Keith Nelson’s organic St Martin’s Tearooms, now in its 21st year, is housed in a handsome Georgian-fronted building in central Chichester, the interior dating back to medieval times.
I opened the door and strode into a long-gone era. Dickens’ readers would feel at home in the muddle of rooms on two floors with the hideaways, beams, stairs, nooks and crannies, fireplaces, antique chairs and tables. The lampshades were more evocative of an Agatha Christie world.
Wood smoke also defined the place. There was no music to offend the ear and papers abounded.
Waitresses dressed in long white aprons added to the olde worlde mix.
There was a small garden too with a timeworn feel thanks to bleached, elderly wooden tables and tumbling wisteria.
There were pictures of the food at the counter to help you along, the prices completely over the top: a small bowl of soup with no bread, maybe lentil and peppers, for £5.95, ditto for a vegetable pasty (oddly with fruit too); mushrooms and tomato on toast priced at £7.30, a mixed salad plate for £4.95.
Some fish was to be found there, a gravadlax open sandwich (£10.95!) or fishcake (£5.95). Cakes – lemon and almond, chocolate sponge, coffee and walnut – would set you back £4.70 to £5.10.
Bread with spread (no butter here but vitaquell made from oil seed) was an extra £1.65.
Coffees and teas also startled price-wise.
A latte, cappuccino and others, made with oat milk, were from £3.40. Teas, made with proper tea leaves, from £3.55. All organic, of course.
Vegan stock, vegetarian Worcester sauce and organic produce joined wholemeal bread.
All food was made on the premises. There was also no cream, full fat milk, butter, artificial flavours or preservatives.
You’ve got to admire Mr Nelson’s complete stance, but it seems rather joyless to me. It has to show off its credentials with remarkable, or passable, food to win friends and influence people.
The salad, served on a side plate (yes, the nearly £5 one), was well-meaning and worthy, but lacked any taste.
Two tiny slices of egg mayo, two spoonfuls of brown rice accentuated with peas, nuts, broccoli and spinach, a spoonful of very odd salsa, beetroot and carrot slivers were the sum of its dull parts.
Coffee and walnut cake was quite pleasant, with an ice cream of fruit tasting more like tinned pears charged at an extra £1.45 on top of £4.95 for the cake.
A pot of lapsang (£3.55) was pleasant. My bill came to £14.90. The waitress was silent when I queried the high prices.
While admirable in its beliefs, the eating experience here didn’t equate to this steadfast approach.
Meanwhile its pricing was higher than Brighton’s Terre à Terre, the superb vegetarian restaurant which Mr Nelson oddly complains of after a visit on his website.
I think the claim of ‘no processed, industrial chain-shop factory foods without compromising flavour’ is wide of the mark.
Chichester’s residents and visitors should expect and deserve quality, not preaching.
And why was the place virtually empty despite its more appealing physical attributes?