This traditional 16th century timber-framed pub serves up a Sunday roast to warm any chilly November weekend
A restaurant refurb is a hard thing to get right, and a restaurant refurb in a much-loved, Grade II-listed building in the heart of historic Saffron Walden is even trickier – but the Chestnut group has risen to the challenge and deftly updated The Eight Bells into a dining pub that’s going places.
Team Edition arrives late on a Sunday afternoon, invited to visit and try The Eight Bells’ roast dinners. A large party celebrating a 60th birthday are wrapping up their feast in the section of the bar to the right of the entrance, while the happy buzz emanating from the restaurant’s rear dining room suggests that lunch service is still in full flow. We step up to the bar, admiring the neon backlighting behind the array of spirits, and order drinks while our table’s prepared.
Walking through the low-ceiling area towards the back of the bar makes the big reveal of the dining room even more spectacular: the double-height, vaulted beamed ceiling of The Eight Bells’ main eating space is quite a sight, and genuinely made us stop in our tracks as we stepped into the room.
Suspended from the roof by transparent wire are clusters of tiny plants in glass vessels: these rows of botanicals continue along the side walls of the restaurant with potted plants leading up to the dramatic foliage-inspired wallpaper at the end of the room.
It’s quite a space, but not one they tend to use for events (which are big business at The Eight Bells, especially leading up to Christmas) – preferring to keep this majestic dining room for the locals to enjoy dinner in.
We’re shown to a table toward the back of the room, and presented with the Sunday lunch menu (plus some bread and butter to be getting on with): there’s the traditional choice of four roasted meats, plus other options including sausage and mash, fish and chips and a vegetarian orzo pasta.
We stick with the classics and start with prawn cocktail and a celeriac soup, to be followed by roast chicken and roast beef, and settle down in the comfortable seats – with plenty of cushions on the banquettes for an even cosier experience.
The starters arrive: the soup is velvety and sweet and generously portioned, and piping hot – the prawn cocktail is precisely as it should be, served on a bed of crispy iceberg lettuce with a lemon wedge on the side. Our plates are cleared promptly by the still-cheery staff (who’ve already served nearly 120 guests by this point, including that large party in the bar) and it isn’t too long before the main event lands on our table – The Eight Bells’ roast dinners.
The happy buzz emanating from the rear dining room suggests lunch is in full flow
The chicken is moist and perfectly seasoned; the roast rump of beef has been slow cooked overnight to 58°, and can be served either medium rare or well-done – it arrives pink as requested, hidden beneath a towering Yorkshire pudding and heap of vegetables.
And what vegetables! We counted peas, mange tout, kale, courgette, cabbage, swede, carrot-and-swede mash AND a parsnip puree, as well as roast potatoes – all cooked very ably and deliciously buttered.
The combination of the parsnip puree and the redcurrant jelly that the front of house staff bring to the table makes the dish taste like Christmas: no bad thing whatsoever, especially on a wintry Sunday.
Desserts are offered: we go for a cheeseboard, featuring Baron Bigod, Norfolk Dapple and Binham Blue cheeses – the trio of East Anglian cheeses perfectly representing Chestnut’s frequently-stated commitment to local produce – and a truly delicious apple and pear crumble that arrives in a small cast-iron pot that’s already full to the brim, with nowhere to add the accompanying cream or ice cream without making a mess – so we dive in, and make a mess.
We decline the offer of tea and coffee and step out into a now sunny East Anglian afternoon, pleasantly surprised and definitely full – like hundreds (if not thousands) of other diners enjoying the Chestnut group’s hospitality around our region.
The Eight Bells’ stylish yet unobtrusive interiors are the perfect update to this 16th century inn, giving it a new lease of life for the start of the next decade of its story – and with a three-course Sunday lunch for £26, it’s also a total steal.