As a North Devon dweller, the main reason I head into the metropolis that is Exeter is generally to hit the shops. Unfortunately, like many city centres, when it comes to having a decent meal – or even a quick snack – you’re faced with a load of mediocre high street restaurant chains doling out bland burgers, soggy chips and flat Pepsi. Dig beneath the surface, though, and you’ll find some truly great hidden gems.
For the purposes of this guide, we’ve stuck fairly close to Exeter city centre, just because there’s so much going on. There are some amazing places further afield – in nearby Topsham, for example – but we reckon they deserve their own guide to do them proper justice. Here we’ve listed some of Crumbs’ fave Exeter establishments, but for more inspo we urge you to check out the recently-launched Exeter Food and Drink Trail (visitexeter.com), a self-guided food trail across the city.
Stumble off the train at Exeter Central and your first stop has to be the legendary Exploding Bakery. Known across Devon for its delicious homemade cakes, which they wholesale across the county and beyond, they also make a mean coffee using beans from local roasters Crankhouse, amongst others. If it’s too early for sweet stuff, the toastie is a belter. Made with sourdough bread, Quicke’s buttery Cheddar and house kimchi, it’s a firework of flavours –salty, sweet and sour, and spicy too.
On the High Street, steer clear of Costa and head to Artigiano – an espresso bar by day and wine bar by night. It’s got a funky, urban vibe, and is a great place to nip into for a juice, smoothie or espresso martini after a busy day’s shopping.
To immerse yourself in the heart of the city, head to Tea on the Green, a café overlooking Exeter’s historic Cathedral Green. They do a cracking breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea, but we like to head there mid-morning for poached eggs and a spot of people watching. Outside the city centre, head to The Daisy Café in Heavitree. Winner of Exeter Living magazine’s best café award, they do a stonking full English, best enjoyed in the hidden walled garden out back. Also, check out Magdalen Road’s Uprising, which does a great range of vegan and gluten-free cakes and great coffee. We love their toasted banana bread with espresso yoghurt, and date and ginger syrup.
Finally, we’re a little in love with the recently opened Sacred Grounds in McCoys Arcade. As well as being a very cool place to chill, everything on the menu is plant based. Enjoy a cappuccino, with oatmilk and Roastworks beans, and a plate of waffles.
If we’re in the city centre we often find ourselves falling into Pho because we’re obsessed with their prawn summer rolls with peanut sauce. Yup, there may be 27 of them scattered across the country, but Pho has nailed those authentic fresh Asian flavours and feels decidedly anti-chain. We also adore Red Panda on Gandy Street, which does mean south-east Asian street food, like pork belly bao buns with slaw, plus a heap of delish vegan options.
Meat eaters, meanwhile, can get their lunchtime fix at Magdalen Road’s Meat 59. Using locally-sourced ingredients and with great service, they do a bangin’ burger. Go for the Smoking Cow, a 6oz patty, smoked cheese, crispy onions, smokey mayo, gem lettuce and bourbon glaze. We also like a trip to South St Standard. This urban hangout near Exeter Cathedral has an edgy industrial interior, great beer and the Mac P.I.G – mac and cheese in a bun, topped with pulled pork and a fried egg – is the business.
A drink or two
Being a student city, Exeter is awash with great places to have a pint or a cocktail. For a traditional pub with an excellent atmosphere, we like The Old Firehouse, which hosts regular live music and does a mean pint of cider, and The Hourglass, which does great local beers from brewers like Exeter Brewery and Exe Valley. Post-shopping, we can’t resist nipping into the opulently-decorated Lloyd’s Lounge in the city centre. Unwind with a cocktail, like the Sicilian Brunchini – Salcombe Gin, Triple Sec, lemon juice and blood orange marmalade. Speaking of gin, if it’s your fave tipple you need to head to Crocketts – a classy gin emporium with over 100 types to choose from.
For cocktails, we dig The Oddfellows – a quirky gastropub that does great food and has a speakeasy-style cocktail lounge upstairs serving up modern twists on classic cocktails. Then, head to Doctor Ink’s Curiosities, a Victorian-inspired cocktail bar where their latest cocktail menu, Pride & Produce, is inspired by great poems. Try The Sphinx, a creamy concoction featuring Lyme Bay Lugger Rum, Aluna Coconut Rum and Otter Valley ice cream. If wine is your bag, then you must pay a visit to Rendezvous. Nestled in the basement of a listed building in Southernhay, it has a cosy, romantic ambience – perfect for a date. There’s an extensive wine list with wines from around the world, many available by the glass, and suggestions to tempt every palate.
Whether it’s an informal feed or something a bit posher, Exeter can satisfy most tastes and budgets. Top of our list is a city institution, Harry’s Restaurant. Recently refurbished, it’s a proper old-school restaurant run by the same family for over 20 years and great for a romantic date night or a family celebration. If you’re on the former, you can’t go wrong with the top-notch chateaubriand for two. Also grilling a mean steak is Circa1924 and, while you’re there, try the Porlock Bay oysters for a pure taste of decadence. Head there on a Friday, as they usually have some live jazz and blues music. If staying over, we can’t resist a wine and dine offer at Hotel du Vin, where the restaurant serves up all the French classics.
Or, we head to the boutique Southernhay House, where you can enjoy pub faves like fish pie and steak and chips by the fire in the Club Room. If you’re a veggie or a vegan then you must head to Herbies, a gem of a place that’s been an Exeter staple for almost 30 years. Go with pals and feast on the Herbies Larder Platter, piled high with falafel, roast veggies, feta and vine leaves. Vegans will also enjoy The Flat, an Italian that does a mean vegan cheese and gluten-free pizza.
If tapas is your thang, Calvo Loco on Magdalen Road offers an authentic taste of Andalusia. Go wild for their cured meats and cheeses. We’re also hearing encouraging things about Forn. Under new management, they serve up Mediterranean small plates and have a super lively atmosphere.
Feature image: Harry’s restaurant by Matt Austin