Hermitage Rd, Hitchin

Hermitage Rd, the much-loved Hitchin bar and restaurant in the former ballroom in the middle of yes, you’ve guessed it, Hermitage Road, isn’t new. Yet while I have been to the coffee shop several times, and while I also attended the Gastro Pub Awards ceremony there earlier this year, I have to confess that this is the first time I have eaten in the main restaurant. Shame on me. After a busy week, being asked to do a Friday lunchtime review was most welcome, particularly knowing that my guest was my friend Natasha Hawtrey-Woore, who has designed restaurants in the cool and edgy heartland of east London. What would she make of Hermitage Rd? But before I continue, is there anyone in Hitchin who doesn’t know this place? I doubt it. At this point it’s worth mentioning that if you don’t know Hitchin, you need to sample its many and increasing delights without further ado. And why not start with Hermitage Rd?

The day of our review, it’s one of those not-quite-warm yet eye-poppingly bright days. This crisp combo makes me think less of light and lean and more of comfort food. Three courses for lunch? Bring it on. But before we start on the food, a bit about the building. Again, if you don’t Hermitage Rd, you’re in for a treat. Rather than pretend to be a spring chicken, I will show my age now and be proud. Back in the day, or to be more specific, in the Eighties, I used to frequent the Hermitage when it was a music venue. And yes, if you must know, I saw Shakatak play here. How cool is that? Other equally well known trad jazz bands and members of the rockocracy have also played here.

The Hermitage was originally a ballroom, and if you are over a certain age, you might remember the newsreader Richard Whitmore, who hails from Hitchin, and still lives here. He has written a really good article about his Hermitage memories. You can read it on the wall as you walk up to the restaurant. What’s great about it now, apart from the food which I promise to get on to immediately, is the fact that Hermitage Rd is once again also a music venue, famous for its Sunday sessions, and of course it now also does GREAT food.

So yes, the food. It didn’t take long for Natasha and I to agree that three courses would be right and proper and would make for a better review. Natasha was on an extended dry spring, so she went for a mocktail bursting with passion fruit and mint, and I joined her, although we then parted company on the drinks front. Our orders: Manchego and wild rice arancini, followed by slow braised venison and beef cheek cottage pie for me. Natasha went a bit off-menu and asked if she could have poached eggs and smoked salmon with avocado on sourdough. This was not a problem – and it’s worth saying here that we both agreed that the staff are brilliantly helpful and friendly – and it was suggested that she should have one egg, not two. Here are our starters:

Hermitage Rd is part of Anglian Country Inns (ACI), so you might know some of the other locations in the group: The Fox at Willian, The Cricketers in Weston, and Water Lane in Bishop’s Stortford. And that’s just Herts. In Norfolk, Anglian Country Inns also owns several pubs, one of which is the White Horse in Brancaster Staithe, and we’ve even got a Muddy Norfolk review for you to read. The group has recently raised a stonking £20,000 for their chosen charities, with one of the main beneficiaries being the Garden House hospice in Letchworth. I’ve heard that wherever ACI has a business, they take on the mantle of their surroundings and are always very supportive of the local community. ACI is also fantastic when it comes to sustainable food and buying from local producers. Natasha, who lives in Walthamstow, where she designed the restaurant Eat 17, had actually just been to Water Lane. She gets about! And so have I, with the former Muddy Herts editor Pippa, and here is her review from last year. Our main courses arrived:

The sight of my cottage pie made me salivate and when a glass of Malbec was offered, you can imagine my response. I loved the cottage pie. The meat was shredded and cooked to the meltiest of textures and had a rich savoury yumminess. I couldn’t get enough of the roasted veg. I don’t mean I hadn’t been given enough, just that I am so greedy and they were so good that I could easily have kept going. By this time, the sun was streaming in, it was Friday, and we were enjoying every minute. One tiny observation: with the fish and chips, the chips were very large and Natasha pointed out that with a big chip, you’re always going to get more fluffiness than crispiness. Usually the fish and chips comes with mushy peas, but Natasha asked for broccoli. As for the starters, the arancini were delicious. I fell in love with manchego when I taught English in Spain, and I love the strong flavour. These were crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside and the tang of the chilli and red pepper relish was perfect with the punchy flavour of the cheese. Natasha thought that her poached egg could have been a tad less wobbly. We did mention this as soon as we realised and it was noted and all was fine and dandy. We ate slowly – we had the time – and I wanted to enjoy every mouthful. And we started to look around a bit more.

To use a designer-y expression, Hermitage Rd is a great space. The windows are such a fab feature that they have made it into the restaurant’s brand identity. The feeling of space is uplifting and the restaurant leads into the bar and vice versa. If you’re looking for a party venue, look no further. And for bigger groups and birthday celebrations, it’s perfect. Funnily enough I was talking to someone recently who moved to Hitchin from London (and there’s a lot of that going on) and she said that she had chosen to celebrate her birthday at Hermitage Rd because it makes her think she’s back in London. So there you go.

Natasha and I used to work in a design consultancy in London many years ago and it’s perhaps for this reason that we ended up doing quite a formal round-up of our experience. Here goes. Seating: Very comfy. We were on banquettes, in the booths. These are brilliant because you have a bird’s eye view of the restaurant. Atmosphere: Great. It was kind of half full, but I know from friends that at weekends and in the evenings it’s hopping, and you couldn’t want a better space to hop in. Service: Friendly, warm, attentive and faultless. Natasha wanted me to mention that she thought they’d gone the extra mile. While I popped to the loo, one of the team offered to charge her phone for her. Food: Excellent, well cooked, beautifully presented, and you can sense that people care a lot about what they are doing here. Portions are generous, and again, as a London person, Natasha was amazed. That’s Herts for you, and Hitchin. We don’t stint!

So all in all, we gave the Hermitage a big thumbs up. Funnily enough, a few days after our visit, someone who lives in Hitchin (who used to live in London) said that she’d been to the Hermitage en famille to celebrate her birthday, ‘because it makes me think I’m in London’. So there we are. And I promised three courses so here’s our pudding. We ended up sharing a pudding. Even for your gluttonous Muddy reviewer, what with the manchego arancini, slow roasted venison and oh my goodness, I was just a little bit full. But I never say no to pudding, so we went for dark chocolate mousse, sea salt caramel and raspberries and it was the bees knees. Perfectly balanced, rich yet fresh with the fruit, and the mousse was velvety.

A couple of things to remember. Don’t forget to check out the coffee shop downstairs, and the shop next door, Hermitage Rd. & Co. The coffee shop is fantastic – delicious coffee, great cakes, fab bagels stuffed with smoked salmon, salt beef and other delights, and it’s a very chilled place to hang out. You can also take your coffee through to the shop where there’s more seating – and you will inevitably start to spot cards and presents that you want to buy. Keep your eyes peeled, you might see a certificate for the Muddy Stilettos awards – voting for our 2017 awards opens soon.

I would recommend Hermitage Rd as a destination and a great starting point as an introduction to Hitchin. It’s an all-round enjoyable experience, from the building and upbeat atmosphere to the great food and service. I’ve heard that Sunday lunch is also wonderful here, and the Super Sunday Sessions for music from 7-9pm are legendary. They even have Friday Night Funk. Who knows, perhaps one day Shakatak will come back to Hermitage Rd?

MUDDY VERDICT

Good for: I think everyone would like it here. The space adapts to any time of day and any occasion. So you could pop in for a quick brunch while shopping or mooching around Hitchin. Or you could linger over a long lunch (as we did). But then I think it’s great for bigger groups and celebrations. And of course good for date nights, and Sunday lunch get togethers with mates or with extended family. Children are very welcome here. By night, it’s a whole different vibe so it’s a great place if you are looking for a bar with serious cocktails.

Not for: I can’t actually think of anyone who wouldn’t like it here. Unless of course, you have a phobia of high ceilings and big open spaces.

££: Good value and not too expensive. Starters are around the £5 – £7 mark and mains £12 or £13, the most expensive being steak and chips for £24. You can also have light plates for £8 or £9.

Hermitage Rd, 20-21 Hermitage Road, Hitchin, SG5 1BY 01462 433603   Hermitage Rd 

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The Urban Guide to the Countryside - Hertfordshire