Cheltenham Blog

Another Cheltenham blog? Not really.  The Critical Cheltenham website is really all Restaurant, Cafe, Tea Room, Bar and Cultural reviews. So, our blog entries are a little extra on top.

We put the occasional single theme article here, plus the odd round up of restaurant news.

These days many blogs are written to chase Search Engine scores. We don’t do this. Therefore you’ll just find (hopefully) properly considered articles on the Cheltenham food and culture scene. Restaurants, wine, cafes, bars and cultural or sporting events are what we’re about.  So, most of all we’re here to share information and take a critical look at Cheltenham and help you find the best.

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Please get in touch if you have a comment or would like to see a particular article written. Maybe you’d like to contribute a guest blog article or have an opposite view on something.

Who does what in a typical Cheltenham restaurant kitchen?

Cheltenham Restaurant Chef


Who does what in a typical Cheltenham restaurant kitchen?

Writing Cheltenham restaurant reviews is, ahem, all very well, but respect is due. Working in a restaurant is tough.

Yet, as a customer, sometimes you even forget there’s kitchen on the other side of that wall.

Cheltenham restaurants cover everything from one man bands to larger hotel and national chain kitchens. If the kitchen is of a reasonable size, you’ll find a larger team. Amazingly they’ll be organised more or less according to a scheme drawn up by a chap called Escoffier in Victorian times. He, in turn, based his organisation of the kitchen in the Savoy Hotel in London on a ‘chef and brigade’ model that had been in use in the European military (an army marches on its stomach) for centuries.

So, if you’ve ever wondered why chefs all seem to have French job titles, even in humble Cheltenham restaurants, you can trace all that back to Mr Escoffier. And if you’ve ever made a comment along the lines of “it must be like a military operation in the kitchen”, you’re closer to the truth than you think.

These days it would be most unusual to find the number of chefs – and specialisation of roles – that used to be the case. But you’ll still hear the French job titles, even if things are simplified these days.

Cheltenham restaurant chef

Roles in a modern Cheltenham restaurant kitchen.

Executive Chef
Taking the military analogy further; the Executive Chef (or ‘Chef de Cuisine’ or Head Chef) is the General. ‘Executive Chef’ is sometimes used as a flattering title to cheer up a Head Chef, but a true Executive Chef is basically a top level manager. Not much cooking involved.

Head Chef (aka Chef de Cuisine)
Head chefs run the kitchen – from staff to suppliers to menus. In smaller restaurants they cook everything, in larger places they oversee a brigade.

Sous Chef (‘Under Chef’)
The sous-chef de cuisine is second in command and, translated, the name literally means ‘under chef’. Basically, the role is be number two to the Head Chef. so more cooking, less admin. The relationship is vital to a successful kitchen – a good Head Chef will aim to make the Sous Chef as competent as possible, if only so that he or she can enjoy a day off.

Chef de Partie (aka Line Chef)
Historically, in large restaurant and hotel kitchens, you’d have Chefs de Partie running specific sections – meat, poultry, fish etc. Top of the tree was the ‘Sauté Chef’ because they were responsible for sauces and gravies – a highly respected role in the kitchen.

Pastry chefs (patissiers) are the equivalent of wingers in rugby: a mile away from the hard work in the scrum but useful to have around. They’re the butt of jokes because they necessarily have to work away from the heat of the kitchen and because patisserie is not often a team sport. That said a good pudding can make a meal, so they’ll only take so much grief.

Commis Chef
A commis is a junior kitchen employee often learning his or her trade, maybe just out of catering college.

Kitchen Porter (aka KPs)
These guys (usually they’re guys) are another breed apart. They shift stuff, they clean everything (the ceiling if necessary) and maybe help out with vegetable prep. KPs often don’t have any formal culinary training.  They are invariably the most interesting characters working in Cheltenham restaurants, often with interesting personal habits.

Essential, unpleasant work – this is a job that chooses you, rather than the other way round.  Unlike in sit-coms dishwashers are never people who haven’t been able to pay their bill.

In writing Cheltenham restaurant reviews we’re enormously respectful of the hard work involved in being a chef or working in a kitchen. These heroes work when everyone else wants to play and are busiest when everyone else is on a public holiday. There’s a macho culture in kitchens that means that you don’t call in sick unless you’re basically dead – and your rare day off can disappear in a moment if the boss calls you in. You work with extreme temperatures, with sharp knives, with mandolines – you get cut burnt and bruised due to accidents caused by tiredness. Meanwhile, relationships suffer, and your relatives expect you to cook at every family occasion. The no reason to suppose that life in a Cheltenham restaurant is different to anywhere else.

Thankfully some enlightened employers are changing the culture by investigating a 4 day week (some high end restaurants are reducing their opening hours to improve the work/life balance of staff). A recent study by Unite found that about half of chefs work over 48 hours a week, with 14% working more than 60 hours. Better employers are reducing tolerance of abuse in the kitchen and creating career paths – but there’s no way around the fact that the work is tough and pressurised with physical and emotional casualties. If you’re a regular diner, you could take a positive step by supporting

It’s worth noting how many staff in restaurant kitchens are migrants workers. They prop up the industry. A report Labour Migration in the Hospitality Sector,  commissioned by the British Hospitality Association points out that the hospitality sector is “highly reliant” on EU national workers, with up to 24 per cent of the sector’s workforce made up of EU migrants. I recently met a Tory MP who attempted to be jolly about Brexit by saying that we could attract ‘the brightest and the best’ migrant workers. The assembled restaurateurs looked at each other and shrugged… “It’s not the brightest and the best that we need for some of our jobs” was the response.

2017-05-09T10:41:30+01:00May 7th, 2017|

Cheltenham Busking

Fresh: Art Fair - Cosmopolitans by P J Crook (detail)


Cheltenham Busking – Street Economics

Cheltenham has quite a few buskers, concentrated around High Street and the Prom. Obviously it’s hard to know how many there are, but over 370 people care enough to join a Cheltenham Buskers Facebook group. We set out to find what you can expect to earn, which are the most lucrative tunes and what reaction buskers get from passers-by.

We’re talking about Cheltenham’s everyday buskers, not the assorted performers (from steel panners to tin flute players) who line the streets every 20 yards during Race Week. And we’re not here to take the piss – people busk for different reasons: to get by, for the love of music, to express themselves and we’re not about to knock that. Having said that, not all instruments are born equal and sometimes you ask yourself: when does practice become busking?

It seems takings for an hour can fluctuate wildly between nothing and, say, twenty quid. A technically difficult Eric Johnson guitar number can earn you 50p off a fat bloke with a Pink Floyd T-shirt, but he’ll probably want a long conversation about the time he saw Steve Vai in return. Give them Wonderwall on a sunny day and you’ll up your hourly rate significantly.

So we took to the streets to see who was doing what on a typical day.

Busker A: Wait, Is that Alex Turner?

Cheltenham Busking

N’ah, trick of the light. Still, interesting guitar and nice touch to play a rockabilly tinged track outside M&S. This guy knows his demographic.

Busker B: Trumpet Man

Man, this bloke is loud. Favours, er, trumpetable options from the Beatles or similar, but you wonder how suitable the trumpet is as an instrument for busking. Draws some pretty heavy looks from the Farmers Market stall holders if he plays outside Cavendish House on Market Friday. The trumpet revival starts here.

Busker C: ‘Hits from the Shows’

West End songs in a light opera style, plus the odd bit of Elton, from this Cavendish House regular. It’s a popular but flawed busking pitch, the width allows people to pass by on the other side. This guy’s voice carries. You can hear him even as you go up the escalator to the first floor of Waterstone’s opposite, through some freak of acoustics in the building.  Has a repertoire (Les Mis, etc) and a degree of boyish charm that pulls in cash from the 45+ female demographic.

Busker D: Plinky Plink

This chap has two distinct styles. He’s enough of a Cheltenham busking regular to be known in our house by style i) which is a kind of a plinky Irish jig thing. Personally, we reckon he should sing/play chords more – he’s got a good voice.

Busker E: Pavement Poet

Pavement Poet

Busking doesn’t only have to be music, after all. ‘The Written Word is not Dead’ is this West Country based poet‘s subtitle as he chalks up some street wisdom. It’s interesting to watch people react – many of whom stop and take time to read short poems. The PP brightens people’s day and hopefully he gets no grief from the local Cheltenham establishment – Swindon Borough Council, on the other hand, attempted to ban him.

Cheltenham is said to be more relaxed about busking than many other places. Busk for long enough in Cheltenham and you’ll get to know people, maybe even pick up a bit of a following and a few coins from the same passers by – regulars, no less.

Cheltenham Borough Council has a policy on busking that is simultaneously both apparently thought through and also seemingly random and also apparently random. The basic approach shows a bit of a light hand – a licence is not needed and there is a voluntary code of conduct. It covers volume by saying that ‘noise’ should not be so loud that it can be heard at a distance of 50 metres’. It covers the state’s fear of repetitive beats by saying that ‘drumming should only be a minor part of the act’. There’s a one hour per location time limit and obviously sensible clauses on obstruction and blurring the line between a genuine performance and appeals for money through ‘sympathy’. And Cheltenham busking should ‘not make public telephones unusable’ (through volume), which is rather quaint.

Busking is one sign of a healthy town culture – any town needs more than just restaurants, cafes and cinemas to have a heart. If a council is cool enough not to seek to ban it, there’s still hope (see Swindon for the grim alternative). You can play your part by stumping up a few quid rather than just walking by – it takes guts to perform.

2017-04-16T11:48:47+01:00April 16th, 2017|

Fresh: Art Fair Cheltenham Exhibition May 2017

Fresh: Art Fair - Cosmopolitans by P J Crook (detail)

Fresh Art Fair and the Visual Arts in Cheltenham

Fresh Art Fair is another boost for the visual arts in this old town.  After all, until fairly recently, the art-hungry local had to forage amongst the finds displayed in a traditional museum, a situation much improved by the arrival of The Wilson, with its new galleries.

In terms of buying art, things in Cheltenham weren’t much better, with options on the scale between some often rather stern Cotswold gallery owners or a trip to the art department of BHS. There’s a gallery that only seems to sell works by Ronnie Wood or Bob Dylan. There are the, let’s be elitist for a moment, to me, hilarious offerings in Cavendish House – the sub Vettriano 21st century equivalent of a female tennis player scratching her bum. And I suppose morale wasn’t helped when the Banksy that graced Fairview Road for a few minutes was defaced and then destroyed. That, Cheltenham, is why you can’t have nice things.

Anyway, cheer up. Spirits were lifted recently by the arrival of Chapel Arts, which, we thought, does a fine job of presenting some art that you might like to buy in a friendly, unfussy environment.  And an honourable mention for the Montpellier Gardens Gallery.

We’re here to talk about Fresh Art Fair: which is, we hope, another step in the right direction. Not to be confused with Fresh Air (the terrific biennial sculpture exhibition at Quenington), this Fresh Art Fair is a contemporary art event coming to Cheltenham for the first time in 2017.

Fresh Art Fair – The Basics

Event: FRESH: Art Fair
Venue: Centaur, Cheltenham Racecourse
Dates: 12 – 14 May, 2017
What to see: Selling exhibition of 5,000 paintings, prints, ceramics, photography and sculptures by 400 artists, via 45 galleries.
Cost: Admission – Friday (free), Saturday & Sunday (£6). There’s a £10 private view on Thursday.
Art – ‘from a few hundred pounds to quite a few thousand’
Tip: 2 for 1 advance tickets online.

Fresh: Art Fair artists represented include the name-droppable Bridget Riley, Peter Blake, Sophie Ryder (she of the Cheltenham Hare and Minotaur) and Barbara Rae. And you’ll also have the opportunity to spot new, up and coming artists.

Fresh Art Fair - Protection factor 97 Steven Lindsay

Aside from all the viewing and buying, the event includes sessions where artists will paint live; artists and experts (we love the distinction made between the two) will talk and Bonhams will value.

The ambition is that Fresh Art Fair will attract 10,000 people and become annual. The organisers (Eleanor and Anthony Wardle) have plans to replicate the formula elsewhere. “Cheltenham will be the birthplace of a new national art fair brand” says Anthony Wardle.

The header image is a detail from Cosmopolitans by P J Crook MBE. Main body image Protection Factor 97 by Steven Lindsay
2017-04-10T20:18:43+01:00March 21st, 2017|

Coffee – How to Order With Confidence



Coffee – How to Order With Confidence

Coffee choice is one of those aspects of food and drink so deeply fascinating that I could read about them for hours. My position is one of an eager student, but nonetheless a student who feels qualified to give advice. I have drunk a lot of the brew, but I have never approached my morning cup from a caffeine centric position. Instead, I am interested in what can be considered the first delicious thing of the day. Coffee, with the possible exception of dark chocolate, is the first thing that we as humans have to learn to love. It’s characteristic bitterness is disgusting to children, and the subtleties of its taste are all to easily lost when the brewer is not handling the beans with care. It’s my view that all of life’s sensational flavours are difficult at first: the sweaty funk of truffles, the tannic power of Pauillac, and the raw, animal note of game. Coffee is no different, but once understood, it has magical properties.

The first hurdle is which beans to choose. There’s plenty of information out there on which locations produce good stuff, so I won’t explore the geographical side of bean production here. That said, I would note that I love almost all the beans I’ve tasted from Yirgacheffe in Ethiopia. Generally speaking there are 3 types of beans: Washed, Unwashed, and Semi-washed. (I won’t dwell on semi-washed, as it offers a balance between the two other types.) Unwashed is the method which produces the bulk of the world’s beans. Here the coffee cherries are left to dry in the sun with minimal processing. This causes the beans to dry out with the fruit, and, in general, yields fuller bodied, richer coffee. Washed coffee is, well, washed! The fruit is removed from the bean before drying, and in general yields brighter, cleaner, more acidic brew. The rise of New Nordic Cuisine and the natural wine movement have shown us that fresher, higher acid approaches are popular at the moment. It’s no different here: washed beans have picked up a devoted following.

Thankfully, coffee culture has advanced from the days of dark, oily, over-roasted beans. The chaps at The Scandinavian Coffee Pod can fill you in on the merits of a lighter roast, while Gary at The Coffee Dispensary can fill you in on the importance of the perfect grind. Either of those coffee shops can talk you through the variety of espresso based drinks and their associated merits, but I want to focus on the different methods of brewing filter coffee.

Aside from the old school Cafetière and percolator, there are four methods for the modern barista: the Aeropress, the Hario V60, the Chemex, and the Siphon. The Aeropress is arguably the simplest and quickest. Coffee is steeped for a short time in what is more or less a giant plastic syringe. It is then forced through a filter by plunging the er… plunger. It produces a cup with less bitterness than conventional drip coffee, thanks in part to the speedy brew time. The Hario V60 is a delightfully simple process. A conical filter is placed in a specially designed ceramic dripper. Coffee is added, and then hot water is poured over. Timings, temperatures and ratios vary depending on who’s pouring, and are often closely guarded secrets. The V60 produces delicious coffee which can be infinitely tweaked thanks to the low tech approach. Another pour over technique uses the Chemex, a beautiful, hourglass shaped piece of glass which yields an incredibly clean cup. This is due to the filter, which is thicker than most. Some find that Chemex can strip the end result of some of its body, but in my experience it produces a delicious, lighter brew.

The last method is as enjoyable to watch as it is to drink. Siphon brewing utilises a two piece glass contraption that looks as much at home in the lab as it does in a cafe, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a highly technical bong on first sight. Hot water is added to a spherical container, and placed over a heat source. A second piece of glass shaped like a wine glass with a hollow stem is attached once the water is boiling. Steam pressure causes the water to rise from the lower chamber to the upper, then the coffee is added. The water appear to be boiling, but is actually at the perfect temperature for brewing. After a time, the heat source is taken away, and the liquid drops back into the lower chamber, passing through a filter in the way. The technique enables a lot of adjustment for personal preference, while water temperature stays nearly constant. Plus it’s easily the most fun of all the filter methods.

Cafes in Cheltenham range from the banal to the brilliant, but quality is on the rise. My advice- if the shop doesn’t know when their beans were roasted, have a cup of tea or try somewhere else.

2017-03-15T15:36:43+00:00March 15th, 2017|

Cheltenham Parks and Gardens: Elegance, Festivals and Public Sex



One celebrated aspect of Cheltenham is its attractive mix of parks gardens and green spaces. Cheltenham parks define the town and are used  as venues for everything from cultural festivals to recreational drug taking.

Here’s our guide to what’s going on out of doors in Cheltenham parks.

To begin with the most central, the Promenade is prime property in Cheltenham, an avenue of elms leads down towards a municipal bit of turf called the Long Gardens. Long Gardens is a handy space, occasionally a market runs along it, in front of the Council offices. There’s a fountain which some locals are fond of saying was based on the Trevi fountain in Rome. We’ve noticed that once these people have actually visited Rome’s Quirinale, they never say that again.

Fountain in Cheltenham Parks    Trevi Fountain Rome

More Trevor, than Trevi: The Trevi Fountain (left) and the Cheltenham artistic response (right). Oh hang on, is it the other way around?

Nearby, there’s a statue of a true hero; Cheltonian Edward Wilson, the physician, botanist and artist who accompanied Scott on his tragic last journey to the South Pole.

Cheltenham’s garden planners and sponsors seemed to favour a straight edge back in the 19th century. It may be something to do with the mindset of all those military types who retired here in the days of empire and in fact the Imperial Garden (which shouldn’t be confused with any Chinese Cheltenham restaurants of the same name) lines a section of the Prom.

Imperial Gardens form an attractive green square that is sometimes roped to act as a venue for the bigger festivals, when they are dotted with marquees. In between events, 25,000 bedding plants a year keep everything colourful, albeit in a rather ‘civic’ way. In one corner of the gardens there is yet another Cheltenham Restaurant Cafe Bar called the Imperial Garden Bar which is a pleasant spot for a drink (especially before an event at the nearby TownHall), although Imperial Gardens is so central that it’s worth noting you have your choice of Cheltenham cafes and Cheltenham restaurants nearby.

Continue on out of the centre of town and you’ll find the larger Montpellier Gardens. This is the hub for major Festival events in Cheltenham and year-round there are tennis courts, a bandstand, a cafe and, a newish restaurant called Montpellier Lodge (which we will get around to checking out on our list of Cheltenham restaurant reviews).

Imperial and Montpellier gardens are key to Cheltenham’s status as a festival venue. There are occasional whimpers from the fustier element of the local population about this, but discussions are usually aimed at reducing the number of days use a year rather than dropping events altogether. 70 days a year seems to be about the mark.

More Cheltenham Parks: Pittville Park, Sandford Park and Jenner Gardens

Pittville Park is slightly further out of the town centre, necessarily so as it was a speculative project created during the early 19th century building boom.  Pittville was a commercially built housing and spa project, designed to rival Cheltenham itself. As you leave town, a series of grass park areas (good for frisbee, footie, sunbathing) continue until you reach the Central Cross Cafe. By virtue of its location, this has become a meeting point for parents walking their toddlers and owners walking their dogs. Unusually amongst Cheltenham cafes, coffee on our last visit was (we thought) really quite bad and cakes were also sub par, but there are free newspapers and a friendly atmosphere, so have a cup of tea instead.



Continuing further on this, the largest of Cheltenham parks, there’s the small lake where some complete failure of a human being shot a swan with a crossbow in early 2017. A crowdfunded campaign saw George the swan treated and returned to the lake within a month, which thankfully illustrated the more attractive side of human nature.

Nearby, a large and beautifully made children’s playground is now a huge draw for families. This too was part crowdfunded thanks to an organisation called Friends of Pittville. At the top of the park, the eye is drawn to the beautifully proportioned Pittville Pump Room, now a venue for weddings, events and concerts.  Over the road there are tennis courts and a skateboard park, plus some golf holes and a boating lake with a cafe.

Head to the south part of the centre of Cheltenham for Sandford Park, which has the mighty River Chelt trickling along one edge (chef’s note, we scrumped some wild garlic here, possibly the first in Gloucestershire to arrive). On the other side, Sandford Parks Lido is a real retro, 1930s heated Lido – a great place to cool off in Summer. Between the two are large grassy lawns where, from late Spring,  groups of students sit in fairy circles and smoke dope and/or light impromptu barbecues. Heading towards town there are one or two less open garden spaces, a sedicente Italian Garden and an area called Annecy gardens. Despite leading to the High Street and being pretty central, the slightly detached and sheltered nature of these fringes of Sandford Park has led to some antisocial behaviour with one of the local rags rather gleefully reporting on drug dealing, public sex and late night assaults in that area. For my part, I’m completely happy to use the park although I keep my headphones out and my wits about me in quieter parts, and I wouldn’t use the park as a short cut at night. I’d apply the same rules to the much smaller Jenner Gardens at the other end of Cheltenham’s High Street which has a slightly intimidating air about it, despite hard work by local groups to cheer it up.

That’s not a positive way to end an article on Cheltenham Parks – they are by and large well kept and attractive places. Our favourite is Pittville Park.

Picture of Imperial Gardens courtesy of VisitEngland/ Turner
2017-04-03T17:48:38+01:00March 13th, 2017|

Cheltenham Gold Cup Festival – A Virgin’s Guide

Cheltenham Gold Cup Festival Betting

The Cheltenham Gold Cup Festival Virgin Guide

Here, straight from the horse’s mouth, is our Cheltenham Gold Cup week survival guide.

First of all the day break down:

Tuesday 14th March – Champion Day
The big race is the 3.20pm Champion Hurdle.
Wednesday 15th March – Ladies Day
Day 2 is Ladies’ Day. Big race? The Queen Mother Champion Chase
Thursday 16th March – St Patrick’s Day
The Irish attend Cheltenham in huge numbers and provide much of the atmosphere and fun. The Ladbrokes World Hurdle is the feature race.
Friday 17th March – Cheltenham Gold Cup Day
This is the big one, in a week of already high quality racing.

There’s no formal dress code for Cheltenham, although fancy dress is a pretty bad idea. Basically, the only fashion crime is to look cold, so suits, tweed and overcoats win respect. Due to the size of the event there’s a fair bit of walking at Cheltenham Gold Cup so, ladies, those stilettos won’t get you through the whole day. A friend was offered cash for her flatties a couple of years ago.

Cheltenham Racecourse is on the edge of town of 110,000 people. The population seem’s like more in race week. Things get busy. By far the best way to arrive is in a helicopter, landed a short buggy ride away from the Winner’s Enclosure.  However, if your chopper is being serviced (oh do behave…), the next best  (car traffic gets a bit heavy) is to arrive at Cheltenham Rail Station.  Boost your betting fund by buying tickets in advance.

Cheltenham Racecourse is, sadly, on the other side of town from the rail station. As a result shuttle buses run and taxis exist (they’re at a premium, to say the least). Best to arrive early and walk into town centre which is about half way to the course. On leaving the station cross the road and look for the footpath to the right of the Green Coffee Machine (good coffee) called The Honeybourne Line. This former railway line path will take you to the centre of town.

The craic is definitely on in Cheltenham and it seems a shame to head straight to the course and miss the atmosphere in the town centre.

Cheltenham Gold Cup Punters

The Cheltenham Gold Cup Festival Betting and Drinking Strategy Guide

Gambling and alcohol. Those two things that your mother warned you about.

Cheltenham Festival used to take a lot of pride in the quantity of Champagne and Guinness consumed, but has decided to downplay things this year, with the introduction of a restriction on the number (four) of drinks that can be bought at once.  We’ll see how that goes. The best tips are a) have a really good breakfast b) pace yourself c) use the new free water points in the bars and, most of all, d) don’t make a prat of yourself.

Outside the course, we think the best three places to be seen are The Sandford Park Ale House, the Royal Oak in Prestbury  (Paddy Power was spotted there last year) and the Queen’s Hotel,  which has a long pedigree (although these days nearby Crazy Eights, part of No 131 is a bit more hip, not to say youthful).

If the madness gets to you and you’re looking for somewhere quiet, you could try, say, Edinburgh, or you might find a quiet corner in an off-centre pub such as The Kemble Brewery Inn (no website), the Exmouth Arms or the Jolly Brewmaster (no website)

Betting strategies are up to you. It’s not a bad plan to follow a single trainer or jockey, if signs are vaguely promising or there’s a buzz from the Irish contingent. Get yourself to the parade ring to see how good the horses are looking or eavesdrop on someone dressed from head to toe in tweed. Ignore touts offering to sell you tips – usually they’re just, as Trump would say, bad hombres looking to score some stake money after a bad few days on the nags.

Try to stick to a betting budget.  If you can’t, there are cash points around the course although perhaps I shouldn’t be telling you that…  If you win big, don’t tell everyone – and keep your cash somewhere safe.

In conclusion – have a great Festival!

2017-02-28T10:57:21+00:00February 27th, 2017|