Sonning! It sounds ancient and smart and indeed it is just that. It’s a chocolate-box pretty spot that is so quintessentially English and timeless. That same quality is found at The French Horn.
St Andrew’s Church, in the centre of the village, was founded in Saxon times – probably by Birinus, first bishop of Dorchester-on-Thames. The historic parish of Sonning, originally extending from Sonning Common to Sandhurst, was one of the great packages of land given to the Church in the 7th century.
The French Horn isn’t quite that old but was built in the 1880s and has all the character that one would hope. It’s a hotel and restaurant, although it considers itself a “restaurant with rooms”. It sits on the banks of the River Thames next to the Sonning Backwater Bridges at Sonning Eye, Oxfordshire.
See the grounds in all their glory
Close to The French Horn is The Mill at Sonning and the hotel has the original mill cottages as part of their property; in fact those cottages now constitute the majority of the guest accommodation. It’s a perfect terrace of small houses with lawns down to the river. Guests can enjoy a patio, sitting room, comfy bedroom and a bathroom the size of which makes it ideal for holding a tea dance. The cottages offer privacy, with even breakfast taken, if you wish, in the cottage rather than the main hotel building.
But it’s that main building that will draw you like a magnet. It’s charming from the roadside but step through the garden gate and you will see the grounds in all their glory. Summer offers bright flowerbeds with a tapestry of annuals. The sun lights the willow trees to a citrus-green hue. The river is the garden boundary and some diners take advantage of that thoroughfare to arrive by boat.
The hotel entrance is reminiscent of the country pubs that were once so common but are sadly now replaced by modernity and tat. The French Horn seems little changed since it was first constructed: dark wood and welcoming bar with a huge fireplace which is, in reality, an annex to the kitchen. The spits slowly rotate with their cargo of ducks which are a speciality here and always on the menu. The flickering glow of those burning logs would be irresistible on a cold winter night but if you stayed snuggled there you would miss a memorable meal in the room next door.
One of the area’s most successful restaurants
The dining room is grand and formal and an addition to the original hotel building; it was constructed by the present owners, the Emmanuel family, who have been sympathetic custodians for decades. The windows enjoy those aforementioned garden views which are floodlit at night. Yes, it’s every inch a classic restaurant, but it reverberates with conversation and conviviality. Who would, after all, want dinner in a hushed library? Folks who have enjoyed The French Horn include the film director and restaurant critic Michael Winner (who has used the location as a film set), and also the late Princess Diana.
The decor is classic and so is the food. Chef Josiane Diaga offers not only that roasted duck but a full and creditable menu of meats, fish and shellfish. The wine list is striking and the cellar is lovingly filled by Michael Emmanuel who has a discerning palate for wines that cover the whole spectrum and fit every pocket. They do also offer a set menu here which is great value for money, allowing many more visitors the chance to experience one of the area’s most successful restaurants.
It’s difficult to define exactly what constitutes a fine restaurant. It’s an amalgam of many qualities and The French Horn has just about all of them. It exudes old-fashioned rightness, service and polish and it’s no surprise it’s lasted 40 years. I trust the Emmanuels are grooming the next generation.
The French Horn Hotel
Phone: 0118 969 2204
Visit The French Horn here
Hotel and Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018