Set within a very pretty village and with the River Teme at the end of the garden, this is another example of a lovingly and beautifully restored country pub. A winner of the Best Pub in Shropshire in the National Pub and Bar Awards, this Bar and Restaurant also offers eight tastefully decorated en suite bedrooms.
The overall atmosphere is fresh, friendly and comfortable. The menu of pub classics comes alive with locally sourced ingredients, Lion favourites (priced mostly at £13), and a changing list of specials.
Main courses are substantial and moderately priced and there’s an extensive wine menu to cover all occasions. Tuesday night is Steak Night when diners can enjoy two main courses from the Steak night menu with a bottle of wine for £35. The three-tier Sunday lunch menu is devised on a weekly basis (£15 for one course, £19 for two, £23 for three). Special menus are offered for special occasions and soon to arrive will be Bottomless Brunches at £25
Early spring is a great time to explore Wales. By St David’s Day, 1 March, the road-sides, woods and parks are ablaze with yellow, daffodils. As the season moves on there’s a plethora of food, drink, arts and music festivals to draw you back. You’ll always find a welcome, and a really good meal, in these Welsh hillsides. And, if you can’t make it there, do check out this recipe for Welsh Rarebit from Kacie, one of our favourite Welsh food writers.
Jenny was a guest of Food and Drink Wales.
The Checker’s Pantry, Broad Street, Montgomery, Powys, SY15 6PN
Checkers Pantry check for opening times
Checkers Rooms are open Tuesday to Saturday evenings (bookable online) and often able to take bookings on Sundays and Mondays – get in touch directly to arrange this.
The Dragon Hotel, Market Square, Montgomery SY15 6PA https://www.dragonhotel.com/index.html
Reservations: 01686 668359
Bull and Heifer, Bettws Cedewain, Newtown, Powys, SY16 3DS
Reservations: 01686 651 210
The Nags Head Inn, Garthmyl, Montgomery, Powys, SY15 6RS
Reservations: 01686 640600
The Lion Hotel in Berriew, Welshpool, SY21 8PQ
Reservations: 01686 640452
The Bay Tree Vintage Tea Rooms, 5-6 Church Street, Welshpool, SY21 7DL
The Great Oak Café, 12 Great Oak Street, Llanidloes, SY18 6BU
The Lion, Bar, Restaurant and Rooms, 7 High Street, Leintwardine, Craven Arms, SY70JZ
Reservations: 01547 540 203