There are three Michelin three-star restaurants in the United Kingdom. One would certainly have to question the inspectors’ objectivity, when an entire country has fewer restaurants with the top rating than Michelin awarded in New York City alone.
In an odd quirk of fate, two of the UK’s three-star restaurants are within 100 yards of each other, in the unlikely town of Bray, about 45 minutes west of London by train. I tried to get into The Fat Duck, but I hadn’t realized how hard it is to get in, and I didn’t book early enough. The Waterside Inn, which has been around a lot longer, was able to accommodate me on a Sunday evening. The restaurant opened in 1972. It earned its first Michelin star in 1974, its second in 1977, and its third in 1985. The original chef, Michel Roux, is semi-retired. His son Alain now runs the kitchen.
Michelin’s definition of three stars is “worth a special journey.” The proprietors of The Waterside Inn took that to heart. Their hotel exists, it seems, solely for patrons who want to dine at the restaurant. As the house manager put it to me, “we have 11 rooms and 11 tables for two.” The dining room faces a quiet part of the Thames, well upstream of London. There are no buildings on the opposite bank to disturb the view. Ducks paddle by, and there is the occasional pleasure boat. Green moss floats on the water near the shore. This was a gorgeous evening—not too hot, as it had been for much of the week, and with a mild breeze. The dining room’s picture windows were wide open, and every table had a slice of the gorgeous view. It was one of the most romantic dining spots I’ve seen.
I began the evening, as many guests do, with a drink on the terrace. The staff brought out a plate of canapes (the beef tartare being my favorite), a glass of champagne, and a menu, and I lingered a while. My order was taken while I was still on the terrace. When I finally took my table, it was already laid with the flatware and glassware that went with what I’d ordered.
You can order a la carte, with appetizers in the £20-38 range, main courses generally £35-53, and desserts about £20-25. When you bear in mind that the exchange rate is almost $2 to the pound, you get the idea that you’re in for an expensive evening. I chose the “menu exceptionelle,” which offered three savory courses and dessert.
I wasn’t expecting an amuse bouche after snacking on the wonderful canapes on the terrace, so a vegetable terrine to start was a happy surprise. I have to wonder, though, at the wisdom of that particular choice when another terrine, foie gras and chicken, was one of the appetizer options. The latter was just fine, although not as creamy as some of the better foie gras terrines I’ve had elsewhere.
The fish course was a scallop, perfectly sweet and just slightly seared on the outside. The other choice for the fish course was lobster, and a glance at other tables showed it was a more elaborate production. I wasn’t unhappy with the scallop, but I had a bit of regret about not choosing the fancier lobster.
The palate cleanser was a rose petal sorbet, which seemed to be a strawberry sorbet with a small rose petal elegantly garnishing the top of it. Then came the evening’s only dud, a duck breast with classic orange sauce, potatoes and peas. The duck, although an ample portion, was slightly tough and over-cooked. I suspect the duck breast had been cooked too a bit too, and it dried out on the stove. I finished it, mind you (at those prices who wouldn’t?), but it was not up to the level of everything else.
An excellent cheese course, carved tableside, was partial redemption. And because I complained about the duck, the restaurant comped an extra dessert, a heavenly strawberry soufflé.
Service throughout the evening was impeccable, yet never haughty. The staff seemed to be mind readers; you would merely think about something, and in a matter of moments someone would appear. The one cheesy moment came early on, when a server appeared with an already-open bottle of Evian poised for pouring, and asked if I would like some water. Human nature is to say ‘yes’, at which point one will have purchased the bottle. I resisted that temptation and asked for tap water. The server replied, without any hint of irony, “Perfect!!” I dwell on the incident only because it was the cleverest ruse I’ve seen yet to steer diners towards bottled water.
I drank a little more liquor than I usually do—a pre-dinner glass of champagne (£15.50), a half-bottle of white wine (£26.50), and a glass of dessert wine (£10.50). None of it came cheap, but it was all excellent. The wine was decanted for me in advance, as naturally it should be at a restaurant of this quality. I was once again pleased to see—as I had at all the other restaurants I tried—a reasonable selection of half-bottles.
The Waterside Inn serves mostly classic dishes. There’s no foam or culinary fusion here; no molecular gastronomy. But it nevertheless serves up a special kind of magic. The duck gaffe was significant, but I would like to assume it was atypical. I would still put The Waterside Inn on my list of places to return to.
All told, the final bill came to £142 before gratuity.
The Waterside Inn (Ferry Road, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AT)