Proudly announcing to the passing motorist that it is the Good Pub Guide's Cheshire Dining Pub of 2003, the Fox & Barrel is justifiably proud of its well-earned reputation. When my ever-youthful wife surprised me by revealing that she had a birthday, a special meal was called for, and where better than a restaurant with so many recommendations? The attractive Web-site was helpful, displaying the latest menu, and I was able to book a table easily on the site, without needing to telephone.

First impressions are good, with an attractive, traditional looking pub with a conservatory style extension, set in leafy surroundings. The interior was welcoming, if a little smoky. I was struck by the buzz of conversation rather than any intrusive music. An oversized chair greets the visitor, followed smartly by a bar with no fewer than four hand pumps for cask ale. I am always encouraged to see an establishment of this kind paying attention to the quality aspects of the drinks as well as the food and the service. How many otherwise excellent dining venues just opt out when it comes to beer? Britain has the richest beer heritage in the world, and we should rejoice in it, not hide it away or replace it with industrial pseudo-lagers.

We were led to our table in the high-roofed and non-smoking restaurant beyond the bar. The walls were lined with book shelves; always a civilised touch. I was pleased to see that we had plenty of space, so that conversation did not have to be held in hushed tones, while gleaning any gossip from the next table!

My wife selected the Rump of Lamb. This looked highly inviting being served with an aubergine, basil, garlic and cherry tomato compote, and black olive pesto, along with boulangere potatoes. She is a hard woman to please, believe me, but pronounced it excellent.

My happy choice was the Breast of Chicken and this came wrapped in bacon, topped with Mozzarella cheese. With it came crushed new potatoes, a white wine cream sauce, and a dish of vegetables. Always a critical indicator of quality, the vegetables were cooked to perfection.

We had elected not to have starters, and although sorely tempted by the sweets menu, resisted. A Latte completed the festivities, while I drained the remainder of my very good pint of Jennings Cumberland Ale.

We left, agreeing that this was a success; a welcome addition to our list of venues. The staff had been friendly and attentive, the prices were not too high, the food and surroundings had been first class, and to top it all, the beer was real. What more could you ask for?

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