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Nikki Spencer - 2009-10-06

With it’s Roman walls, Medieval cobbled streets and grand Georgian houses, Chester certainly has plenty of history but that doesn’t mean it’s stuck in the past. A spate of new hotel, restaurant and bar openings, plus an extended direct train service, make it a great destination for a contemporary “foodie” break.

It’s not often that you walk into a hotel and find a table on the ceiling, complete with chairs, plates, glasses, cutlery and even a glowing lamp but then Oddfellows lives up to it’s name.
“We wanted to create an Alice in Wonderland feel,” explains Izzy Grey ,one of the co-owners of this glamorous new restaurant, bar and members club which opened in the city centre last autumn. The huge rooms are filled with brightly coloured funky furniture, massive lights and chandeliers and decorated with wildly patterned wallpapers and mirrors.
The grand 17th century building was Chester’s Georgian Oddfellows Hall, run by an ancient tradesman’s society, and when the property came up for sale, Izzy and her three business partners jumped at the chance. “We had been looking for somewhere like this for years,” explains Izzy who was itching to return to her home city after working as a bar manager in London. “We never thought to change the name,” she adds. “It sums us up perfectly.”
Oddfellows has just four bedrooms which are tucked away up at the top of the building in the old servant’s quarters - though not sure what the staff of yesteryear would have made of the 21st century bathing arrangements of a huge glass shower and side by side designer tubs! We briefly freshen up after our journey (two hours direct from London Euston) before heading out for lunch.
Like Izzy, Benjamin Wright left the North West to work in London but returned a few years ago to set up a restaurant and delicatessen with his brother Joe, an award-winning local chef. In 2007 Joseph Benjamin (apparently they didn’t argue about whose name came first it just sounded better that way) won the best newcomer at the Chester Food and Drink Festival and last year they took the Best Small Restaurant award.
Tucked away at the top of Northgate, at the side of steps leading up to the city’s famous walls, it is certainly compact (there’s only seating for 18 inside plus a couple of tables outside if it’s nice) but then they do say good things come in small packages.
There’s a no booking policy at lunchtimes (excluding Sunday) so there can be a bit of a wait for a table but we are in no doubt that it’s worth it as we tuck into dishes from their local seasonal menu including homemade onion soup, “Deli Tasting Plates” of antipasta and local cheeses (supplied by Carole Faulkner from Chester’s famous Cheese Shop just down the street)accompanied by Joe’s tangy homemade chutney, and a delicious spiced cauliflower, carrot and chick pea salad, along with copious quantities of bread that Ben tells us is baked locally by Jane Tomlin.
Our favourite, a nutty multi-grain, is, he reveals, actually, known as Miracle Bread and is supposed to be very good for “women’s hormones and stuff”.
Well I’m certainly feeling pretty chilled by the time we leave to check out Chester’s sights. It’s an easy city to explore on foot as the centre is traffic free and much of what you want to see is squeezed inside the old walls, which are the most complete in Britain.
It takes about forty five minutes to do a lap, although the joggers who are a frequent sight obviously do it in a lot less. You can join the walls via steps at any of the old Roman gates, Northgate, Watergate, Bridgegate and Eastgate, or at numerous access points along the route and it’s a great way to get your bearings and see what Chester has to offer.
To the North you walk high above the Shropshire Union Canal and get a birds eye view of the locks while to the West you can admire the lush green grass of Chester’s famous racecourse. To the South the walls then follow the River Dee where you can embark on a river cruise, hire a boat or stop for a drink or a bite to eat at The Red House, an old pub which has been given a major makeover with a two storey glass extension housing a contemporary restaurant and bar. Apparently they used the same glass as London’s “Gherkin” building which means it’s warm in winter and cool in summer.
As you head North again you pass the site of Britain’s largest Roman amphitheatre before coming to Eastgate where a stunning Victorian timepiece now spans the arch and is reputed to be the most photographed clock after Big Ben.
We come back down to ground level to take a closer look at Chester Cathedral. Originally built as an abbey for Benedictine monks the impressive building has been a place of worship for over one thousand years. One claim to fame is that is was here that Handel first rehearsed The Messiah and as you walk around admiring the colourful stained glass windows and some pretty gruesome gargoyles you can almost hear the Hallelujah chorus in your head.
Where to Eat and Stay
20,Lower Bridge Street
Chester, CH1 1RS
Tel: 01244 400001
Open daily for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and drinks from 7am (9am at weekends) until the early hours. Rooms from £99 per night.
Joseph Benjamin
140 Northgate Street
Chester, CH1 2HT
Tel: 01244 344 295
Open daytimes Tues - Sun and for dinner Thurs -Sat.
The Chester Grosvenor & Spa
Chester CH1 1LT
Tel: 01244 324024
A luxury hotel owned by and named after the family of The Duke of Westminster serves afternoon tea daily (12 noon until 5pm) from £21.50 per person. There are two restaurants, the Michelin starred, Simon Radley at The Chester Grosvenor, and La Brasserie.
Restaurant 1539
The Racecourse
Chester CH1 2LY
Tel: 01244 304611
A modern glass fronted restaurant and has magnificent views over the oldest racecourse in Britain.
Upstairs at the Grill
70,Watergate Street
Chester CH1 2LB
Tel: 01244 344883
Mon – Sat 5pm - 12 am & Sun 12pm-11pm. This meaty joint come highly recommended by our Chester friends who rave about the steaks.
Bar Lounge
75, Watergate Street
Chester CH1 2LB
Tel: 01244 327394
This all day bar and restaurant across the road is owned by the same people. Cocktails a speciality.This all day bar and restaurant across the road is owned by the same people. Cocktails a speciality.
The Red House
Dee Banks
Chester CH3 5UX
Tel: 01244 320 088
Open daily for food and drink and great views.Open daily for food and drink and great views.
www. abodehotels.co.uk
Hotels are due to open an 80 bedroom hotel and restaurant in a new development on the site of the old Cheshire Constabulary HQ in early 2010.

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