There are many things to be spied at Chester Zoo. Some are majestic – a lioness roaring, or a male orangutan lumbering around his enclosure – and others are merely predictable. Into the latter camp goes the sight of hundreds of families huddled around picnic benches, distributing plastic boxes full of ham sandwiches and innumerable packets of Pom-Bears.
There are at least two good reasons to self-cater here. One is that if you’ve already spent something in the region of £80 getting a family of four through the front gate, you’d be forgiven for not wanting to shell out much more on lunch. The other is that the food on offer has historically been woeful and expensive. This is not a problem unique to Chester Zoo.
Far too many major visitor attractions take advantage of their captive audiences to fleece hungry families with over-priced hotdogs and chips soused in vinegary ketchup. Which makes The Oakfield almost as rare a beast as the Asiatic lions outside its elegant door: a beautifully restored, upmarket pub serving quality food at not-extortionate prices. In the middle of a zoo.
Re-opened in its new guise last summer after a £3 million refurb, Oakfield House is a Grade II listed Victorian mansion that was originally owned by a wealthy tea merchant and was later the home of Chester Zoo’s founder, George Mottershead. The restoration has been lovingly done – all fireplaces, leather armchairs and wood panelling harking back to the building’s heyday – and it now feels like a haven of gentility amid the inflatable giraffes and monorail trains of the zoo’s expansive site.
We went for Sunday lunch. Our roast dinners of Cheshire beef (£14.95) and pork loin (£13.50) were generously portioned and tasty, served with ample duck fat roast potatoes and veg. Our young daughters wolfed down meaty kids’ cheeseburgers with plentiful chips (£6.50), before also making short work of ice cream and an impressively oozy chocolate brownie (£3 for a child’s portion). In the interests of this review, and not because I had any room left, we also ordered a sticky date pudding (£5.75), which was of the spongy and light rather than dense and cloying variety, while my glass of Malbec from a reasonably priced wine list cost less than £5 and was smooth and rich.
All of this was a vast improvement on the starters which were the weak link in an otherwise surprisingly good meal. Beetroot-cured salmon was cumulatively too salty along with its celeriac remoulade (£7.25) while components of a bread and olive platter (£4.45) were too stale and too cold respectively. Yet after this faltering start, we finished the meal happy, full and rested; ready to launch into another lap around Lemur Island. It is on that basis that The Oakfield merits four stars. While not perfect and certainly not cheap, this was a lunch as tasty as many I have had for a similar price, served in a building more remarkable than most and inside an attraction where the temptation to over-charge must be immense.
For one-time visitors to the zoo, which already has more to see than one can comfortably fit into a single day, there must be a question about whether you would want to take an hour or more out of your animal-spotting schedule for a full sit-down meal like this. But for repeat visitors like us, on special occasions at least, we might from now on leave the sandwiches at home.