Looking for restaurants in St Albans? Want to know where to eat in the cathedral city? Local Charlotte Morgan shares her insider tips for the best restaurants in St Albans, along with where to find the best blueberry-studded waffles, fudgy banana loaf and honey-drenched baklava.
The Pudding Stop – best for puddings
Albanians jumped for joy when Johnny Shepherd, an original Great British Bake Off contestant, decided to sell homemade puddings from a little van (the “pudmobile”) outside the train station every weekday evening. The locals wanted more, though, so in 2013 Johnny opened The Pudding Stop, a glass-fronted shop on Verulam Road. Half café, half bakery, it’s open until 11pm Friday-Saturday (10pm during the week) and Sunday night is film night, with a screening projected onto the back wall.
Grab breakfast on the way to work (Johnny’s cinnamon buns are swirls of pillowy pastry, made squidgy with epic amounts of sugary cinnamon butter), pop in for a chai latte and a square of salty-sweet peanut butter brownie or send a loved one out for late-night rhubarb and vanilla custard donuts. If you’re eating in, try the sticky toffee pudding: a fat wedge of dark, treacly sponge drizzled in a gooey sauce that tastes of muscovado. Or go for fudgy banana loaf with warm butterscotch sauce and mounds of milk ice cream.
Sopwell House – best for afternoon tea
Sopwell House Hotel is a grand affair, with more than 100 rooms, two restaurants, a spa and 12 acres of grounds to its name. Among all of that the best place to relax is in the cocktail lounge, where afternoon tea is served. It’s a long, breezy room that begins with a marble-topped bar and stretches all the way to a library, with little alcoves and giant sash windows along the way. Striped monochrome wallpaper, convex mirrors and lustre cushions make for a modern feel but there’s also parquet flooring, a huge central marble fireplace and white linen tablecloths. The latter help create the kind of traditional afternoon tea ambience that most guests want.
Waiters make the rounds with silver trays of sandwich refills, and scones are well-risen and shiny on top, with fluffy interiors and a good bite. By far the best tier of Sopwell House’s afternoon tea stand is the cake selection, all homemade by an in-house pastry chef. Bright yellow lemon macarons burst with zest, their shiny shells sandwiched together with a thin layer of sharp raspberry jam. Pistachio battenberg tastes exactly as it sounds, with a strong, authentic flavour and the happy absence of food colouring. Little pastry cases come piped with soft crème patissiere and topped with blackberries, and deliciously moist squares of carrot cake are decorated with chocolate feathers.
Darlish – best for ice cream
Darlish, the Persian ice cream specialists, set up shop under the gaze of St Albans’ medieval Clock Tower in spring 2018, bursting onto the scene with a clever seasonal special – hot cross bun ice-cream sandwiches. All the ice cream is made by hand in St Albans, and it sits in creamy mounds under silver domes on the countertop. On the wall behind, blackboards spell out the day’s flavours: try floral orange blossom studded with pistachios and apricot, aromatic coconut and cardamom, or sweet cream and sour cherry. There are sorbets, too (rhubarb, pomegranate and rose has a heavenly scent and is subtle in its sweetness) and you can embellish your choice with a sprinkle of homemade halva or sesame brittle. Turkish coffee, deep-red Persian tea, honey-drenched baklava and mini cones for children (most love the watermelon sorbet) are also available. A couple of tiny tables take up space at the back, but you’re best off moseying around the Clock Tower, the weekend market (which dates back to the 9th century) or St Albans Cathedral while you lick – this is a very pretty part of town.
Lussmanns – best for a sustainable dinner
Lussmanns is the kind of neighbourhood restaurant that you can always rely on. With sustainable fish and meat at its core, this high street independent has been luring punters in with the quality of its produce since 2004. The bright, modern space is a reflection of what to expect from the menu – clean, colourful plates of food, smartly presented without pretension. There’s space for 100-or-so diners over three floors, and most evenings Lussmanns booms with the sound of friends and families eating together (for a more intimate ambience, head to Per Tutti on Holywell Hill instead).
Menu highlights include a pretty tangle of seasonal salad leaves, lovage pesto, roast beetroot and local Wobbly Bottom goat’s cheese to start, and whole plaice with North Sea brown shrimps and a coin of melting paprika caper butter. 95% of the ingredients used at Lussmanns are grown or produced in the UK, all the fish is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) approved, the beef and mutton is organic (try the latter in an aromatic kofta with brioche bun and cucumber mint raita), and the British Saddleback pork is woodland-reared. Order a pint of Farrs Brew bitter, Mad Squirrel pilsner, Zealous pilsner or Three Brewers classic English ale with your dinner – all of them are Hertfordshire-brewed.
The Waffle House – best for waffles
Opposite a quaint ford and over the brow of an 18-century brick bridge, The Waffle House is well worth the 10-minute walk from St Albans city centre. It sits in the middle of St Michael’s village (a winding road lined with red-brick cottages and ancient pubs) and is housed in a 16th-century watermill. Choose from a menu devoted to Belgian waffles made from organic flour milled just three miles away, including a breakfast special of smoked back bacon, fried banana coins and grilled vine tomatoes. Make a feast of it by ordering a savoury waffle to start (topping highlights include slow-cooked BBQ pulled pork with homemade slaw) and a sweet waffle to finish. The latter are piled high with everything from banana and crumbled flapjack to pecans and butterscotch sauce – there’s always a seasonal special, too, such as blueberry-studded waffles with wild blueberry sauce. Help yourself to as much maple syrup as you like, and don’t forget to marvel at the original water wheel and millstones before you leave.
The Potting Shed – best for lunch
Carpenters Nursery, with its position just off the main road to Sandridge village, is easy to miss. But locals know better than to pass by this treasure-trove of home-grown produce. It’s been both a garden centre and a farm shop since 1923, selling vegetables grown in fields right next to the building. A tiny team of three plant seeds in early spring, eventually filling the farm shop with everything from chard to marrows, red lettuce, beetroot and Brussels sprout tops. Optimal freshness is the aim: carrots pulled and bunched at 8:30am are on the shop shelves an hour later. You can also pick up cereals, soaps, beers, chocolate, eggs, oil, honey and even vodka from Hertfordshire producers, and there’s always a hefty selection of organic breads made by Redbournbury Mill (the same folk who mill flour for The Waffle House).
Even better, a barn at the back of the farm shop has been converted into a sleek café, which transforms all that home-grown produce into breakfast, brunch and lunch. The Potting Shed is a modern, L-shaped space, flanked by bifold doors that beautifully frame a rockery with open fields beyond. It’s a bucolic view, given how close you are to St Albans city centre. “Mushrooms on toast” for brunch may sound modest, but you’ll be served a powerful plate of punchy pickled mushrooms on sourdough with a poached egg, truffle oil and a little puff of superbly rich goat’s cheese mousse. For something bigger, try harissa-roasted sweet potato with hummus, chill and garlic kale, fried capers and tahini yogurt. There’s a separate kids menu and an afternoon tea option, made special with homemade scones and local jam.
The Prae Wood Arms – best for a country pub
Once a standard carvery joint, this “little cottage” (as described by its original owner, Lady Frances Cooke Grimston, in 1838) has been transformed by Brunning & Price into The Prae Wood Arms, a destination pub and restaurant. You can walk to it via The Gorhambury Estate, which encompasses a roman theatre, the 16th-century ruins of a house built by Sir Nocholas Bacon, a neo-palladian mansion, babbling River Ver brooks, and dense woodland home to everything from muntjacs to woodruff (a sweet-fragranced plant with tiny white flowers that taste like vanilla).
Downstairs is a warren of dining rooms each with its own ambience, from family-friendly to romantic, and most tables have views of the pub’s expansive lawn and the Gorhambury Estate beyond. There’s even a rickety wooden gate that leads from The Prae to the banks of The River Ver, which shines with wild trout. A rusty old tractor, piles of gnarled tree trunks and a gentle hill to roll down keeps kids entertained for hours, while parents watch from a terrace sheltered by elegant iron awning. It’s posh pub grub to eat, including the likes of braised shoulder of lamb with dauphinoise and rosemary gravy, baked whole plaice with butter sauce and, for dessert, a teeth-tingling sticky toffee pudding with matching sauce that rivals (but doesn’t quite beat) that from The Pudding Stop. To drink, order from a mighty gin menu split into flavour profiles (there are 23 options in “smooth and fruity” alone) or go for a pint of Side Pocket for a Toad, a citrussy, floral golden ale that’s brewed in nearby Tring.
Bishop’s Cave – best for cheese
Holywell Hill, said to be the site where Saint Alban was executed (his head apparently rolled all the way to the bottom), never used to be fashionable, but over the past decade several independent restaurants – including the aforementioned Per Tutti – have chosen it as their home. Bishop’s Cave, sister to the original Cave in Bishop’s Stortford, is the city’s first cheese, wine and craft beer emporium, and it’s housed in one of the Hill’s most historic spaces. Sloping beamed roofs, geometric tiled floors and crumbly red-brick walls ooze history while a St Albans coat of arms, soft lighting and vintage wine crates add to the atmosphere.
Create your own cheeseboard from a fridge crammed with around 45 options (try Baron Bigod, Britain’s first unpasteurised brie, gruyere-style Red Wine Farmer, which is washed in Swiss red wine, or Darling Blue for its mellow butteriness) and eat it alongside a glass of Tuffon Hall English pinot noir. There are also more than 100 modern and craft beers to sip, including Millionaire – a decadent salted caramel milk stout made by Wild Beer. Prefer spirits? The team behind Bishop’s Cave has recently opened The Gin Cave in the shop next door, where you can pick from a menu of more than 70 small-batch gins – try a spicy, citrus-tinged Silverback Old Tom gin with lemongrass tonic.
Words by Charlotte Morgan