‘The restaurant scene has simply grown around us’
In 2006, Tavistock in Devon hit the headlines when its branch of McDonald’s was forced to close due to lack of custom. More than a decade later, the market town is in the news again, touted as a foodie’s paradise with a reported 136 restaurants – one for every 80 people in a population of 11,000. Topping the list is The Cornish Arms gastropub, holder of a “bib gourmand” in the Michelin guide. Its menu includes slow roast breast of local duck served with roasted cauliflower, chips and duck gravy.
But Tavistock is only the most recent example of the global phenomenon of a “gourmet cluster” – a geographical area away from a main city (where you would expect a high concentration of good restaurants) which is overflowing with outstanding places to eat. One early example was Ludlow, the Shropshire town (population 9,500) which in 2001 boasted three Michelin-starred restaurants – more than anywhere else in Britain apart from London at that time. Why did the cluster form?
Shaun Hill, a bastion of the influential 1980s Modern British movement, moved to Ludlow in 1994 and opened The Merchant House, attracted to the town by low property prices, a thriving food market, local game and fish, and what he called “first-rate lines of supply”. He won a Michelin star the following year, prompting Chris and Judy Bradley to open Mr Underhill’s there in 1997. In 2000, Claude Bosi launched Hibiscus in the town – and it went on to win two Michelin stars in 2004.
Ludlow’s gastronomic reputation subsequently waned and all three restaurants are now closed. However, 5,000 miles away in the small town of Yountville in California’s Napa Valley, something akin to the “Ludlow effect” is alive and well.
In the same year that Hill opened the Merchant House, chef Thomas Keller took over The French Laundry in Yountville, a single-high-street town, and went on to win three Michelin stars and see his restaurant ranked the best in the world for two years in succession. Keller subsequently opened Bouchon Bistro, Bouchon Bakery, the casual, family friendly Ad Hoc restaurant and his Addendum fried chicken takeaway, all within half a mile of each other.
The Michelin guide currently lists 32 restaurants in the area, including The Restaurant at Meadowood, another three-star establishment. It’s no coincidence, of course, that Yountville is in the heart of California wine country. People who make wine love to drink the fruits of their labour, and they want food of commensurate quality to go with it. Wine regions also attract plenty of tourists who need to eat somewhere, although Yountville’s gastronomic reputation has made it a destination in itself, irrespective of the surrounding vineyards.
Tourism has been a factor, too, in the creation of clusters in the hiking and “wellness” village of Baiersbronn, in Germany’s Black Forest, and in the French ski resort of Courchevel. Often, however, it is the presence of an indigenous population with plenty of disposable income and an appreciation of good food that leads to a high concentration of acclaimed restaurants.
In 2002, David Kinch opened the now three-Michelin-starred Manresa in Los Gatos, California – where Netflix has its headquarters. “The restaurant scene has simply grown around us,” says Kinch, “and it’s hard to underestimate locals from Silicon Valley as the engine that has driven that growth. They have the means, they’re educated and well travelled, and they want to increase their awareness of food and wine.”
Kinch also runs a casual New Orleans-influenced diner in the town, not to mention a bakery. He has his own “completely unscientific” theories about why restaurant clusters form. “The most obvious reason is a food culture and produce closely linked to a specific location. San Sebastian is a good example with its long tradition of familial cooking, gastronomic clubs, fishing, farming, cod and cider. Another reason might be ‘the gas station rule’. You open a gas [petrol] station on a corner and it does well; someone opens another one on a different corner and they’re both busy; then a third opens on another corner, and it becomes an intersection where one “gets gas”. I think that works for restaurants as well.” famous for his playful “molecular gastronomy” at this converted village pub where you’ll need to book six months in advance. The multi-course tasting menu includes a salmon and avocado flavoured ice lolly and a meringue served on a pillow that floats in the air. techniques and a recognisably British sensibility in dishes such as warm gala pie with onion and cider purée, hot pickled gherkin and pork bordelaise sauce. (Kerridge also runs the Michelin-starred The Coach and the The Butcher’s Tap, both in Marlow).
Three courses cost about £65 plus wine and service (01628 482277; thehandandflowers. co.uk). This chocolate-box town in southern Germany attracts tourists who come to hike the sprucecovered hills of the Black Forest and for wellness holidays in luxury spa resorts that also happen to house some of the finest restaurants in the country. In 2007, it became a fully fledged gastronomic destination when the Michelin guide awarded a total of seven Michelin stars (now up to eight) in a town of just 16,000 people. In 1992, Harald Wohlfahrt, one of Germany’s most famous chefs, won three Michelin stars at Schwarzwaldstube at Traube Tonbach hotel, where he trained Jörg Sackmann who went on to win two stars at Schlossberg at Hotel Sackmann. Following the departure of Harald Wohlfahrt in 2017, his protégé Torsten Michel has maintained the stratospheric culinary standards of this luxurious restaurant with its superb scenic forest views. French-style haute cuisine is prepared with a German accent in dishes such as ragout of snails from the Swabian Alps with pearl barley, suckling pig’s head and tongue, and a bacon crouton.
The Grand Menu Degustation costs €225 (£200) plus service and drinks (0049 7442 4920, traubetonbach.de). Chef Claus-Peter Lumpp serves exquisitely presented dishes such as saddle of roe deer from the hotel’s own hunting grounds with celeriac purée, cranberries and elderflowers – all in an over-the-top, opulent dining room. Three courses cost about €225 (0049 7442 470; bareiss.com). The surroundings may be a little dated (think swagged curtains and vast half-moon caramelcoloured banquettes), but chef Jörg Sackmann’s intricate food is bang up to date, with imaginative combinations like blue lobster in citrus fruit marinade and truffled salad of pea pods and pecorino. The five-course tasting menu costs €135 (hotel-sackmann.de).
From top: Baiersbronn in Germany; a chef at the Plumed Horse; the Bareiss; a dish at The Hand and Flowers
Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck, left; The Hand and Flowers, below