“ High St,Colchester, CO1. Tel: +44 1206 577 986 „
Colchester is certainly not short of places to eat; big names, small local cafes, restaurants, sandwich shops and bakeries. I love taking my 4 year old daughter out once a week for what we call a 'grown-up lunch' in some of the more interesting places, so she learns how to behave in restaurants. In the last couple of months we have been to a Chinese buffet, Debenhams, Café Rouge, M&S and Pizza Express; but the place we both love and have visited the most is The Lion's Den, part of the Lion's Walk shopping centre and just off the main high street.
The first thing I have to mention is its complete lack of presence on the internet, not even being listed on the Lion's Walk shopping centre website, let alone the touristy type websites. Combined with its location down a narrow passage off the main high street (where the big name food brands dominate) it is not a particularly well-known place and is generally only really busy around lunchtime. I found it completely by accident whilst exploring when we first moved here, but had I stuck to the main roads and not been determined to explore all of the little side passages I doubt I would have found it. For me this is a good thing and a bad thing; good because we have become used to walking in at 11.45am and taking our pick of tables and having the place to ourselves and bad for the management (are there any shops etc who don't want to have more customers?).
The Lion's Den is located off Colchester's high street, in a passageway next to The Red Lion Hotel (pictured above). The passage is relatively unprepossessing and I only went down because of the sign promising the best sausages in East Anglia (this shop is next to The Lions Den and I can recommend it too!). The building is obviously old and there is a preponderance of old dark oak, giving it a Tudor feel which fits in well with the wooden framed Red Lion Hotel which abuts it. It looks quaint and warm and extremely welcoming with its cheery signs and large pretty windows, the sort of place I love
The interior is small but wonderful. It manages to combine a cosy, old-fashioned Tudor feel with huge (but high) roof beams/dark wooden floorboards and a Continental café atmosphere. There is only space for 6 small round tables (seating 3) but there are three comfortable sofa areas which seat 4/5 and a small comfortable coffee bar behind which you can catch glimpses of the small but clean kitchen. By 12 pm most of the spaces are taken but arrive a bit earlier and you can take your pick of the seating and relax on a sofa whilst looking at the eclectic artwork on the walls. The café offers a takeaway service for coffee and sandwiches and whilst we were eating there was also a steady stream of people buying their coffees and lunches to take away, always the sign of a good local place.
The menu is limited but extremely good. If you arrive before 12pm you can get a cooked breakfast for £6.50 (Vegetarian is £6), otherwise there are baked potatoes, soup, sandwiches or a Ploughman's lunch. Homemade cake is on offer if you fancy a snack or as an ending to a more substantial meal. Prices are extremely reasonable; jacket potatoes are huge and cost £3.95 each (there is only a choice of 5 toppings though), sandwiches are between £2.65 and £3.85, Ploughman's are £5 (choice of ham, cheddar or mixed) and a slice of their extremely good cake is £1.70. Coffees from their expensive looking machine are between £1.75 and £2.30 (£1 takeaway), hot chocolate is £2 and there is a nice range of herbal teas which are loose leaf and come with their own little metal diffuser.
The sandwiches are their main selling point however and one of the main reasons we visit. The bread comes from a bakery two streets away and you can choose between granary and white. Each sandwich is made from two thick slices of bread liberally stuffed with filling. A salmon and cream cheese sandwich has a centimetre of salmon and a centimetre of cream cheese; a brie, cranberry and mixed leaf spilled out onto my plate and a sausage sandwich was almost beyond generous for the price. Add to this the fact that each sandwich comes with a handful of plain corn chips and a small salad and you have a very good deal. A recent visit left us with a bill of £9.20 (two sandwiches, a glass of milk and a hot chocolate) which was £3 cheaper than a recent meal in Debenhams (salad, children's meal deal box, fizzy drink). In addition we had extremely friendly table service in lovely surroundings, flexible ordering (milk is not on the menu but my four year old was adamant and the staff were happy to please) and delicious food freshly made. The cake is outstandingly good but out of our four visits we have only been able to fit it in once due to the size of the sandwiches!
Overall this is one of our favourite places to eat lunch in Colchester (its only open 8.30am to 4pm) and it is a nice place to take relatives when they visit. The only negatives for me were the position of the speakers (behind the sofa at head height), the music playing (local radio which seemed a bit incongruous in the setting) and the size of the small tables which make it difficult to fit three of the huge plates and drinks etc on comfortably. Small niggles and certainly not something that would stop us from returning regularly.