It’s rare to find a place that features both a gastro dining room and the feel of an authentic local pub, but The Bel & The Dragon in Kingsclere manages both. Part of a small chain of seven pubs in the south of England, the culinary focus at this one is on updated British classics served on boards, straight from the Josper grill or rotisserie.
The pub part of the building is warming and cosy, with well-thumbed books on windowsills, wild flowers in milk bottles, exposed brickwork and a subtle smell of wood smoke from the open fires in each room. Add in local ales on draught, wooden beams overhead, splashes of powder-blue paintwork and the flicker of soft lighting and you could easily lose a few hours in here, chatting to locals or visiting townies who’ve descended for a weekend of strolls on neighbouring Watership Down or tours of nearby Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey).
The dining room is an intimate place to eat, the space divided into four smaller ‘rooms’, each with their own fireplace. As you make your way to one of the pub’s nine bedrooms, above the dining room, you pass the open kitchen.
The menu focuses on local produce and stellar kitchen equipment (especially that Josper grill, stoked up with Japanese charcoal twice a day to reach temperatures of up to 1000C). Make the most of both with Aberdeen Angus sirloin steaks served with triple-cooked chips, charred lamb cutlets with mint hollandaise or half lobster with courgette fries.
On the rotisserie, when we visited, were organic baby chickens, roast suckling pig from Pugh’s piglets (with satisfyingly crunchy crackling and a spiced apple sauce) and local partridge with braised red cabbage and game chips. And don’t miss the cauliflower cheese with pecorino and smashed garlic.
Starters are as modern as the mains, including devilled crab salad with a salt (samphire) and pepper (rocket) salad that’s light, and subtly spiced – perfect before a roast. And desserts include a board of dense, fudgy gluten-free brownies, Sipsmith vodka infused lemon sorbet, or a made-at-your-table espresso martini.
Start the evening with one of the pub’s signature cocktails, a Bel Bloody Caesar made with clamato juice; or an Elderbubble, with Sipsmith vodka, elderflower and champagne. If you’re not in the market for a full meal, order a portion of crispy Cornish whitebait or pink peppercorn squid at the bar to go with it. But don’t overlook the wine menu. Our top pick? A white Burgundy made for Bel & The Dragon by wine producer Oliver Leflaive.
The bedrooms are as cosy as the pub, with a modern country vibe (think exposed wooden beams, chalky green walls and a hint of tweed) and bottles of sloe gin on hand. We stayed in Hollowshot, at the front of the property, which came with a vintage writing desk stocked with classic books. If you fancy more space, there’s a guest drawing room to retire to after dinner (residents only) – with a bridge table, complimentary whisky and more books.
The breakfast is, alone, worth staying over for – our poached duck egg with hollandaise, avocado and sweet and salty bacon chutney was a great alternative to a full English. Or try the ultimate bacon sarnie, stuffed with crisp bacon in wedges of sourdough.
Double rooms at Bel & The Dragon start from £95 b&b (belandthedragon-kingsclere.co.uk).
Words: Anna Glover
First published: November 2015
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