Derby aka Derbados. Oh the Glamour.
My day job entails a fair degree of travel, but don't be fooled into thinking it's glamorous. This isn't your backpackers' trip to discover the mystical, untouched corners of the globe; nor is it your weekend getaway, foodie heaven, boutique hotel kind of travel. No, this is your Monday to Thursday, away from home, anonymous business park vaguely near a regional city (Derby) kind of travel. Glam? I think not.
In fact, the distinct lack of routine and home comforts swiftly become tiresome and frustrating. Fitting life into a tiny box on wheels and surrendering to constantly eating out makes for a wonderful holiday, but takes its toll on the every day. While the physical result is fairly obvious on the waistline, for me the hardest hit manifests mentally with the absence of choice. Out on client site, I am no longer my own person free to decide how spend evenings - requesting friends and family pop over on a 5 hour train seems a tad unreasonable. Choosing what I do boils down to: Can I exercise and what am I eating?
This is not a pity party. I'm merely setting the scene. Since food is of primary importance, let's face it you can exercise in your hotel room if you really want to, the question 'what and where are we eating?' is one I seek to answer with variety and quality no matter how far flung and uninspiring my weekday home. In essence, having a great choice for dinner keeps me sane and luckily my team indulge restaurant research, culminating in spreadsheets detailing distance from hotel / office / gym, type of cuisine, notes from recommendations and so on. I intentionally become responsible for answering the aforementioned question, gaining the control I crave as well as foodie joy and I perhaps take it too seriously.
With a reasonable budget for overnight stay and evening meals, plus the luxury (?) of returning back to the same spot for weeks if not months on end, we can afford to experiment with local restaurants I wouldn't normally chance. So get ready for some recommendations in a less than familiar location, but trust me, you'll thank me if you ever end up in Derby.
The Wonky Table
Creatures of habit, we returned to The Wonky Table most weeks. Craving friendly service, deliciously simple food, in a relaxed environment this was the team's Monday restaurant of choice to 'start the week right'. When you work away from home the criteria for the majority of meals becomes a semblance of being healthy to avoid putting on the pounds and also that it lands on the right side of 'homely'. Arriving directly from the office on a travel day, we rarely had fewer than eight bags to cram among the quirky, slightly chaotic living room-esque decor and were always greeted warmly even if we were, I suspect, a bit of a nuisance.
With locally sourced produce and a frequently changing menu this family-owned restaurant serves up platefuls that leaving you full, happy and slightly smug that your meal included quite so much veg. The portions are generous, make sure you share the sides and if you love dessert as much as I do, forgo a starter for dessert. Definitely homemade and usually accompanied by local award winning ice cream, when I didn't order my own I always stole a bite from another's plate. And with their pink lemonade mocktail having just the right balance of sweet / sharp tang, you can give alcohol a miss for at least one school night.
Who would have guessed Derby would serve up some of the best sushi I've sampled? Rumour has it that with Toyota having a home nearby, a Nobu chef was tasked with creating an authentic Japanese restaurant for visiting businessmen and so Ebi Sushi was borne. Unassuming to the extreme, you could be forgiven for thinking you had made a mistake arriving just off the main ring-road. Make it through the door to the sparse, somewhat tired interior and you would almost certainly turn on your heel if it weren't for the efficient waiting staff ushering you in. If you do make it this far, you will discover you are in the good company of mostly Japanese diners.
Choose anything and everything from the menu, the fish is obscenely fresh, the rice served to perfection and the cooked dishes carry a deeply satisfying umami taste. You can't go wrong. We ordered a healthy mix of well-known and loved sushi and sashimi: Tuna, salmon, eel, yellowtail, roe. Each one so fantastic that even the raw fish skeptics had to admit they would happily order the same again, if it weren't for our desire to sample the slightly less common octopus, scallop and sea bream.All prepared by a single middle-aged Japanese man behind a simple glass counter, they had a subtle flair of presentation which left no room for error. As for the soft shell crab, blackened cod, teriyaki and yakitori, these were almost fought over. Finishing off the meal with an unexpected selection of wasabi, green tea and black sesame ice cream we left disappointed that we hadn't found the place sooner and were too full to try more.
Go as group, to create your own atmosphere and also to maximise on the number of dishes you can sample, but be sure to reserve in advance. Ebi Sushi is unsurprisingly popular with locals and visitors alike who keep it full on any given day or time.
A relatively recent addition to Sadler Gate, which incidentally offers up the majority of quality restaurants in Derby Centre, we almost broke Bodega Cantina's kitchen on opening night. Unable to choose sensibly from the array of South American small plates offered, we instead asked for one of everything and the same again after polishing off the lot. Order the homemade nachos the moment you are seated; these aren't your typical chips shoved into the oven with grated supermarket cheese. Baked flour tortillas, cut into crisp triangles and heaped with wholesome toppings, they arrive quickly, complement the cocktails and allow you to take your time rather than ordering in haste. The plantain salad was a surprising hit, ask them to go easy on the chili which is suitably punchy. If you have to choose only one between the tacos, quesadillas and burritos I recommend every taco filling but especially the chicken or pork.
Bodega Cantina also serves large plates if you don't feel like sharing, but if you haven't realised eating with me equates to forfeiting the right to your own meal.
Housed in an 200 year old Chapel and touted as Derby's best restaurant, Masa certainly makes for an experience. The renovation has preserved the dark wooden pews and mezzanine gallery of the former Chapel while injecting a British gastro-pub vibe with chintzy sofas, modern tableware and sleek glass panes. The cheerful juxtaposition works bizarrely well, you can expect to arrive and leave with impressed bemusement. Immensely proud of its accolades, having been awarded two AA rosettes for eight consecutive years, the menu expresses a bold statement from the chef that they do not intend to rest on their laurels. At the more pricey end of the spectrum and with rich food and a strong wine list, Masa is for special occasions.
If you are in the mood for celebrating then nab a spot at the monthly dining experience. A themed, seven course tasting menu, they showcase the kitchen's talent with childlike glee. Not taking themselves too seriously while fully delivering on taste, we indulged in a tribute to Roald Dahl as and the ever popular American night. Creative and fun, Masa's only downside is that after an aperitif in the spacious ground floor bar, the upstairs dining space feels surprisingly cramped being seated within the pews of the former chapel. This can make for a hot and sticky affair for a large group , so dress accordingly and order lots of water!
The Joiners Arms
A ten minute drive out of Derby in Quarndon, The Joiner's Arms is the cozy pub of dreams. With hearty food and a roaring fire you leave with your heart and belly warmed alike. Comprised of three distinct areas, this pub aims to be memorable: Snug wooden interior, sprawling garden areas and a twinkly garden room that brings the outside indoors, it is suitable for every mood and the fickle English weather.
The menu is perhaps too big, they have an entirely separate one for the wood fire pizzas, but that just provides the excuse to return for more. The pizza is excellent and you should try the 'big yakitori sticks' and the steak; both arrived cooked to perfection and tasted divine. For a delicious lighter option, get the chicken salad which comes with a warm soft poached egg. Yum.
If you can't get a table at The Joiners Arms, try their sister pubs The Bulls Head, Repton or The Swan at Walton all have the same menu and a delightfully intimate, chilled out vibe.
It would be rude to spend time in Derby without seeking out a curry. With 58 options on TripAdvisor it's easy to find a curry house, but harder to find agreement on a favourite or regular spot.
We intended to test drive one a week but in reality achieved five: Mount Everest (Nepalese menu), Anoki (fine dining), Shalimar Gold (impeccable service), The Spice Lounge (Bangladeshi and South Asian menu), and The Viceroy (vibrant, loud atmosphere). Listed in order of my personal preference, we tended to disagree as a team so to keep everyone happy rotated around the circuit.
Pre- / Post-Dinner Drinks
The Forge offers a sunny outdoor courtyard with an extensive beer selection that goes beyond their printed menu if you know to ask. Also on offer are their monstrous burgers and side orders which could stand as a main meal themselves. Try The Forge for the ultimate comfort food, in a relaxed bar environment.
Across the courtyard, but with the interior the hero of the show, The Blacksmith's Lounge is a trendy wine bar with great nibbles and even better cocktails. Sinking into the sofas before or after dinner, it would be easy to stay longer than you intended, especially on Thursday's open mic night. The restaurant above serves tasty food, however lacks the mellow and enjoyable atmosphere below. This is a place to start or end the night only.
All the rest
Other restaurants that deserve a mention include:
Smart, sleek and just the right touches of Spanish tiling, you are transported out of Derby. With portion sizing akin to small plates and inspiration taken from across the globe, this isn't your usual tapas. We over-ordered, standard practice, but couldn't stop ourselves from finishing the lot.
Don't be put off by the tacky decor, or the fact that you may be the only diners: The teppanyaki is super fun, if a staged routine, and the food is delicious and at a decent priced.
Tucked in the corner of the same courtyard as The Forge and The Blacksmith Lounge, The Palfrey (are you sensing the name trend?) stands out for its decor and drinks. Head there at the end of the night and the staff will happily keep pouring as long as you join in the friendly chat.
Now closed, this is still on the list for its beautiful enclosed courtyard. I don't know what has taken its place, but for the twinkly lights alone I would love someone to go and find out.