Bramleys would not call itself a gourmet restaurant, nor is it. Most of the food is broadly home cooking, or the sort of pub classics that you now pay at least £8 for in pubs, but can be found here for much less.
If ever proof were needed for the adage that Granny knows best, then Bramleys supplies it. Truth be told, we quailed when first stepping inside the restaurant, to be met with an ocean of perms and balding heads. The more judgemental might have assumed that over-cooked vegetables, smelly cabbage and pensioners' special offers would be on the menu, but 20 miles of cycling and the same again to get home confers a wonderfully open-minded outlook when selecting a luncheon venue.
And it turned out that the years had had taught the clientele a thing or two, for Bramleys supplies the best value, and in places, even the best, food I have had in quite some time.
There was a certain sense of another era as we were seated at the decorously clothed table, with a soundtrack featuring Is This The Way To Amarillo? One or two people came in who were probably not yet drawing their pensioners, but the two of us excepted, the youngest clientele fell into the category of late middle age.
We tucked into vegetable lasagne and roast lamb, both from the specials menu, of which the lamb was slightly more impressive - rich and tender, with minty gravy, roast potatoes, vegetables and extra mint sauce on the side. Contrary to any unfounded assumptions that might have been made about the vegetables, the carrots, mange tout and broccoli were still bright green (apart from the carrots, obviously) and had a bite to them that suggested a brief and beneficial acquaintance with boiling water rather than prolonged torture. The lasagne seemed home made, with a nice mix of Mediterranean vegetables. The accompanying chips were a touch thinner than my personal preference for seriously chunky chips, but were still A Good Thing, while the salad was dressed with balsamic vinegar, shattering another of my preconceptions about the taste preferences of the pre-war generation. Pots of tea were a reasonable £1.25 (you can get a cup for less) and came with an extra jug of hot water and two tea bags in the pot - a practice few places seem to follow, though if you are going to charge more for a pot than a cup it seems only fair to supply extra tea rather than just extra hot water.
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It was all immensely pleasing, so much so that a couple of weeks later we donned cycle helmets again and returned to Aylsham - often a dangerous practice, seeing as high expectations rarely produce a good meal. But Bramleys did us proud.
Opting for the normal menu this time, we went for ham egg and chips and a Mediterranean vegetable and goats' cheese tartlet. In case anyone foolish and prejudiced should think that cafés frequented by old people only serve the likes of roasts and suet puddings, the tart was as up-to-the-minute as anything in All Bar One or Slug and Lettuce. It was a shortcrust pastry case filled with sweet roasted vegetables and oozing, melted cheese. It came with balsamic-dressed salad and was none the worse for a surprise of peas and new potatoes not mentioned on the menu. Ham, egg and chips is one of those deceptively simple dishes that only works if each component is perfect. Here Norfolk ham was thick and hand cut in thick pink slices, eggs were done just right, a gloriously runny yolk set white and none of the crispy edges that, if you ask me, are about as appetising as toenail clippings. Chips were cooked just right, and it was after much heart-searching that the other half announced that he, too, preferred his chips thicker, but that really was the only criticism he could think of. He said it was the best ham and chips he had had in a long time, indeed could ever remember having.
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Before this we had already shared a broccoli and stilton soup, in which the stilton came crumbled into it at the last minute, a technique which I rather liked though the other half thought it would have been better blended in. The only slight disappointment of our second visit was that pots of tea came with just one tea-bag. On the other hand the food had got better if anything, and with a total bill of less than £15 there were no complaints from us.
Bramleys would not call itself a gourmet restaurant, nor is it. Most of the food is broadly home cooking, or the sort of pub classics that you now pay at least £8 for in pubs, but can be found in Bramleys for £5 or less. We never learnt what the puddings were like, nor indeed the sandwiches, jacket potatoes, wines and other delights also on offer at Bramleys. I expect we will return soon to find out. But we did learn that a room full of pensioners, heads down, and not even at a bingo hall, is a trend worth following.
t Bramleys, 16 Market Place, Aylsham; 01263 732103
t Do I need to book?
For Sunday lunch and Friday and Saturday evenings, yes. And always best if you are in a large group.
t Parking? You can park in the market place, except for when there is a market on Tuesdays, Fridays and the first Saturday morning each month.
t Is there disabled access? There is a ramp outside and help is available for disabled customers, but the toilets are not specifically adapted.
t Smoking? You can smoke in the coffee bar at the moment, not in the restaurant.
t Anything else? It has just been refurbished; there is a patio outside for the summer as well as a 30-cover coffee bar and restaurant seating 34.