We came for lunch, between visiting family roots in Shiplake and going to a 60th birthday party in Marlow (more on that later), and were very glad we did. The wedding party's old Routemaster in the car park lent even more of a quintessential feel to the day (villages around Henley are particularly picturesque) and the low ceilings and tiled floors of the Bell's interior were a real comfort.
There's a few different areas to explore - the main bar, a bar dining area, private rooms and the main restaurant that gives onto a pretty patio and garden. We were given a 'booth' to ourselves (below) and felt right at home in the dining room, with its mismatched railway sleeper tables and grey-green painted chairs. We were given some warm homemade bread whilst we pored over the daily-changing menu and somehow managed to choose from the amazing dishes on offer.
We started with asparagus (deliciously raw and peppery), quail's egg and garlic mayonnaise, and a ballantine of Scottish salmon with dill and minted creme fraiche. Enticingly served on slates and pristine white crockery, we fell in love with the flavours. For mains, my mum had tender pork belly on a bed of lentils with cider jus whilst I had herb-crusted lamb with garlic mash. We shared a generous portion of seasonal greens and dove straight in. My lamb was served brilliantly pink and the garlic mash was perfect (and quite like a fondant potato) - the only chagrin was my poor decision to choose lamb when I'm not its biggest fan. The dish was delicious but I'm not quite converted. Mum's pork belly was divine. As a treat, we just had to share a dessert - a gorgeously smooth and rich creme brulee with the lightest homemade shortbread we've ever tasted.
The price for food is very good given the presentation and the quality. The staff were attentive and friendly, but not intrusive, and let us explore the inn. The meadow-like garden looked a perfect place for long lunches in the summer and we saw quite a few people snacking in the bar - there's no pressure wherever you choose to sit.
The rooms (there are 50 of them) look gorgeous, given the shots on the website. Affordable too with some very special offers that throw in champagne, chocolates and roll-top baths. The Olde Bell is perfect for a jaunt out of the city - a stone's throw from all the fun at Henley, or even just for a country escape - and somewhere I'd definitely come back to.
A firm four-and-a-half out of five (a half point deducted for my hasty choice of a main that didn't quite manage to convert me).