Tony Naylor, The Guardian, January 31, 2012
If you're looking for "cheap eats" you could easily overlook this smart basement restaurant. It is located below an upmarket hairdresser and beauty salon in one of Cheltenham's many handsome Regency buildings. The window, moreover, is dotted with Michelin stickers – not usually a signifier of keen value. But don't hover at the door: get in there, because Vanilla delivers sharp cooking at very competitive prices. Between 6pm and 7pm, it offers a two-course menu for £10. That menu is also available at lunch, alongside a selection of sandwiches, salads and simple mains. It is crowd-pleasing stuff, rendered with style and precision: Gloucester Old Spot sausage and mash; haddock fishcake with wilted baby chard and chive velouté; chicken liver parfait. Whisky and honey gravadlax (£7.50) arrived atop an incredibly light pillow of a blini, accompanied by clean, lemony blobs of creme fraiche, tangles of nicely modulated pickled beetroot and a mound of bright, sharply dressed salad leaves. The salmon's dressing smoothly melded honeyed sweetness and cockle-warming single malt flavours, too.
• Lunch, sandwiches from £3.95, light meals/mains from £4. 9-10 Cambray Place, Cheltenham, 01242 228228, vanillainc.co.uk
This small, charming Swedish restaurant is a cafe by day, offering decent, non-stewed filter coffee (£2.25) and first-rate baking (try the kanelbullar cinnamon buns, £1.90). The lunchtime menu runs from open sandwiches, such as the Hönö – falukorv sausage and cheese with a fried egg, served with a green salad – to the definitively Scandi Kungshamn – herrings, new potatoes, creme fraiche and crisp bread. A sample hagasmörgås on a thick slice of rustic bread is sound: the ever-so-slightly dry pork and beef meatballs coming alive when mixed with the creamy beetroot salad below. It is a happy to and fro of sweet and savoury flavours. On the menu you will find various useful phrases translated into Swedish, including "I hate flatpack furniture" and – either a typo or very subtle satire, this – "Sven bought out the best in English football".
• Lunch, dishes £4.95-£9.95. 24 Rodney Road, Cheltenham, 01242 238134, sveacafe.co.uk
A literally and figuratively beige gastropub, complete with the obligatory Chesterfield sofa by the front door, the Swan won't win any awards for design originality, but the food is good, the price is right and the staff are on the ball. It is a perfectly if generically pleasant place to hang out. The kitchen uses good-quality artisan products, including O'Hagan's award-winning sausages, and air-dried ham and cured meats from Oxsprings in Worcestershire and Monmouthshire's Trealy Farm. A sample burger, topped with a fried sliced of Diana Smart's renowned, robustly flavoured double Gloucester, was spot on (£6, lunch menu). The coarse ground patty was well-seasoned with herbs, cooked to a moist pinky-purple and had a decent exterior char. The beer – the Swan has five real ale pumps – was also in excellent condition. A glass of Brakspear's Oxford Gold (pint from £3.30) sang with flavour, its bristling, almost peppery hop tang giving way to a mellow caramel sweetness. Food prices climb a little at night, but all the main dishes (sausage and mash, fish pie, ploughman's) come in under £10.
• Lunch dishes from £4, evening mains from £7.95. 35-37 High Street, Cheltenham, 01242 243726, theswancheltenham.co.uk
Well Walk Tea Room
Look closely at the myriad antiques that fill every nook of this (very friendly) tea room, and you will notice they are all priced. Who knew that you could pay £250 for a piece of what, to the untrained eye, looks like distinctly amateur 19th century needlepoint? Not that you'll be buying, of course. Not if you're travelling on a budget. Instead, you can take all this in, while enjoying some fantastic, traditional baking and speciality teas. Although, winningly, Well Walk serves no-nonsense Yorkshire Tea as its house brew. The pot arrived correctly primed with two bags, too. The baking includes several low-fat and coeliac-friendly options, which, judging by a slice of moist courgette cake filled with homemade raspberry jam, are much less worthy than you might imagine. The wider menu includes a variety of affordable old-school snacks, such as Gentleman's Relish on toast and potted stilton (£2.50). A retro soundtrack which toggles between Adam Faith, Frank Sinatra and similar icons adds to the convivial atmosphere.
• Snacks and sandwiches from £2.50, cakes £2 a slice. 5-6 Well Walk, Cheltenham, 01242 574546, wellwalktearoom.co.uk
Simpson's is one of those slick new-school chippies – half takeaway, half cafe – attempting to bring a modern foodist rigour to fish 'n' chips. It does the right things (sourcing sustainable cod from the Barents Sea; using freshly chipped local spuds; cooking to order as much as possible) and the result is a superior fish supper. The chips could have been a shade crisper, perhaps, but were buttery- soft within. The fish was great, encased in a light, nicely seasoned, largely greaseless batter. The only significant flaw was the homemade tartare sauce. Tartare should be clean, sharp and, preferably, full of capers and gherkins. Simpson's almost smooth version had a curious cloying sweetness. Not good. Still, overall it was worth the 20-30 minute walk from the centre. Away fans note: it is not far from Cheltenham Town's Whaddon Road ground.
• Fish and chips from £5.75. 73-75 Priors Road, Cheltenham, 01242 521964; simpsonsfishandchips.co.uk
There is a lot going on at chef Richard Whittle's three-storey cafe, deli and bistro. Scan the blackboards outside and you may well find a sub-£10 bargain on that evening's bistro menu. For instance, on the Thursday night I visited, you could snaffle a plate of gussied-up sausage and mash for £8.95. The bistro also offers a two-course £10.95 pre-theatre menu – the Everyman Theatre is just down the road. However, if you're really watching the pennies, get a takeaway, or head downstairs to the "coffee lounge", a rather dated basement of black floor tiles, red leather armchairs and blonde wood furniture. It serves from 9am to 5pm, the menu morphing from eggs Benedict, through a populist lunch menu (homemade burgers and pies, quiche and potato salad, pea and pesto risotto, around £6/£7) to late afternoon cakes from local bakery Vanilla Pod. The bourbon-spiked pecan pie is highly recommended. A sample smoked bacon and mushroom soup was very good. It delivered great fungi flavour, a slight smoky tang at the edges and, thanks to some tiny flecks of chilli, an understated base note of heat. To conceive and enact such a combination successfully takes thought and skill.
• Coffee lounge, breakfast from £2.50, hot dishes from £4.15. 13 Regent Street, Cheltenham, 01242 253900, redpeppercheltenham.co.uk
Cafe El Bahdja
Gloucester is hardly the most frenetic of places, but this North African cafe is a notable oasis of calm, the dispatch of good food accomplished not with the usual crashing of pots, pans and plates, but smoothly under cover of esoteric ambient music. It is a place, perhaps, to linger after you have eaten over mint tea or El Bahdja's brilliant baklava. The menu includes lamb and chickpea harira soup, "ratatouille-style" chakchouka with baked eggs, minced beef borek and several tagines. A sample dish of Moroccan lentils served with a semolina-topped khobz bread roll was just the thing to brighten a wintry day. The lentils had been cooked with tomatoes and onions almost to the point of disintegration. The heat, such as it was, was residual and mellow. The whole thing was an advert for patient slow-cooking and the judicious use of spices and herbs to draw out fathoms of flavour from simple ingredients. Prices are low anyway, but takeaway prices are a real bargain. The lentils cost just £3.40.
• Mains from £4.50. 59-61 Westgate Street, Gloucester, 01452 545178, elbahdja.co.uk
All blackboards, bunting and wicker baskets, this deli-cafe and gift shop is a popular haunt among Gloucester's foodies. The simple snacky menu is all about good-quality artisan products, many from the Cotswolds. It includes, for example: a handmade scotch egg with mustard; a rather good locally made open beetroot and goat's cheese pie with chutney and pickled cucumber (£5.95); a local cheese plate; and a selection of good-looking cakes and scones. Typically, a breakfast sandwich uses dense bread from Hobbs House (the local baker du jour) and tasty Gloucester Old Spot sausages from Nick Brown, butcher in Longlevens. Said bangers were, however, almost overwhelmed by a layer of strident, very jammy onion marmalade. Service is refreshingly bright and cheery.
• Dishes from £3.50. 42-44 Westgate Street, Gloucester, 01452 412237, stanmanskitchen.co.uk
You will find this tiny hive of making 'n' baking activity, which places a high emphasis on organic, seasonal produce, down an alley off Westgate Street. It is but a stone's throw from the cathedral and the Folk Museum, and well worth hunting out. It is rare for a salad bar to set the pulse racing, but the one at Peppers is a real treat: thick glossy coleslaw; an interesting colourful mix of giant couscous and vegetables; and a moreish savoury amalgam of wild rice, peppers and seeds among its highlights. Alongside those, a caramelised onion quiche struggled to shine, a little, the onions not as evenly distributed throughout the filling as they should have been. But the flavour was there. Peppers' filled baguettes looked good, too. Hot dishes include soups and pizza, alongside specials such as curry, chilli and hot pot. There are also multiple vegetarian options. If you eat in – there's seating upstairs and in a "hidden" courtyard – you can also chug on an organic beer from Stroud Brewery (£3), regional ciders and English wines from St Anne's Vineyard.
• Baguettes from £2.95, dishes from £3. 2 Bull Lane, Gloucester, 01452 384343,
Blue Thai Kitchen
This small, cash-only cafe-restaurant is a no-frills affair. The strange leatherette tablecloths look makeshift, the floor is worn and the A-board outside has seen better days. But there is a reason why it is packed at lunch: it's cheap, cheerful and, for the money, pretty good. The daytime menu includes a core of mainstay Thai dishes, such as tom yum soup, pad thai and green and yellow curries, as well as stir-fry noodle dishes at £3.99 and £4.99 (£4.50 take away). My massaman curry was a little oilier and less creamy than you might expect, but all the constituent parts (potato, a good scattering of cashews) were present and correct, and the notably fresh vegetables were accurately cooked. What it lacked in sophistication it made up for in flavour, and the fact that, on a freezing day, it left a ringing chilli tingle on the lips.
• Eat in, lunch mains, £4.99, evening from £6. 19 St. Aldate Street, Gloucester, 01452 526531
• Tony travelled from Manchester to Cheltenham with CrossCountry (crosscountrytrains.co.uk). For more information on things to do and see in Gloucester and Cheltenham from thecityofgloucester.co.uk and visitcheltenham.com