Unless you were born and have lived in Gloucestershire all your life, you may well need an Ordnance Survey map to find the rural village of Leighterton. Just a stone’s throw from the Westonbirt Arboretum, hay bales, dry stone walls and finger post signs punctuate the landscape as you make your way past poppy dotted farmland, ancient, ivy covered churches and crooked cottage doorways flanked by towering, candy coloured hollyhocks.
“In a way it is quite a good feeling that we are tucked away here, in the peace and quiet” said Paul Whitbread, the owner of The Royal Oak Inn. “The high street of Tetbury can sometimes be filled with traffic and noise, but when you enter our little courtyard here you really do feel as if you have gotten away from it all.”
The pub opened just seven months ago, but Paul and his wife Antonia, spent quite a gruelling eight months overseeing the transformation of the building from a tired, old run down establishment to the new, fresh and bright interiors that welcome us today.
“Before we refurbished it, some of the villagers in Leighterton did not want to go to the pub, it was in such a bad state. We started from scratch and redid everything. Although we wanted the pub to feel contemporary, uncluttered and comfortable, we were also cognisant that it is an 18th Century building, so we have some antique pieces and nods to old, rural styles as well.”
The community has been very welcoming to the Whitbread family. Paul and Antonia gave up careers in advertising and the law respectively, as well as their home in Surrey, to start a new life in Gloucestershire. The descendants of the very first owner of the property, Reverend William Huntley, are regulars at the pub, and as I go round taking photographs I can see that local farmers have already taken their perches on the front bar stools, pints in hands and gossip flowing.
Paul and Antonia, with their Head Chef Christian Wragg, spent a good few months before opening finding the right suppliers to ensure they hit the ground running with excellent produce before the doors opened. Meat comes from nearby butchers Jesse Smith and Bartletts, fish comes from day boats at Brixham, game comes from Paul Barrett, the gamekeeper at the Badminton estate, cheese comes from the Fine Cheese Company of Bath, organic flour comes from nearby Shipton Mill and fresh free range eggs come from Sherston. They have even made sure they buy in the very finest burger baps that money can buy, from Tom Herbert at Hobbs House Bakery of Nailsworth.
“You are the very first restaurant reviewer that has ever come here” Paul tells me. “In the last seven months all we have focussed on is ensuring that we provide the very best possible food and drink for our customers. We have not really done very much in the way of marketing, PR and social media because we felt that the priority had to be to do a good job first and foremost. Everything else will follow in its own good time.”
Walking around I can tell that the lifestyle and foodie publishers would have a field day here: every corner and every angle is a country magazine shot. Parsley and sage green woodwork, chalk white walls, wildflower arrangements in glass and tin containers, industrial lighting on the ceiling, wooden beams and floors: the look is very simple, understated, chic and cosy.
A tweed Chesterfield sofa takes pride of place in the main living room, in front of an old oak trolley piled with newspapers and magazines. The Tetbury florist, Twig on Long Street, does the flower and plant arrangements indoors and outside in the patio area.
Even a trip to the loo is a masterclass: if anyone reading this article has it in mind to renovate a restaurant or pub and would like to know how to present customer loos, may I direct your style satnav here. The management could write the text book: travertine floors, tongue in groove rosemary green painted doors, latest Dyson hand drying technology, uber-stylish stone sink, lavender handwash…
You may consider this trite, but actually God is in the detail when it comes to eating out. It beggars belief how many times in my life I have retreated from this part of the restaurant experience in shock and awe that Michelin star hunting owners, highly fluent in the language of drizzles, foams and gels on 30 cm diameter black plates and expensive art on walls, leave their customer loos in such deplorable states.
Paul is very self-effacing about all his accomplishments. To make sure his skills were up to the task of becoming a pub landlord he spent six months doing a Cordon Bleu course at Tante Marie Cookery School. “I think I omitted to read the word “intensive” in front of the word cookery course!” he laughed. He found it exhausting. In the last year the couple have worked without rest, with a baby son who wakes up at 6 am every morning (“There is no OFF button!”), and another baby on the way, negotiating their way with council planners, builders and suppliers. The level of excellence and attention to detail showcased at The Royal Oak does not come from snoozing and complacency.
Jane, the manager, whisks us off to the long, beamed, sunlit dining room. Our table is ready with a carafe of iced water, tea lights in a jam jar and homemade breads served with a very rich, dark, oil and balsamic vinegar dip.
The Menu consists of six starters and eight main courses. It is very detailed in its descriptions, seasonal and inhabiting the gastronomic heartland that lies in the middle terrain between fine dining and excellent rustic cooking. The Wine list is well chosen and comprehensive, with a good balance of old and new world, wine by the glass and local ales.
We chose a herring ceviche, coriander and crispy torilla salad and a goats cheese and spinach soufflé with a basil pesto. Portions are really generous, as well as being outstanding value for money when you consider the level of thought, subtlety of flavours and dexterity of execution that have gone into every bite. Nothing on the dish overpowers, there is balance and simplicity, but when you have brains that understand good provenance behind the kitchen swing doors, then the diner can always rest at ease.
For our main courses we tried and tested the following:
Pan fried sea trout, summer pea and mint salad, saffron potatoes and butter sauce: the aroma was very tantalising, warm and nutty, presentation was very pretty and the fish succulent and well cooked.
Tomato and parmesan tart with rocket salad dressed in a balsamic reduction: a good choice for the time of year as the tomatoes were very fragrant and sweet. The finish of the dish left a peppery, rich note.
Grilled rump steak with herb butter and chips: extremely good quality meat, well hung, well trimmed, well cooked. Excellent homemade chips.
We requested horseradish sauce to go with the steak, and instead of bringing out a jar, the chef set about creaming freshly pureed horseradish root with crème fraiche, in minutes, within the pressures of a very busy lunch service in full throttle.
The puddings here are worth a trip alone: at insanely low prices they sell the most accomplished, elegant and delicious summer pudding and lavender ice cream, with a crisp, sugar dusted tortilla and a ginger crème brulee with a coconut sorbet and coriander tuile.
I talk to Paul about the Menu and how he has come to decide its structure and spirit. “Christian and I decided very early on we did not want The Royal Oak to be a fine dining establishment. We never aimed for a menu that was so expensive people exclusively came here for a treat. Anyone and everyone should be able to eat here, it should be an everyday, affordable venue, starting with the first coffee in the morning.”
The sandwiches and platter options of the Menu bear testimony to this philosophy: you will not find a better selection of charcuterie, cheeses, pickles, local hams and homemade breads and crackers anywhere. It literally is lunch for £5.00. The most expensive dish on the Menu was the sea trout at £16.95.
Their outside catering endeavours have already gotten off to a fine start, with the nearby Beaufort hunt, the polo club and the local shooting parties all using The Royal Oak kitchen as their lunch and supper providers.
Paul is insistent that what has been achieved so far is due to the whole team. “I am very appreciative of the staff I have found, and how good they are. A while ago our Sous Chef, Jasper, was off for a few days and we had to have agency staff come in and replace him. It is only when you see the difference in the calibre of temporary chefs, for whom you are paying a great deal of money and who are no better than canteen cooks, that you realise how very challenging it is to find really good staff. The chefs’ jobs are hard, theirs are gruelling, long and tough days, and you have to be extremely passionate to work in a kitchen. If you do not have that passion running through your veins then you really need to go elsewhere.”
By 1 pm many of the tables are full: the schools have broken up for the summer holidays and there are children in shorts, dogs on leads, parents in polo shirts and families out celebrating birthdays and outings. The hot weather has brought its round of Cotswold visitors.
It is a joyful day when you come across a true foodie find. When it comes to The Royal Oak in Leighterton I want to reach for the biggest, shiniest bugle, and in the spirit of composer terminology, blow its name forte, fortissimo.
The Royal Oak Inn
1 The Street
Gloucestershire GL8 8UN
Telephone: 01666 890250
Follow Paul and Antonia Whitbread on Twitter: @RoyalOakTetbury