The Essex Restaurants everyone wants to eat at
By Helen Wright
When it comes to food, Essex is like a foragers dream. And I don’t mean hunting through Google to find the best Essex restaurants to book for your anniversary dinner. You only have to look at the diverse natural landscape here to see how earnest Essex quietly became one of the most underrated foodie destinations in the UK. We’re talking masses of farmland, green orchards and 350 miles of sunny coastline, providing salt marshes, oyster beds and seafood-a-plenty. The best restaurants in Essex thrive using local produce, a passionate ‘farm to table’ attitude and a little South-East sass thrown in for good measure.
Whether you are looking for good food, an exciting culinary experience or just something a bit different, there are so many excellent Essex restaurants to choose from, 12 in the Michelin guide (although not all of them made this list…). After a year of pandemic living, eating out is hotter than ever and these are the 17 best restaurants in Essex where everyone has been trying to get a table:
(Cover image: Theo Crazzolara)
The 17 best Essex restaurants for foodies
1. Square 1 in Great Dunmow
If you are a fan of Masterchef: The Professionals, you will have seen 27-year-old chef Alex Webb become the youngest ever winner in December 2020. Alex, a born-and-bred Essex boy, worked his first ever job at this hip little restaurant, that is anything but square. Since his new-found fame, Alex has now left his role at the restaurant, but his legacy remains and the food is as spectacular as ever.
The menu offers delicately presented meals that use freshly-sourced local ingredients, served with a cheeky twist. Think Gin & beetroot cured salmon with pickled cucumber, dill crème fraiche on rye bread and slow braised marmite glazed, pigs cheeks. The taster menu is excellent value (it used to be called the Masterchef menu).
Advance booking necessary. square1restaurant.co.uk
2. The Pier at Harwich
A contemporary restaurant in a sweet spot, right on Harwich harbour. The restaurant, which is also part of a stylish hotel, makes full use of its prime location with floor to ceiling windows and a wrought iron balcony for diners to fully enjoy the view. The menu is great. Duck tacos topped with toasted sesame seeds, followed by prawn and scallop fish pie (using fresh catch from the waters outside). Leave room for the blackberry baked Alaska when in-season, served with pistachio and lemon curd, it’s a triumph.
Booking is recommended. milsomhotels.com/the-pier
3. Haywards Restaurant, Epping
This unassuming and most fantastic of Essex restaurants is owned and operated by a husband and wife chef team in small, converted stables. Both chefs have worked in top kitchens around the world and now it’s Essex that gets the benefit of their modern and flavoursome creations. The menu is small and changes daily, but that’s how you know everything is locally sourced. In fact, the restaurant grows its own fruit, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers in the back garden, and you can taste the freshness in every meal. Resident bee colonies also provide the restaurant with a fabulous source of local honey.
You can eat a-la carte or go for a four or six course taster menu. Try the Crab tortellini with poached langoustine and Jerusalem artichoke puree. For meat-lovers, the Chicken & ham hock terrine with roasted hazelnuts is great. They also do a tremendous Sunday lunch. One of our favourite Essex restaurants!
Booking required at weekends for lunch and dinner. haywardsrestaurant.co.uk
4. Legend Deli in Southend
This small, independent deli / café is somewhat of a Southend institution. This laid back joint serves superbly cooked food using top quality, local ingredients at affordable prices. The burgers are the thing everyone goes for. Made with brisket chuck and pancetta and fully loaded with cheese, gherkins and all the toppings, they are a taste sensation. We also can’t resist the soft and crispy chicken tenders. Oh, and you can bring your own booze! Score. Located at the marketplace, close to Southend Pier, walk off all the excess along the seafront.
No booking required. legenddelikitchen.co.uk
5.Food by John Lawson Leigh-on-Sea
This trendy, Leigh-on-Sea hot spot has a big focus on wellness and sustainability, aiming for zero wastage and only using seasonal ingredients produced within a short distance of the restaurant. This is a no-menu restaurant, offering taster sessions which change daily. The food is excellent. Dishes are simple and of the highest quality. Think 12-hour slow-cooked West Mersea shoulder of salt marsh lamb that slides off the fork. Organic, of course.
The restaurant itself is bright, relaxed and looks more like a modern museum café than a fine-dining room, but the food speaks for itself.
Booking usually required. foodbyjohnlawson.com
6. The Flitch of Bacon
The curiously named Flitch of Bacon, is a restaurant and hotel housed within a sixteenth-century Grade I listed building alongside the River Chelmer. Currently the only one of the Essex restaurants with a Michelin star, the ‘Flitch’ as the locals say, serves almost-medieval recipes, updated with a modern twist. In particular, the Great Garnetts bacon with crispy cabbage, Morteau sausage and potato has a definite 12th-century vibe. They also serve a house special called ‘The Flitch of Bacon’, which is a unique blend of cauliflower cream, maple glazed bacon and Granny Smith apples.
The restaurant also offers an interesting tasting menu and hosts special events, such as the ‘day and night garden party’ in the summer. Dinner and hotel packages are also available.
Reservations should be made at least a month in advance. flitchofbacon.co.uk
7. Eat 17 at Spar Bishop’s Stortford
The hipsters have migrated from Walthamstow and brought with them this trendy trade concept – a mini food market featuring independent street food retailers, all housed within a Spar Supermarket. Sounds like a bizarre addition to the list, doesn’t it? But once you set your sights on curry-stuffed calzone naan breads (from Naughty Naans) and the aroma of Peanut Curry with berry jasmine rice (from Yaay Yaay), you’ll realise why foodies are coming from far and wide to fill their boots.
No booking required. eat17.co.uk
8. Indian Ocean Theydon Bois
If you tell anyone from Essex that you’ll be anywhere within a three-mile radius of Theydon Bois, they’ll say ‘go for a curry!’ In fact, the village has two superb Indian restaurants, but the one everyone knows is Indian Ocean – which often featured in the TV show TOWIE. The unpretentious curry house is usually packed wall to wall with rowdy diners, all enjoying the fabulous food and lively atmosphere. The food is your usual British Indian fayre, but packed with tasty spice and good quality ingredients. The glass-fronted restaurant looks over Theydon’s historic village green.
Reservations required Friday and Saturday nights. indianoceantheydon.co.uk
9. Aburi in Colchester
Juicy sashimi, spicy sushi rolls and delicious, well, everything really. If you want authentic Japanese food, you won’t be disappointed with this busy little canteen. And, no, it’s not all raw fish… In fact, the name literally translates to Flame Seared and one of the delicious, cooked dishes on the menu is the grilled mackerel with sea salt (Sabo Sio) and the Domburi rice bowls are also great. The sashimi is fresh and refreshing and not insanely priced. We can’t get enough!
10. Aurum at Seven
Aurum, the glossy restaurant at the boutique hotel, Seven, is a sexy, seafront bistro. The fish dishes are the highlight and they are curiously creative. Seasonal and local dishes include Colchester oysters with pine and sorrel and scallops with pickled apple. It’s a cocktails and heels type of place – Southend, but make it high end. It’s a great date restaurant and there is also a Gin Bar with 30 varieties, so a good choice for a girl’s night out too.
Reservations recommended in Summer. aurumsouthend.co.uk
The best Essex restaurants to have dinner this year
11. The Sun Inn, Dedham
Mix a traditional British pub with an innovative Italian chef and the result is favoloso food by the open fire and a good chat with a stranger at the bar. The Sun Inn is in the picturesque Dedham Vale, or Constable Country for classic art-lovers. The kitchen does not shy away from bold choices, with seasonal options including wild game ragu and squid ink risotto mixed with white Maldon crab. However, the pub-style dining means dishes aren’t extortionately priced, but each bite is more than worth every penny anyway. You can also go for the very well-priced taster menu… if you can get in!
12. The Mistley Thorn
The Mistley Thorn is at the heart of the quaint, coastal village of Mistley, on the edge of the River Stour. Built in 1723 as a coaching inn, the kitchen is now under the watchful eye of American, Sherri Singleton, who has fully embraced the area’s seasonal, quality produce. The (ever-changing) menu is simple, but perfect. Start with Rock Oysters from nearby Mersea – with English sparkling wine, of course. Then, the pumpkin and scromoza arancini starter is a highlight, followed by wood-grilled fish with Tucson beans.
Booking is recommended. mistleythorn.co.uk
13. West Mersea Oyster Bar
We talk about the West Mersea Oyster Bar on our post about the best things to do in Essex, because scoffing freshly picked oysters with a pint of beer is the best way to have them. Colchester’s world-famous rock and native oysters were discovered by the Romans, who reportedly towed them in nets behind their boats all the way back to Italy. However, most of the bounty here isn’t eaten in Essex, because their popularity is off-the-chart. All the best places have them on the menu, including London’s Borough Market – which sells up to 10,000 every five days, – Harrods, Billingsgate Market, Chiltern Firehouse and restaurants around London and Europe.
There are two varieties of oyster in these waters, the Colchester Rock Oyster (available all year round & live naturally on the seabed) and the specialist (and more expensive) Colchester Native Oyster, which are harvested from September to May off Mersea Island. The West Mersea Oyster Bar is the place to go. A laid-back beach bar that also sells classic fish and chips that you can eat while sitting on the beach outside.
The best Essex restaurants for foodies
14. The Magic Mushroom in Billericay
This Billericay restaurant is housed in a converted barn as part of the Barleylands Complex. The food is excellent and the atmosphere relaxed. It has a spectacular menu and everything sounds so delicious, it’s hard to make a decision! Miso glazed duck breast with duck fat potato terrine, roasted sprouts, turnips and elderberry jus or Cider Braised pork belly with burnt apple, bacon jam and mash: what would you choose?
Booking required at weekends. magicmushroomrestaurant.co.uk
15. Thai up at the Quay
This Harwich restaurant opened in 2008 and it’s so popular that diners arrive from all over Essex to feast on the mouth-watering Thai dishes. The menu isn’t out of the ordinary, featuring all the Thai classics such as Pad Thai, Green Curry and crispy squid but there are few interesting, lesser known options too. The Phad Prik Geang is flaming hot – if you can handle it.
Reservations only required on Friday and Saturday. thaiupatthequay.com
16. The Blue Strawberry at Hatfield Peverel
This charming restaurant actually features as a ‘thing’ to do itself in our list of the best things to do in Essex. Famous for it’s silky and crumbly cheesecakes, it’s another Hatfield Peverel hotspot, right alongside the river.
The menu isn’t wild – but the quality of ingredients and small, simple twists on the classics make the food that extra special.
Reservations required. bluestrawberrybistro.co.uk
17. Le Talbooth
Arguably the most famous Essex restaurant on the list, so we couldn’t leave out the gorgeous Le Talbooth! This is a beautiful restaurant right alongside the River Stour. The outdoor terrace is beautiful, especially in the summer when you can watch people gaily floating down the river on row boats, paddleboards and kayaks.
The exquisite food is exceptional. Sesame yellow fin tuna with squid crisps and pickled radish, fillet of Dedham Vale beef and glazed short rib with bone marrow and rainbow chard will certainly hit the spot. This is one of the most beautiful locations on the list and *the* place to go for a special occasion.
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