In our Classics Revisited series, we review London’s best established luxury restaurants
Drive through Bray and you could be forgiven for thinking that the entire village was owned by Heston Blumenthal. Chefs in pristine whites scurry across the High Street from The Fat Duck to the restaurant’s development kitchen while diners saunter between Heston’s brace of pubs, The Hind’s Head and The Crown, for a pre-lunch snifter. Just as Rick Stein’s restaurant empire has transformed Padstow into Padstein, Heston has re-fashioned this corner of Berkshire as Braymenthal.
But like any village, it pays to delve a little deeper. For Bray’s full name is Bray-on-Thames and taking a turn off the High Street will bring you to the river and the reason that Bray was famous before anyone had heard of bacon-and-egg ice cream: The Waterside Inn.
Albert and Michel Roux opened The Waterside Inn in 1972 following the success of Le Gavroche, the Mayfair restaurant the brothers opened in 1967. The Waterside won its first Michelin star in 1974, its second in 1977 and it third in 1985, holding on to it ever since to become the longest-serving three-star in the UK by some distance.
Albert handed over the reins to Le Gavroche to his son Michel Jnr in 1991, while Michel Snr passed the baton of The Waterside to his son Alain in 2002. The same DNA is visible in both restaurants, not least in the rather suburban decor which prioritises comfort over style and I suspect is not so different to the plush dining rooms of many of the guests.
Not that it matters. All eyes are on the view through the patio doors, which is enchanting at any time of year, with weeping willows trailing down to the listless Thames, seating by the river for fine weather and a gazebo if it’s chilly, and a jetty that is the most spectacular way to arrive at a restaurant if you can find someone to row you here.
The classical French cooking matches the exquisite ease of the setting and has that rare quality of tasting exactly how you hope it will. A vol-au-vent filled with kidneys is a magical conduit for a mustard cream sauce in much the same way that escargots absorb the punch of garlic. Turbot is cooked à la meunière with croutons and grape emulsion, all delicate flavour and gentle crunch. Venison Wellington is best-in-class stuff, the beautifully cooked roe deer thickly daubed with mushroom duxelles, encased in light pastry and set atop a sauce made from the cooking juices.
Then there is the signature dish to end all signature dishes, spit-roasted Challandais duck for two to share. It is served tableside by long-serving maitr’d Diego Masciaga like a magic trick of flashing knives, slices of meat as thin as a new £10 note piling on the plate in a scented haze of spice and honey.
All of this is washed down with Condrieu from E. Guigal, Chassagne-Montrachet from Château de Santenay, Pinot Gris from Léon Beyer and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs from an exclusively French wine list.
It has become fashionable to knock The Waterside Inn for not bearing comparison with other Michelin three stars, as if the accolade were something the restaurant had applied for, and to say that a meal here does not live up to the eye-watering prices.
There’s no denying it is ruinously expensive (main courses hover around £60); my advice is to look at the menus online and brace yourself for the bill in advance, or adopt the sort of indifference to money when picking up your knife and fork that a drunk gambler might hitting the roulette wheel in Vegas. But you could easily spend the same amount that a meal costs here on a spa day and leave feeling far less pampered – and still needing to eat.
All I can say is that this was the most enjoyable meal I’ve had for a long time. Each of the different elements coalesced into a soothing cocoon of well-being, from someone opening the car door with a welcoming smile to the sublime setting and the pleasure of being looked after by true professionals. Frankly, at these prices, I want reassurance rather than revelation, and The Waterside delivers an experience as serene as the Thames flowing past outside.
When the restaurant celebrated 25 years of retaining three stars in 2010, Michel Roux invited every chef who held a Michelin star in the UK to dinner. Out of 140 invitees, 116 turned up. They knew that treats like this don’t come along very often in life. The Waterside Inn remains a little piece of heaven for which you drop everything to enjoy.
Who to take: Someone who you are sure will return the favour
What to order: If you have the stomach space, the eight-course Menu Exceptionnel (£167.50, including service) offers the best value
The Waterside Inn, Ferry Road, Bray, Berkshire, SL6 2AT, waterside-inn.co.uk