Monday 14 December 2009

The Crown & Garter, Inkpen Common, Berkshire

An understated country pub dating from the 17th century, the Crown & Garter's bars and restaurant are fairly plain with simple pine furniture. The period clutter and memorabilia you find in many other old pubs are noticeable by their absence. But the food is straight out of a traditional cookbook. On a Sunday lunchtime, the main courses include classic English staples, such as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or fish, chips and mushy peas, priced around £10 or £11. Perhaps the most unusual option is the Dorset crab and spinach lasagne, which is a creamy, well-balanced and satisfying dish. Another winner is the steak and kidney pudding, which is packed with delicious chunks of slow-cooked meat wrapped in a coating of suet and doused in a fine stew. It goes well with a pint of Ramsbury Gold, a flavourful, hoppy real ale. In December, the main courses are accompanied by terrines of precisely-cooked broccoli, carrots and sprouts. Children can have a half-price, half-size roast, chicken nuggets and chips or sausage and chips. The pricey deserts (£6 each) are not quite so generous or tasty. You might find the average bread and butter pudding, swimming in custard, a disappointment after a top-notch main course. Still, with welcoming, polished service, the Crown & Garter is a fine pub-cum-restaurant. 8/10

Monday 7 December 2009

Vintage Pretty, North Cross Road, East Dulwich, south London

A cramped and popular cafe owned by the green grocers next door, Vintage Pretty's food is ultra-fresh and generally excellent. If it is early enough, you might be tempted by one of the hot breakfasts, such as the salty, but succulent, kippers (£7.25), served with two professionally poached eggs on chunky slices of tasty toast with lemon, slices of cucumber and wild rocket. The lunch options, include a couple of specials, such as moussaka, deep-filled paninis and thick, flavoursome soups, such as roquefort and broccoli. There is also a children's menu with inexpensive comfort grub, such as beans on toast or fish finger sandwiches. To drink, you can get some exotic freshly-squeezed fruit juices for £3, a carton of Ribena for £1.25, coffees for about £2 and tap water for nothing. The country-cottage style decor features pine tables, benches and chairs, plus flowery cushions and framed adages. Service by the young, polite staff can be very slow during busy periods, such as a Saturday lunchtime, when your fellow punters will be mostly well-heeled locals taking a break from browsing the local boutiques and food-stalls. 7/10

Caltrain, Silicon Valley, California

Cruising through Silicon Valley between San Francisco and San Jose, the leisurely Caltrain runs just once an hour at weekends and stops at stations every few miles. A return ticket from Belmont to San Francisco costs a very reasonable $8.50, but the ride into the city through mostly unremarkable and ramshackle suburbs takes just under 50 minutes. On board the steel-plated train, the upper deck of some of the carriages has an open atrium running down the centre, meaning you can see the passengers below through the steel railings. From the last stop in San Franciso, it is about a mile walk up 4th Street to the main shopping drag around Market Street and Union Square. 6/10

Saturday 5 December 2009

Sofitel, Twin Dolphin Drive, Redwood City, California

Tucked away in a suburban district of Redwood City, a tranquil lagoon separates this Sofitel from the oil-drum-style towers of the headquarters of the software giant Oracle. Unfortunately, this French-owned hotel is a three mile walk from the open waters of San Francisco bay and about a mile from the nearest public transport - the Belmont Caltrain station. Right now, the keenly-priced rooms, which can be had for just $120 a night, are good value - you get a big bed, a big flat screen television, an iron and ironing board, a sofa and a quiet air conditioning system, all decorated in an innocuous white and cream colour scheme. The en-suite bathrooms, with pot plants, vertical strip lighting and speckled sink top, are a little more daring and are equipped with a respectable shower. The only things missing are a safe, a mini-bar and free WiFi - you can pay T-Mobile about eight bucks for a day online.

British Airways, London to San Francisco

If you take the 2pm flight from Heathrow, you'll be in San Francisco about 5pm local time, meaning you probably shouldn't try and sleep on board. If you are travelling in the cramped economy cabin, you probably won't sleep anyway. Make sure you check-in online as soon as possible to get a half-decent seat and you might want to bring your own sandwiches - the airline grub isn't particularly appetising and the chicken curry could leave you with a dodgy stomach. Still, you'll probably welcome a free Heineken, a Grolsh or a mini bottle of tolerable wine to help you ease into the eleven hour flight. Fortunately, the on-demand video system is pretty good with a broad selection of movies and television, including some quality sports documentaries, such as the absorbing Thriller in Manila in which Joe Frazier relives his titanic fight with Muhammad Ali. While you work your way through the videos, the crew will keep you hydrated with water or orange juice. When you finally get to San Francisco, it can take a while to answer all the questions and fingerprint checks involved in U.S. passport control, but there are plenty of taxis on-hand to whisk you to the city or to Silicon Valley.