The Bull on Bell Street
This stylish pub works for cocktail drinkers, girl's lunches, family roasts and pretty much everything in between. Read my review, digest, and go!
The Bull on Bell Street in the heart of Henley is easy to overlook, on the thoroughfare of the high street, but ignore at your peril – this is one of the loveliest inns the the area. At 700 years old the building is one of Henley’s oldest, but a forward-looking revamp a few years back replaced the dark, tired snugs with well planned flexible spaces that allow The Bull on Bell St pull of the near impossible – work for pretty much all permutations of customers, from the mum with her pram in the day to sun-seeking after workers in the courtyard or big groups dining in the restaurant.
Shall we take a meander through the building? You have the cosy ‘drinking’ section at the front with the whopping great open fire where you’ll want to hunker down with a good book, a glass of red and your cashmere hoodie, to the right is the ’conservatory’ which is light and bright with its new wooden floor with turquoise patterned slates and ‘stay a while’ velvet banquette seating.
Then wind your way past the long bar (rammed on weekends), past the raised platform with the baby grand piano where live entertainment regularly pops up, and at the back you’ll find the two more formal rooms for dining.pub also has its own micro-brewery at the far end (above), brewing Brakspears’ cask ales in a stylishly buffed copper distillery behind a large display window as well as an outdoor terrace with its own bar and BBQ.
You’ll walk into this place and think ‘ooh, cool!’. The eclectically stylish, instagrammable interiors give Bull on Bell Street a cosmopolitan vibe and on sunny days the courtyard and its outdoor bar has that lovely summer energy. There are always people in this inn, but it’s a grown-up, elegant feeling here – service here is excellent – the staff are attentive, polite and friendly and that adds to a confident vibe.
With the various ‘zones’ and versatile space, it attracts all sorts – midweek lunch was busy with business lunches, friends catching up over coffee and mums with babies, midweek evenings are calm and casual with dinners and cocktails and it’s all change at the weekend when DJ’s (until 2am on a Saturday if you can stay awake!) and live bands bring in the buzz.
SCOFF & QUAFF
I went a few weeks back when the sun was beating down relentessly, so I sat outside in the courtyard, which is small and charming. It’s a really pretty space, with the seating in openair ‘booths’, and the taco-shack bar (closed on the day I was here midweek) at the far end.
The food here is largely classic fare – think English with a hint of the Mediterranean with fish and chips, burgers and Sunday roasts being the go-to dishes. The restaurant a la carte offers a smattering of more unusual dishes – braised rabbit pappardelle (£14.50), or Asian salad (£9.95) with mooli, shredded bok choi, carrots, red chilli, mixed pepper. There’s also a 100% vegan burger, which if not exactly fine dining, is a welcome addition to the menu.
As it was such a steamy day I went for a a Sante Fe chicken salad with sweetcorn, dried cranberries, mixed leaves, crisp tortilla, avocado, black beans, peanut & lime dressing. Apart from the fact that its huge size made it quite daunting to eat, it was a really unusual, delicious option – the sweet/sour cranberries and limes com complemented the creamy avocado and the ‘skinny chip’ crunchy tortilla was a texture treat.
Dessert was unnecessary given the colossus of the salad, but it’s hard to say no to a plate as pretty as this. So, um, I didn’t! Dessert options are very in the vein of the mains, classics and favourites in the main, including sticky toffee pudding, pavlova, cheese boards and the like.
If you’re thinking of coming with the kids, it’s worth knowing that they’re well catered for here – there’s a special children’s menu with all the usuals, as well as a design your own pizza option and smaller portions of adult dishes also available.
OUT & ABOUT
The Bull is bang in the centre of Henley so it’s ideal for tourists, shoppers (plenty of groovy independents – the gorgeous Fluidity fashion boutique is metres away), cinema goers with the Regal is round the corner, or riverside walkers and their dogs – pooch-lovers, your ‘children’ are allowed in the conservatory). The River & Rowing museum is great for kids, and is a 10 minute walk down the river, where you can also hire boats.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: Er, everyone. The Bull on Bell Street seems to have pulled off that tricky job of being all things to all people, reflected in its regular offerings – Pie and Pints for after-workers on Mondays; Bottomless Brunches on weekends; a Quiz on Sunday night, and two for one cocktail nights (rack em up!). From a practical POV, there’s ample parking in the Waitrose directly behind the inn – it’s a 30 second walk to your destination.
Not for: If you’re looking for top-notch food and intimate dining then it’s probably not the place for you. Equally, although it passes the child-friendly test with ease, parents shouldn’t expect play areas or space to run around – the courtyard is small and isn’t grassed.
The damage: Good value for Henley I’d say. Starters are around £7, mains, £14 and desserts £6. Children can have three courses for £7.95 and Sunday roast will cost you £17 for beef or £16 for pork – that’s a veritable bargain when you think about gastropub prices.
The Bull on Bell Street, 57-59 Bell Street, Henley-On-Thames, RG9 2BA. Tel: 01491 576554.Still hungry? Take a look at our other pub reviews!