As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the Kent Downs, Paul Bloomfield picks out a selection of cafés, restaurants, pubs and local food in this glorious Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in southeast England.
What an epicurean land. Enjoy the bounty of the Kent Downs: freshly picked asparagus from April to June; strawberries from June to August; cherries in July; apples and pears newly harvested in September and October - and much, much more. From organic vegetarian cafes to tea rooms, pubs and innovative restaurants, local produce features prominently on the menus of this selection of venues.
Taste your way around the region, calling in at appealingly atmospheric places in the process.There's a retro tea shop at a lighthouse (the scones are mouth-wateringly good, too), a pub that began life as a monastic brewery, a wonderful café in a medieval castle; and a 200-year-old inn hidden down a maze of lanes. We’ve also highlighted some of the best farm shops in the Kent Downs along with farmers’ markets where you can stock up for picnics in the glorious downs beyond.
Mrs Knott’s Tea Room at The Lighthouse
Standing high over Kent’s white cliffs at St Margaret’s Bay, South Foreland Lighthouse is a spectacular landmark. Built largely in the 1830s, it was the first lighthouse in the country to use electric light. Today it is run by the National Trust, which has opened the former lighthouse keeper’s cottage as a tea room styled with 1950s décor and crockery. You get proper, old-fashioned afternoon tea here – of the loose leaf variety served in a teapot and accompanied by freshly baked scones and lashings of cream. nationaltrust.org.uk/south-foreland-lighthouse
Veg Box Café
This vegetarian and vegan haven in Canterbury bases most of its menu on whatever is sent in veggie boxes from Perry Court Farm near Wye – a producer priding itself on using sustainable farming methods. When available, responsibly foraged wild ingredients from the region are also sourced, from watercress to mushrooms and herbs. Open from 10am to 6pm, the café is a relaxing venue for coffee (with great cakes on offer) and lunches of organic and biodynamic bakes. thevegboxcafe.co.uk
The Plough at Ivy Hatch
What a wonderfully relaxing place. Set in the hamlet of Ivy Hatch near Sevenoaks, The Plough is a laid-back inn some 200 years old, with open fires, leather armchairs – and an impressive selection of gins. Its much applauded, very seasonal menu is almost entirely based on what’s available from local suppliers: raspberries from Roughway Farm; venison from Chart Farm; vegetables from Watts Farm. The pub is a hop and skip from beautifully preserved Ightham Mote, one of Britain’s finest medieval properties, and is in prime walking and cycling country.
The small town of Wye near Ashford is pretty and vibrant in equal measure – it’s a place on the up and there’s a real buzz here. At its heart is The Kings Head, which was very down at heel when Mark Lightford and Scott Richardson acquired it a couple of years ago. They have transformed the pub into an appealingly retro-yet-modern outfit with a relaxing bar/restaurant serving good bistro dishes and with four very comfy bedrooms (with plans for a further four). Great care has been taken to keep the character of the old inn and to use as much of the traditional furniture as possible. The food is just as sensitively devised – most of it very locally sourced: bread from Wye Bakery opposite; sausages from Wye Butcher two doors down; chutneys and pickles from the Wooden Spoon Perserving Company in Wye. Come for a walking break here (the Pilgrims Way passes through town) and arrive by public transport: Wye station is just down the road. kingsheadwye.com
The Tiger Inn
You wiggle down narrow lanes between Ashford and Folkestone to reach this bucolic, very rural pub. It’s close to the North Downs Way and welcomes walkers –in winter woodburning stoves add an extra-cosy mood, while in summer there’s a generous terrace for outdoor dining. Landlords Emma Oliver and Ben Jarvis are champions of local producers such as Crunden for vegetables and Davies Bakery in Ashford. The menu offers pub classics mainly based on free range or organic ingredients. Dogs are welcome here and riders can feel free to tether their horse to the railings outside. tigerinn.co.uk
The Black Robin
Named after a legendary highwayman, The Black Robin is an atmospheric 18th-century inn overlooking fields on the edge of Kingston near Canterbury. It was acquired by business partners Ben Lavers and Tom Wakefield in February 2014 and they have carefully devised it as a lively venue both for music and for food. Lavers is a chef and his well-priced menus offer classy pub fare drawing on the produce of the area. Evening meals might include beef cheek bourguignon and haunch of venison; Sunday lunches are treat of roasts. theblackrobinpub.com
At Lower Hardres near Canterbury, Phil and Gabrielle Harris run this tastefully presented pub very much as a local and also as an epicurean restaurant, which is no mean juggling act. They bake their own bread here – and indeed make as much as possible from scratch (sauces, ice creams and more) – and search out the best of local suppliers. Giving classic British food a contemporary twist here and there, the menu might include chicken (from Waterham Farm) with truffle cream sauce, or wild sea bass with curried spinach. thegranvillecanterbury.co.uk
With a large garden and a generous, well-priced menu, this traditional pub on the outskirts of Challock (on the A251 between Ashford and Faversham) is an excellent venue for families. Dishes are beautifully presented, particularly the imaginatively devised desserts. Fish is a speciality, just in from the Kentish coast; steaks and grills are sourced from local farms; there’s also a blackboard menu highlighting seasonal produce. A ‘Young Diners’ menu is offered to children. halfwayhousechallock.co.uk
The Plough Inn, Stalisfield Green
Set high on the downs near Faversham, this is a quintessential country pub – with low beams, log fires and a great sense of history (The Plough dates from the 15th century or even before). Richard and Marianne Baker acquired the property in 2013 and have won a big local following for their dedication to serving honest food zinging with Kentish flavour (he’s the mastermind in the kitchen, she’s front of house). Everything, from bread to ketchup and ice cream, is made here. Menus depend, of course, on what’s in season and dishes might range from asparagus with duck egg to vegetable pasty with red cabbage and hazelnut cream. Sunday roasts (beef, lamb, pork) are a treat. theploughinnstalisfield.co.uk
The Wife of Bath
Locals were aghast when this much-loved restaurant changed hands in 2014. But under the management of part-owner Stefano Girolami, The Wife of Bath has become even better. For a great taste of the area, try the special market menu. The interior has been carefully refurbished to show off old timbers and open up window seating, and a new conservatory is being completed in 2015 for summer dining. thewifeofbath.com
The Bistro at Lympne Castle
Talented chef Ruth Denzey moved her restaurant from the family farm at Burwash to this medieval castle near Folkestone in July 2014. Dating back to the 13th century it’s an impressive property and was formerly open only for weddings and functions. Now you can come for breakfast, coffee, lunch and tea Monday to Saturday and for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. From pheasant terrine to slow-roast pork with damson gravy, dishes reflect the seasons and are subject to what is freshly available. thebistro-kent.co.uk
The Marquis at Alkham
A contemporary-chic restaurant with (10) rooms, The Marquis is a 200-year inn jauntily set opposite the church at Alkham, just a few miles inland from Dover. You’re served top-notch 21st-century food here. The a la carte menu might include roast duck with local rainbow chard, or wild mushroom risotto - with most dishes based on produce from the area. Yet for a really great taste of the Kent Downs opt for the four-course Kent Menu which reflects local harvests, what’s been foraged that day, and what nearby producers have available. marquisofgranby.co.uk
Mark Sargeant is very much a local food hero. Born and raised in Kent, he has worked as a top chef in London, most notably for Gordon Ramsay for whom he worked for 13 years –at Ramsay’s Claridges restaurant he was awarded a Michelin star. In 2011 he returned to Kent and opened two restaurants in Folkestone: The Smokery and Rocksalt. The latter is a very stylish property cantilevered around the harbour and presenting superb views. Just a glance at the menu will show how much Sargeant revels in the area: fish is mostly dependent on the catch just in; chicken is from Monkshill Farm near Faversham; eggs are from Horton Park Farm near Ashford. Even some of the wine is local - from Gusbourne Estate near Ashford.
What a brilliantly feel-good concept. Chef and proprietor Dave Flynn set up this innovative restaurant in 2007 with a plot-to-pot ethos of encouraging local allotment owners to sell their excess fruit and veg to him. And keeping to a local theme he buys his meat from producers on the Kent Downs. The menu is of course extremely seasonal – and might include roasted aubergine with puy lentils and horseradish cream, and five-hour roasted pork belly with apple and fennel. theallotmentdover.co.uk
Macknade Fine Foods
Much loved locally, this large epicurean centre on the fringes of Faversham is a family business offering fine food largely from Kent and Italy. Now run by Stefano Cuomo, it was set up by his father, a native of the Italian island of Ischia, who created a Pick Your Own farm on land that was formerly an orchard belonging to his wife’s family. Today that operation has become a vibrant shop, offering customers ready picked local produce – whatever is in season ‒ as well as a great range of groceries along with charcuterie, artisan bread from a micro-bakery in Faversham, goat cheese from Ellie’s Dairy nearby, Winterdale Shaw cheddar from the Kent Downs near Sevenoaks – and much, much more. macknade.com
The Goods Shed
This chic foodie operation is set in an old warehouse by Canterbury West station. It contains a great celebration of Kentish produce, with a couple of cafes and a stylish selection of food and drink outlets. There’s a central veg stall which is supplied by nursery farms no more than 12 miles away; there’s a fish stall with just-caught offerings from the coast around Dover; meat is from carefully selected farms; cheese is presented by Cheesemakers of Canterbury; wine from Press Wine Services includes Kentish grown and made wines. thegoodsshed.co.uk
Chart Farm Shop
Since 1981 the Petersen family has been farming deer at Chart Farm, which lies across woodland and pastures near Sevenoaks. About 1,200 fallow and silka deer are raised here, free to roam in a semi-wild environment. The Petersens established butchery on site partly to ensure good flavour of this healthy meat and partly as an extension of their ethical farming, keeping the animals stress free. This has developed into an enterprise with a farm shop at which you can buy not only venison but also beef, lamb, game, even wild boar and apple sausages, supplied by other farms in the area. chartfarm.com
The Betts family hasn’t looked back since 2006 when cheese production started on their 150-acre dairy farm high on the North Downs near Sevenoaks. Among their products, they make two award-winning varieties: Winterdale Shaw, which is a lemony, nutty cheddar; and mellow Winterdale Oak Smoked. They are proudly carbon-neutral here and also monitor their food miles – they market only within a 30-mile radius (which happily for them includes London). You can find their cheese at delis and farm shops around Kent but nothing quite matches a visit to the source: the Winterdale cheese barn is open on Saturday mornings. winterdale.co.uk
For information on local food and drink, nearby visitor attractions and activities, see our