Enjoy 21st century style and food at ancient coaching inn

foodmenu-grosvenor5FOR centuries travellers have visited Shaftesbury, on its hilltop overlooking the Blackmore Vale.

Many came to the great abbey, built by King Alfred for his daughter the first abbess, and stayed in the hostels and taverns around it.

A famous visitor was the young Katharine of Aragon, who stayed at the abbey, en route to marry Prince Arthur. She would become the wife of his more famous brother, King Henry VIII, and the abbey would be demolished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries which followed Henry’s long struggle to get rid of the wife who could not bear him a living son.

Later four-in-hand coaches struggled up the hilly approaches, often stopping to take on extra horses for the steepest climbs, and at the top they found a wide choice of coaching inns and taverns.

foodmenu-grosvenor3The biggest and most historic is the Grosvenor Arms, which dates back to medieval times, when it was called the Red Lion. It was bought by the Grosvenor family and renamed the Grosvenor Arms in 1820. At the end of the 20th century it went through a rocky period and was closed for some years. Refurbished by the current owners it has resumed its place as “the heartbeat of the famous market town of Shaftesbury.”

Just 100 yards from Shaftesbury’s world-famous Gold Hill, the hotel is one of the finest buildings in the town, presenting a relaxed blend of historic charm, country style and fine contemporary food with an emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients.

It is bright and welcoming, whether you want a coffee in the conservatory, a drink in the bar, a light lunch, a pizza from the wood oven or a memorable dinner.foodmenu-grosvenor4

The welcome starts with the staff in reception who are helpful, efficient and friendly, as are the waiting staff in the restaurant who manage that often difficult balancing act between diners who want to chat and talk about the food and those who make it clear that they “want to be alone.”

The main menu includes pizza and imaginative and attractive dishes from the kitchen. Starters include White Lake goats curd with butternut squash, radicchio, pomegranate and balsamic vinegar; gnocchi with tomato, parmesan and rocket; truffle-baked mushrooms with a herb crumb and rocket (G’s choice), Dorset Blue Vinny arancini with red wine poached pear and candied walnuts; and wood pigeon pastrami with caramelized plums, chanterelles and hazelnuts (my selection). Both our plates were generous, with clear and distinct flavours.

We love pizza – and the boys on the next table clearly enjoyed theirs – but the lure of red mullet and mussels in a saffron risotto (for me) and a splendidly rare flat iron steak (for G) proved irresistible. The risotto was intense, delicious and close to perfect. G’s side dish of greens, chilli and garlic looked fresh and pretty but the chilli was understated (to put it mildly!foodmenu-grosvenor2

There is an excellent wine list with the high standard of French wines which you would expect from Yapps, but also including two sparkling wines from the Sherborne Castle Estate and an interesting selection from Spain, Portugal, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Argentina and Portugal. I had a light and fruity glass of a South African Chenin Blanc, an ideal companion to the risotto, while G had a Cabernet Sauivignon from Nyala, South Africa, to complement the steak.

It seemed a bit piggy to have pudding, but you do have to try something from every course, don’t you.

I opted for a single scoop of basil ice-cream which was as light and refreshing as a sorbet and just what I needed after the rich risotto. G tried one of the specials from the blackboard – a hazelnut and honey parfait with poached pears. Good choice.

The prices are reasonable for food of this quality. Starters are from £6.50 to £9.50, and main dishes range from £8.40 for a simple pizza and £12.50 for the Grosvenor Arms’ Dorset beef burger, up to £27.50 for fillet steak. Puddings are £6 to £7.foodmenu-grosvenor6

Head chef Neil Duffett, who worked under Alex Aitken at Le Poussin at Brockenhurst and more recently at Limewood near Lyndhurst, is committed to sourcing local, seasonal ingredients and sustainably caught seafood. Suppliers include fishermen from Portland and Poole Bay, Gold Hill Organic Farm at Child Okeford, Comins Tea House at Sturminster Newton, Reads Coffee of Sherborne, charcuterie experts Capreolus Fine Food of Rampisham, butcher Simon Harvill at Iwerne Minster, Sydling Farm for organic meat, Chesil Smokery, and local wine merchants Yapp Brothers of Mere.foodmenu-GrosvenorChef

There are 16 comfortable guest rooms and private areas for dining or parties. On the first floor, the double height Assembly Room is the largest room in Shaftesbury, and is being increasingly used for community events, reflecting the owners’ commitment to making the Grosvenor Arms central to the life of the town.

The bar, deli and courtyard are open all day, and the restaurant is open from noon to 2.30pm and 6.30 to 9pm. For more information visit www.grosvenorarms.co.uk