WHENEVER people ask me where to eat in North Derbyshire I reel off a list of places and always put in a good word for the Devonshires.
There’s their two pubs, the Devonshire Arms at Pilsley and Beeley and don’t forget, I add, the Carriage House at Chatsworth.
It must be Britain’s swankiest cafeteria and gets high marks from me for quality, consistency and price. Anyone who can serve up good food under pressure to large numbers of people gets my vote.
But now I’m not so sure.
It’s four years since we had a cracking Sunday lunch in the Carriage House – excellent roast beef and such a superb egg custard I immediately formed the Custard Tart Appreciation Society (membership one). It has not been equalled since.
As we walk into the courtyard we are met by a sea of purple, plastic chairs set out for grazers from the Chatsworth Snack Cabin, a shed in one corner (how naff is that?), and the overspill on this sunny day from the cafeteria itself.
I recognise that purple. It’s a perfect match for the colour used by an Indian restaurant on Sheffield’s Ecclesall Road. The Duchess has an enthusiasm for bright Mediterranean colours I find I do not share.
The queue for meals in the cool corridors leading to the Carriage House moves swiftly and we order the roast beef, a stilton and squash quiche, lemon posset and, gosh, there are no custard tarts.
I hover between the elephant’s foot meringue, quadruple chocolate cake and cheesecake and settle on the banana and butterscotch cake.
Not everything has gone smoothly. The bowls containing horseradish and salad dressing are empty and my wife tries in vain to persuade a member of staff the latter needs refilling.
Eventually another assistant twigs and refills it from a large container. Put it this way, you wouldn’t want to ask them the recipe for the dressing.
There’s another shock in the Carriage House itself, the 18th century stable block designed by James Paine. The Duchess has taken down all the Old Master-styled paintings of well fed aristos, including the chap in breeches so tight his tailor didn’t have to ask which side he dressed.
In its place are a series of wishy- washy paintings in pastel colours which, she claims, ‘make this large stone room as welcoming and comfortable as possible’. But it certainly doesn’t feel as grand.
In my view the room has lost its sense of style and the smaller pictures only show how the fuchsia wall clashes with the, yes you’ve guessed it, purple monogrammed carpet.
The beef (£9.25), three thick slices, is undeniably tasty but it is also undeniably tepid. We noticed several people reheating their meals in the microwave provided for baby food.
My meal has all the trimmings – roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and cabbage with green beans and the occasional pea – but is no better than what you’d get in a pub.
The Stilton and squash quiche (£8.50) is classier, with excellent crisp pastry and a good filling, but a little on the stingy side, as if someone tried to cut two extra slices from the tart. It came with coleslaw and salad.
The lemon posset (£3.75) was good, rich and firm, and while I enjoyed my cake (£3) it didn’t exactly have the wow factor.
You leave the restaurant through the shop and there are signs the family is selling itself even harder than usual. You can’t blame them, it’s an expensive house to keep up and if someone has to pay for it, it might as well be us. But it’s the way they do it.
There’s actually a table labelled the Duke’s Choice which recommends some of Stoker’s favourite items: scented candles and stuffed Scottie door stops if you must know.
And should you have been particularly struck by those purple plastic garden chairs, you can take them home with you for £150 apiece.
Much of Chatsworth is swathed in tarpaulin at the moment to protect the 320 tonnes of scaffolding erected to repair the walls. Chatsworth is never slow to miss a trick and you can climb the 68 steps to inspect the work in progress.
The only surprise is that the tarpaulin is white, not purple.
With soft drinks we paid £29.50. Compared to what we’ve enjoyed on previous occasions this was decidedly average for an organisation which usually does so much better.
CARRIAGE HOUSE, CHATSWORTH
Chatsworth House, Bakewell, DE45 1PP
Open daily until December 23 – 10.15am to 5pm. Licensed. Credit Cards. Disabled access and toilets. Car park £2.
Sunday Lunch Rating (out of five): ***