No. 131, Cheltenham

131 WEB 2

Cheltenham’s Promenade must surely rate as one of the most beautiful and grandest streets in England. The stylish and super cool restaurant and hotel at number 131 could possibly claim to be the best place in town.

With the Queens Hotel, the Brasserie Blanc and Gordon’s Wine Bar, the magnificent No.131 forms a little enclave of the high quality venues which was a long time coming in Cheltenham and which the town certainly more than deserves. It is the kind of place theatre-goers and hundreds of thousands of yearly festival visitors are bound to embrace.

The magnificent building stood empty for a long time. During months of renovations everyone expected that yet another building, which should by rights be one of the jewels in Cheltenham’s crown, would become another office for lawyers or some such.

But then, with new owners and in no time at all, a miracle happened. Behind the transformation is Julian Dunkerton, owner of Superdry clothing, Georgie Pearman, previously a corporate lawyer and her husband Sam Pearman, a Langan Brasserie trained chef, as well as former Gloucester rugby player. The pair already run the Tavern in Cheltenham, The Wheatsheaf Inn at Northleach and The Chequers in Churchill, near Kingham.

They opened No.131 last December and have made it the coolest place in town – a bar and restaurant, comfy lounges, a library, stylish private dining rooms and eleven hotel rooms with bathrooms resembling Venetian chapels. On the lower level there is the more casual Crazy Eights bar and restaurant.

The building, full of nooks and crannies, winding staircases and eccentric décor, has walls hung with top-class contemporary art, ranging from David Hockney to Eduardo Paolozzi. But best of all, the new owners have created a fabulous terrace looking out onto Imperial Gardens. Here you can eat and drink among enormous exotic potted plants. There is nothing grander in Cheltenham, nor will there ever be – exactly what the town has been desperately waiting for.

Always keen to discover exciting new places we booked a table to lunch at No.131. We were taken by manager Stephen Wadcock to the lower level Crazy Eights and a shabby-chic eating space with old brick walls and a splendid fireplace right next to our table.

The lunch menu is not huge, but it doesn’t need to be. There was something for all tastes – Rump of Lamb, Flat Iron Steak and no less than three fish dishes as well as a meat-free dish of Chermoula Roast Aubergine (spicy Arabic recipe, harissa, saffron, paprika, lemon and mint) with pomegranate and almonds.

One has a good choice of small and large plates which can be eaten in any combination that suits the appetite, as well as a choice of sandwiches or salads. There is a substantial wine list, either by the glass or by the bottle. As we had to remain sober for the afternoon’s writing we chose a couple of glasses of the house wines, a Pinard classic, the other a full-bodied Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon.

We decided on a small plate followed by a big one. In the cavatelli dish with peas I was delighted to find my favourite orange girolles mushrooms (impossible to buy in the Cheltenham shops). The cook very kindly agreed to prepare this ‘dairy free’ for me. It was beautifully flavoured, very buttery and very well seasoned. My companion was seduced by the parsley soup with poached quails’ eggs. It arrived, imaginatively presented, in a dish with a sprinkling of herbs on the tiny eggs with the soup in a little silver jug. To follow, my lunching companion took the grilled salmon on a bed of asparagus with butter and herb Jersey potatoes, all very well prepared and presented.

What I did like is that there is no attempt at the exaggerated and ubiquitous ‘fine dining’, where food no longer looks like what it is – all too often one faces a plate containing a piece of edible architecture which one is invited to demolish in the eating while it simultaneously empties the bank account. I no longer enjoy food if my plate suddenly looks like the Sydney Opera House or my vegetables resemble Anish Kapoor’s Olympic Park sculpture. Our dishes at No.131/Crazy Eights were all very pleasing to the eye, but there was no doubt about what was what – just as real food should be served. My lemon sole (served whole) came garnished with pieces of lobster, mini artichokes and watercress which livened up the delicate flavour of the sole.

Neither of us are huge eaters, so we decided to forgo a choice of mostly British cheeses in favour of dessert – I chose the crème caramel with a delicious apple-filled doughnut and my companion could not resist the vanilla topped, unctuous hot chocolate and orange dessert served in a cast iron dish in which it had been cooked.

A couple of issues – our table was on the small side and when all the food was served it felt rather cramped. Also, we do understand that the No. 131 wants customers to feel relaxed and at home but the service possibly too relaxed. We had been very warmly greeted by the front of house staff, but the service at table left a lot to be desired – waitresses’ people skills and appearance are as important to the customer experience as the food served.

No.131 is just a five minute walk from the Everyman Theatre along the leafy Promenade. From 6 onwards the menu resembles the lunch menu. For theatre-goers in a hurry the Crazy Eights menu offering small plates, salads, (£3-£9) seafood, (£8-£9) bites (£3) and sandwiches, (mussels on toasted Focaccia or grilled chicken with tarragon mayonnaise on baguette, £8-£12), desserts as well as cheeses and charcuterie at the counter, might be a good option before a show. For a full 3-course meal one should however allow plenty of time. During our lunch there were substantial gaps between courses. If you fancy a late after-show supper, last orders are at 10.30pm.

We took our espresso in the lounge stocked with a large selection of art books, magazines and newspapers with a view over Imperial Square at the front and the Ladies’ College at the back. All in all it was a lovely, relaxed experience.

No.131 is a fabulous, unique place. You can have a drink in one of the spacious bars, eat in a choice of dining rooms, read the papers in one of the cosy lounges, sip coffee on the terrace overlooking the Promenade or stay the night in a luxurious hotel room. Once the service in the restaurant comes up the scratch, it will be hard to fault. Highly recommended.    Astrid Burchardt    December 2014

UPDATE –  17th November 2015

We made another visit to the 131 with a friend of ours who is the producer of the Russian ballet which was playing at the Everyman Theatre. This time we ate in the ground-floor restaurant which is part of the bar area. We preferred this to the much less formal basement area. Everything had improved since our first visit, especially the service which was attentive, efficient and unobtrusive. We had a very comfortable corner table with views over Imperial Gardens and the Queens Hotel. The food was excellent and well presented. Still recommended.