St Catherine’s Quarter in Frome looks like the set for an English rom-com. Winding cobbled streets lead towards the river, flanked by old stone buildings or pastel-painted antique shops – no chain stores in sight. There’s a working gas lamp dedicated to St Valentine, with a renovated George V postbox attached, and a love seat nearby, all clearly waiting for Richard Curtis to call “Action.”
At the top of the hill, on Catherine Street, the words “Grocery and Provision Stores” are scrolled in gold on the facade of what is now a restaurant. Step inside and all signs of English market town disappear: Bistro Lotte is a decidedly French affair. It’s Friday lunchtime and the boho clientele (I spy a man with a Dalí-esque moustache, while others have popped in after walking the dogs) are tucking into moules-frites and carafes of wine.
Owner Charlotte (Lotte) Evans greets me. She’s not from France but just liked the idea of running a laid-back bistro with good food and wine at its heart. The bistro opened last spring in what used to be acar-parts shop (following the close of the grocery), now reimagined with high ceilings, panelled walls and scrubbed wooden tables bearing rose-filled vases. The building dates from 1908 and the renovation revealed an array of original features, from stained-glass windows to ornate Minton tiles.
Above the restaurant, the Town House has six guestrooms (over two floors) – and I head up to drop my bag before joining the diners. The wild garlic and watercress in today’s soup (£4.75) was foraged by barman George, and it tastes just-made fresh and zingy. Besides staples such as croque monsieur (£6.95) and steak-frites (£12.95), the short lunch menu also has a focus on galettes (buckwheat crepes): the Chèvre Provençal (£7.25) comes packed with tasty vegetables and creamy goat’s cheese.
The whole place is a labour of love for Lotte, who moved to Frome from Surrey 10 years ago. She used to work as cabin crew for an airline, so hospitality has always been her thing. She’d run cafes before taking on the new venture, too. It has been such a success that Bistro Lotte is adding a wine bar a few doors down the street. It will open in September, though four family suites above it will be ready earlier (in mid-June).
Frome has had a renaissance over recent years, with a flurry of independent shops, cafes and restaurants opening. My post-lunch stroll takes much longer than planned as I’m drawn into shops including The Dandy Lion vintage and Life of Riley plus galleries, boutiques and homeware stores such as Kobi & Teal. Time a visit to coincide with the monthly Frome Independent market, which showcases crafty folk from local designers to artisan bakers, and there’s even more temptation. I poke my head around the door of Stony Street House – a wine shop, bar and restaurant – and wander down medieval Cheap Street, where a little stream runs along the middle of the road.
It’s evening when I get back to Bistro Lotte and the atmosphere has changed to candlelit cocoon. I can imagine whiling away hours at the bar. Lotte takes her drinks selection seriously and there’s a choice of wines from small European vineyards, sourced by local business Moor Wine. Many are organic and most are bag-in-a-box – displayed in rustic wooden crates – and served in carafes to avoid glass waste (though there are bottle options, too). I regret planning to visit a friend that evening as I see diners tucking into generous plates of petatou (a provençal potato and cheese cake, £13.50) and boeuf bourguignon (£14.50). All the meat on the menu comes from J Cayford – the butcher next door.
Returning for the night, I enjoy the same unfussy quality in my room. It’s a big space, with calming grey walls, botanical prints, and a desk with kettle, tea, coffee and fresh milk. It’s peaceful – despite facing the road – and the bed is huge, with a stylish wool throw and velvet cushions. The bathroom’s the kind you wish you had at home – slick and gleaming white with a powerful shower (natural toiletries come from Wiltshire firm Bramley).
The sun is shining when I wake and I contemplate the day over coffee and a breakfast platter (choose from fruit, granola and yogurt, or cheese and charcuterie – all with fresh bread and croissants). Bath is the next stop on my itinerary but I want countryside action first and walk up Cley Hill for views over west Wiltshire and Somerset. The list of places to visit nearby is long – from Longleat safari park to the Hauser & Wirth gallery. There’s not time today – but every reason to come back.
• Accommodation was provided by Bistro Lotte (doubles from £95 B&B), 23 Catherine Street, Frome
Ask a local
Tabitha Clayson, director, the Frome Independent market, which takes place on the first Sunday of the month
Head into the countryside on a walk through Vallis Vale to picturesque Mells village, where you’ll find The Walled Garden nursery, with wood-fired pizzas in its cafe at weekends, and The Talbot Inn.
Try galleries such as the Whittox Gallery and the WHY Gallery. Rook Lane Chapel will host a major heritage project, Casting the World: The Story of JW Singer & Sons, Frome from 29 June-28 July. It celebrates the life of the foundry owner, and the sculptures, statues and civic works – such as Justice that sits on top of the Old Bailey – that were cast in Frome during the Victorian era.
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