Some restaurants are hard to get into, but few can boast a drawbridge. If the castle were not so impressive – including the barrel-vaulted, 12th century Queen’s Room with crackling fire and fluttering waiters – then the already well-regarded nosh is going up a notch. In March new Head Chef Conor Toomey took over a new kitchen and designed a new menu, with his classically-influenced dishes. Toomey has a fine pedigree, including at Aubergine and the Latymer Restaurant at Pennyhill Park, where he worked as Sous Chef under Michael Wignall. Twice he has gained three rosettes in double quick time. We fully expect this to become the hot Sussex destination this summer.
Why we love it: Always exciting when such a promising chef takes charge of the pots and pans
Amberley Castle: Nr. Arundel, BN18 9LT – 01798 831 992; amberleycastle.co.uk
Everyone from Churchill to Brando has stayed in the Palladian manor in Ashdown Forest seeking private pleasures away from the press. The dining room is surprisingly small and intimate for such a grand place, and unlike nearby Ashdown Park, ultra modern. Hearty country sorts looking for a good feed have been known to grumble that they leave with a rumble in their tummies, but those more interested in fine ingredients intelligently cooked and artistically presented will leave happy. Walk it off in the fine grounds – enough to lift even Winston’s Black Dog.
Why we love it: Afternoon tea – an underrated pleasure – is given proper attention here, but do hang around for dinner
Buxted Park: Buxted, Uckfield, TN22 4AY – 0845 072 7412; handpickedhotels.co.uk/buxtedpark
East Beach Café
You don’t get the New York Times down to Littlehampton to review
a restaurant unless it’s got something about it; fair to say, the East Beach Café is a sensation. It looks like no other. Seaside restaurants can try for retro charm, and often end up just damply depressing. But this is unashamedly modernist and ambitious.
Enjoy fish hauled in from the boat that day or excellent Dorset mussels. It also pinches dishes from foreign seaside holidays, notably salt and pepper squid with chilli. Hipper than Hoxton, hotter than Hawaii – why leave home?
Why we love it: Leading the renaissance of the British seaside
East Beach Café: Littlehampton, BN17 5GB – 01903 731 903; eastbeachcafe.co.uk
The George In Rye
After a yomp across Romney Marsh, there are few warmer havens to hole up than the George. The grill is not so formal that you couldn’t turn up after a day building sandcastles, yet you feel you are eating in a proper restaurant. The Spanish chef is accomplished, utilising the fresh seafood brought in at the harbour – lobster included – which is well worth getting your claws into. Later, you will find the puddings are to murder-for. There is even a ballroom if you want to take your date for a post-dinner twirl.
Why we love it: Rye’s a fine town and this is a fine restaurant
The George In Rye: Rye, East Sussex, TN31 7JT – 01797 222 114;
If there were a Burke’s Peerage or Debrett’s for restaurants, Gravetye would surely appear in it. While the fashion for restaurants is to appear casually classless, this remains stiffly upper class. Red meat on your elegant plate? You half expect it to ooze blue blood. But just because this beautiful house is traditional, forget stodgy comfort food. Head Chef George Blogg, like a keen young deb’s delight, has a Michelin star and dexterously plays with textures – from the gravel drive to the scallops with seaweed crackers, it is crunchy and delicious. Despite the suits and supercars, not too pricey.
Why we love it: Kitchen garden and food from its own ground
Gravetye Manor: Vowels Lane, East Grinstead, West Hoathly,
RH19 4L – 01342 810 567; gravetyemanor.co.uk
This is where Piers Morgan grew up. But Hitler’s bunker is now a fashionable corner of Berlin, so don’t let its unsavoury past put you off. It’s great. From roaring log fires to friendly service, it has an amiable club feel, with regulars such as Natasha Kaplinsky bumping into old friends. Everything delights. Gardens fall into the Ouse Valley and stately Sheffield Park; perfect for low summer evenings. It even has a cricket team, the Dear Old Things (president: Henry “Blowers” Blofeld). It is run by charming James Pullan, who was in charge at Babington House. Excellent seafood which is fresh from Rye daily. Smart, traditional dining but not stuffy.
Why we love it: It has a quality even a billionaire can’t buy – charm
The Griffin: Fletching, East Sussex, 01825 722 890; thegriffininn.co.uk
There aren’t many restaurants which can brag about a 12,000-acre estate to plunder for produce, but not many are owned by an earl (of March, and of every month since about 1675 as it goes). The décor is exquisite, as befits aristo pedigree. Not cheap (a bottle of Champers is listed as a “sharpener” for £59 smackers), but surroundings are sublime and dishes quirky (“estate venison, rhubarb, coffee & macadamia”). The restaurant the Sussex smart set are chattering about.
Why we love it: You can bring your dog to dine – SO posh…
The Kennels: Goodwood, Chichester, PO18 0PW – 01243 755 132;
Shows how eating out, out of London has improved. The smarter provincial restaurant could be grander than abilities allowed. One too smart by half joint in Tunbridge Wells demanded (eastern European) staff adopted French accents. The Leconfield was rated but served complicated, slightly humourless, French dishes. New chef Paul Welburn ripped up the old menu and serves unashamedly British fayre, but for the modern palate. With a terrace to enjoy early summer sun and wonderful details (down to the variety of butters), it’s worth a taste.
Why we love it: Happy staff equates to happy food
The Leconfield: Petworth, GU28 0AS – 01798 345 111;
Dining as performance art, with the chef’s table in the stalls affording you the perfect view of the kitchen. Michelin starred, the chef’s main course was chosen by the BBC’s Great British Menu, scoring 10s across the board. This is not a place to catch up with an old friend – it’s clinical, even a little austre, but this is deliberate: the focus is entirely on the tasting menu, your role is not to converse, but to consume. And afterwards, you will talk about it for a long time. Only disappointment? You half want to see the chef skewer an errant pastry chef with a meat cleaver, but the kitchen is too smoothly run for real drama. However, chef Matt Dillon is leaving: will it stay so good?
Why we love it: Performance food to appreciative audiences
South Lodge: Brighton Road, Nr. Horsham, RH13 6PS – 01403 891 711; southlodgehotel.co.uk
It struck me looking for a restaurant in Brighton last weekend that for all its capital cool, it doesn’t yet have many capital-quality restaurants.
64 Degrees is a brilliant exception. Hidden in the most interesting part of Brighton, the Lanes, this tiny restaurant serves tiny plates from its tiny menu. This constantly evolves, apart from its commitment to local produce. Virtually every restaurant can claim to be “award-winning” but this is one where the awards mean something, given by those who understand eating. Simple, contemporary and unpretentious, this is all about the food and without doubt the coming restaurant in Brighton.
Why we love it: The smaller the menu, the better the food
64 Degrees: 53 Meeting House Lane, Brighton, BN1 1HB –
01273 770 115; 64degrees.co.uk