For many years my mental map of SW Essex contained just two good dining places: Magic Mushroom and The Bell. It still does, though I have not visited Magic Mushroom for a long time. The Bell used to be the place to take foreign visitors to, to show them a historic English pub and impress with fancy food. The downside: dinners had to be booked a week in advance. Lunches were usually walk-in though.
Today again we weren’t in the mood for a chain or an adventure in the more depressed parts of Basildon, and it’s been years since the last visit in The Bell, so there we went. The Bell is still there, as it was for the last 400 years or so. The buns still hang from the beams, the walls and ceiling are as crooked as before, Crouch Valley Brewer’s Gold is still on tap – a firm favourite. No vegan dishes, but the kitchen was quite accommodating to Z’s dietary requirements, modifying a la carte options to remove all traces of animals. They were also upfront about having a single fryer that is also used for meat – bonus points for honesty.
The prices are something else, though. With many mains over £20, and no options for less than £15, this is basically a fancy restaurant in a historic pub building. The portions are small and the presentation is elaborate, with paper-thin slices of radishes, blobs of curried mayo, the food stacked into sophisticated towers, garnished with bundles of cress or other herbs I know no names of. It is also quite tasty; that said, for £20 you would expect nothing less, and perhaps even a bit more. As far as food value for money goes, the Bell will not rate very highly. The entire experience, though, with the buns, the Brewer’s Gold, the warm bread served before the meal, the nice service, keeps us coming back. If only once every few years.