A brilliant dinner, good night's sleep and fantastic walk is "all they do", say the modest owners of Lakeland Gilpin Lodge
The Cunliffes of Gilpin Lodge in Windermere call themselves hoteliers, not restaurateurs. From setting up their simple five-bedroom bed and breakfast nearly 20 years ago, they've grown it to its current form which is now a 20- bedroom country house hotel and luxury Lakeland retreat with a Michelin-star restaurant and a young chef – in Chris Meredith – just awarded a Relais and Chateaux Rising Chef Trophy. It's these awards and the interest in their stellar chef (of two and a half years) that has seen them preoccupied with their more recently won reputation as restaurateurs.
"After we got the Michelin star last year we sat down and asked ‘is this us?'" says Barney Cunliffe, son of John and Christine, and Gilpin Lodge's Managing Director for the last five years. Certainly, they'd made a concerted effort to drive the quality of the restaurant and had hired Chris Meredith, whose background is at local restaurants The Samling and Michael's Nook (under William Drabble) as well as Aubergine (again with Drabble) in London.
"My parents were surprised I didn't want to go for the young trendy market," says Barney. "But we already had good loyal repeat business and we didn't want to alienate them. We don't cook for the guides. We did ask ‘are we wrong?' since all the guides seem to like what I call ‘noddy food', mucked-about-with food, but we think things are going back to the classics.
Our clientele is well-travelled and successful – not bling. They've seen it all. They're not impressed by gloss and whizzy names for the sake of it."
It's doubtless for this reason that Meredith's menu gourmand is a soretro- it's-cool collection of classics: Lobster Thermidor, Fillet of Veal Milanese, Prune and Armagnac Soufflé.
The Cunliffe's take the business of dining at Gilpin Lodge extremely seriously, with an appeal to the region's many informed, sophisticated diners.
Barney's stuck to his own system with regard to service in the dining room as well. There are four dining rooms, each one run by one waiter, with no dedicated sommeliers. "Our feeling is: this is your room; you run it. It's not about job titles and hierarchy; we pay staff well for their ability to handle guests, their sensitivity and humour.
Managers can oversee anything else."
The approach is contrary, eccentric even. "Everyone's now doing service on tray? Right, let's do the opposite," says Barney. He's also recently introduced vibrating pagers for the kitchen to alert waiting staff when food is ready.
Waiters are also empowered to dictate the pace of service according to the customer's rhythm. "It puts extra burden on the kitchen if guests decide they want another drink, but it's wrong for the kitchen to determine when guests are seated."
It's also a hierarchy issue, which won't fly in a business run by a tight family unit like the Cunliffes. "You can't have chefs – senior management – making junior waiters panic. It shows in the dining room." Chris Meredith, according to Christine, was "a bit of a shouter" but has got used to the Cunliffe way. "We interviewed him as a family for about four hours," recalls Barney. "We all said ‘That's our man'. We've had chefs try to thrust a style of cooking on us, as if they know what's right – the assumption being ‘they're northern, they need educating', but Chris isn't afraid to listen."
As well as Barney, John and Christine Cunliffe, Gilpin Lodge also boasts a team of managers, all of whom have been there over 12 years. As a result, it feels like a family home – a jolly comfortable one with a 350 bin wine list, 20 rooms, 45 staff, and six private hot tubs overlooking the Lakes. Barney makes it all sound so simple: "People come up here for a fantastic walk, a brilliant dinner, a good night's sleep, and a good breakfast. That's it. That's all we do."
On the Menu? Seared Red Mullet with a Saffron Pickled Vegetable Salad; Roasted Breast of Squab Pigeon with Umbrian Lentils, Roasted Ceps, and Smoked Bacon; Pan-fried Turbot with a Casserole of Pork Loin and Cured Local Ham; Best End of Herdwick Lamb with Fondant Potato and Spring Vegetables; Redesigned Tiramisu; Chocolate Plate with Preserved Apricot Sorbet.
Size? 70 covers
Where? Gilpin Lodge Country House Hotel, Crook Road, Nr.Windermere, Cumbria LA23 015394 88818 gilpinlodge.co.uk