Bel & The Dragon, Cookham
If it is good enough for Tom Hiddleston, then it's good enough for Muddy.
The Bel & The Dragon is a tardis of an inn in the village of Cookham in the far north eastern corner of Berkshire. Nestled between Maidenhead and Marlow, it is one of the prettiest stretches of the Thames and wears its chocolate box good looks with pride. Cookham also claims to be Kenneth Grahame’s inspiration for Wind In The Willows. Although Pangbourne in West Berkshire might fight them for that accolade. It’s idyllic – but far from twee. You’re just as likely to see Tom Hiddleston resplendent in a tight tee (slow breaths into a paper bag) as you are ladies in twinsets in this part of the world. The Stanley Spencer Gallery is right opposite The Bel & The Dragon and a collection of brilliant businesses occupy the high street – Devine Florist, Ross Poole Salon and many more.
The Bel & The Dragon has 600 years of history propping it up. Today it’s a modern rustic beauty with comfortable nooks and crannies in the bar area – old pine pieces of furniture, nothing too matchy matchy, but all sitting together in sweet harmony. Head through the bar and you’ll discover the light and airy dining room. Industrial features, grey upholstered banquettes and bathed in light. Keep going and you reach the garden. I told you it was a tardis. It’s not often you come across an outdoor space that feels grown up but keeps the kids (and furry babies ) entertained. There is an outside bar, plenty of tables, lots of lovely plants and a sweet playhouse with a slide for the littlies.
The vibe is relaxed, traditional but with lots of personality and quirky touches. The lovely staff all wear white shirts, jeans and Converse. Judging by the number of people they were serving, they need those trainers. Better still, The Bel & The Dragon in Cookham has rooms too. And I cannot think of a better place for a cheeky sleepover.
The rooms are simple, a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll, with beds you want to dive into and never leave. You’ll need to watch your head though after a few gins – the door height definitely caters for the vertically challenged. Once inside it’s boutique all the way, baby – king size beds, complimentary Sipsmith sloe gin or Damson vodka and Scotch whisky to enjoy in the comfort of your own room. Hell yes! And the kids cubby in the family room could not be coiler. Tiddlers are definitely not a design after thought. Sweet little woven chair and mini bookshelf – it maxes out on the cute-o-meter.
As Muddy Awards 2017 finalists in not one but two categories – Best Destination Pub and Best Boutique Stay – you can see why. It’s a place that insists you kick back and relax.
Before we tuck in the napkin, loosen our belts a notch and get stuck in, I have to talk about Group Head Chef Ronnie Kimbugwe. He trained with firecracker Gordon Ramsey at Claridges, and is now the beating heart of The Bel & The Dragon. He is larger life, has a mega-watt smile, loves food (not in a pretentious ‘food is my life, you wouldn’t understand’ kind of a way). He loves food that tastes epic. As you would expect, he sources the best local, seasonal ingredients with an emphasis on provenance and quality.
So what’s on the menu? Starters… The kids tucked into freshly baked black pepper grissini, I opted for Asparagus with creme fraiche (it was one of the hottest days ever). Mr Muddy inhaled the mackerel pate. Everything tasted like sunshine. It was light, packed full of flavour and the silence round the table said it all.
Main course… The kids menu was brilliant – little portions for younger children with bigger plates available for older kids. I was beyond excited about my lobster and chips. The lobster was gently grilled in garlic butter with the most delicious salad containing peas, radishes and pomegranate. My Muddy went for the steak. He’s a traditionalist, what can I say. But he’s also mega critical. This was cooked to mid-rare perfection. No complaints so far.
Pud… on a scorchio day like this one, we finished with ice cream. A lot of ice cream. Mr Muddy inhaled an Eton Mess – it’s a bit of a signature dish. During August you can send you kids down to learn how to make it. Winner winner. The workshop costs £5 per child and runs every Tuesday from 10am-11.30am. You need to book, but it’s a fun way to introduce kids to cooking. And it beats the them making a mess in your own kitchen. To book, call 01628 521263 or email [email protected].
Ronnie’s menu is perfectly complemented by an innovative wine list. It was lunchtime and we had the kids, so I had a cheeky glass of the house white – cold, crisp and I would happily have finished the bottle (but didn’t, what’s wrong with me?). The local Rebellion lager was going down a treat with the other half too.
Ronnie and the Bel & The Dragon team are in with the best in the biz, so you’ll find Olivier Leflaive, one of Burgundy’s top wine producers, and Champagne House Laurent-Perrier on the menu, so you can sink the world’s most sought after wines at excellent prices both by the glass, bottle and magnum.
Absolutely! The kids are welcomed with open arms – well behaved dog too. The relaxed atmosphere, discreet play area and friendly staff make it great to enjoy a family meal together without wanting to kill each other by the end of it. The kids menu is just a delicious as the grown ups, the play area is just enough to keep little ones entertained and there are crayons and colouring paper available too. Keep an eye on the website, because during the school hols The Bel & The Dragon often run a kids eat for free offer. And with food this good, you definitely don’t want to miss out on that!
Out & About
This area is a walkers paradise – both ramblers and amblers. There are some lovely strolls along the river. For the more enthusiastic there are 2.5km-7.km circular routes taking in Cookham Moor, Cookham Lock and the Thames Path. It is beautiful and there’s a pretty hefty celeb contingent drawn to these parts, Tom Hiddleston, Chris Evans, Steve Backshall and his gorgeous wife and Olympic rower Helen Glover, Sir Clive Woodward, to name a few, have all been spotted. For that reason alone, it’s worth a gander.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: pretty much everyone. It’s the perfect place to grab a meal with the family, enjoy a date night, girlie get together, entertain clients or sneak off for a romantic recharge and stay overnight. Relaxed, welcoming. Home from home but better… a lot better.
Not for: those looking for formality. It’s not how they roll at the Bel & The Dragon. You won’t be baffled by the cutlery, the menu doesn’t need an interpreter. It’s not fine dining, but the food is mighty fine.
The Damage: Reasonable. Portion sizes are good. You’ll not leave hungry. Kid mains started £6/ £9 (2-course Sunday lunch menu is £10); Starters £6-£11; Mains £9-£33 (steak and lobster being the most expensive thing on the menu) and puds from £6. Fancy staying the night? Rooms start at £120.
There are two other locations in Berkshire – Windsor and Reading; plus Goldalming and Churt in Surrey; Odiham and Kingsclere in Hampshire.
Bel & The Dragon, High Street, Cookham Berkshire SL6 9SQ belandthedragon-cookham.co.uk