IT was once a brassic backwater where the local form of transport was by donkey and the main reason to come was to collect wood and esparto grass, used to weave baskets and even shoes.
Today, the road from the coast to Casares is a true foodies’ paradise, a road full of veritable dining secrets, where those-in-the-know come for a cheeky lunch or a gourmet weekend as often as they can.
‘Anyone in the know now talks about the Casares road as being the place to come and eat’
Take it from me. Having lived in Ronda (another dining hotspot) for seven years I recently relocated here with my family, in part thanks to its incredible places to eat.
As editor of the website Dining Secrets of Andalucia (www.diningsecretsofandalucia.com) I have often taken forays up this charming road into the beautiful Sierra de Bermeja.
Snuffling out its chestnuts and marvelling at its picture postcard scenery, the site now has five places warranting their inclusion on the website… and, quite frankly, there should be more.
“Anyone in the know now talks about the Casares road as being the place to come and eat,” explains Michael Forge, an English expat, who opened his restaurant The Forge with his wife Athene two decades ago.
An atmospheric place that typifies the local dining experience, he adds: “It sort of happened out of the blue and in summer you often need to book a week in advance if you want a table.”
Fellow chef at Arroyo Honda Christian Robson-Burrell believes that it is the healthy mix of styles and ‘bags of ideas’ that has helped to turn the road into a true ‘ruta gastronomica’.
“There are none of the usual boring ventas and each place has its own USP with everything from modern Spanish to traditional mother’s cooking and the Asian influence,” he estimates. “And above all, we all work hard.”
Local estate agent Oscar Ernstsen agrees.
“The healthy amount of competition only helps to improve things. And a good shopping street only attracts more and more people.
“In fact when Venta Garcia reopened a few years ago after a huge refit we thought, poor guy, he can never succeed with so many good restaurants around him… but the truth is he, like all the others, stays busy.”
The Dutch father-of-two adds: “Quite frankly, we don’t need to go to Marbella as we are spoilt for choice here. It is a real luxury for those who live here.”
In clearly a case of the more the merrier, the road now also counts the two fabulous restaurants El Jardin and Schilo at arguably the Costa del Sol’s most exclusive hotel Finca Cortesin.
This amazing place to stay, built with impeccable taste and design in mind, has held the Volvo World Match Play tournament and recent guests include Peter Andre and Guns ‘N Roses stars Axl Rose and Slash.
La Ruta Gastronomica
1. La Sal
Our tour begins at the very bottom of the MA-546, beside the little-known Playa de Sal beach, with its ancient watchtower and stunning vistas.
Here, you will find the fabulous chiringuito La Sal, which has been established for over 20 years and stays open far longer than many of its rivals (March to November).
Book a table and sunbed next door and spend a day luxuriating and lunching.
2. The Brasserie
Moving up the road inland your first port of call will be the fabulously fun and family-orientated restaurant The Brasserie.
Set just off the road, the terracotta-red restaurant is a true community centre, great for kids, and warm and popular with locals.
Owned by friendly Dutch woman Anita, who is truly the life and soul of the place, it feels elegant once inside.
Different to its rivals it opens early and takes last orders around 8.30pm, leaving guests to come and go at any time of the day.
It serves a straightforward menu, which is usually a soup and a main course, like beef stew or fish and the prices are extremely good value, as are the wines.
For those looking for a real treat – one of the true high-end, glamour spots of the Costa del Sol – then you need to take a turn off the main road through the big white gates of Finca Cortesin.
For inside this stunning five-star hotel, certainly the most sumptuous of the region, you will find two excellent restaurants right up there with the best.
Under the overall charge of German Lutz Bosing (above), both are elegance in the extreme.
El Jardin has a distinct Portuguese feel with a fantastic terrace for lunch and warm summer evenings.
Its menu is a tour of simplicity with some magical touches and a fabulous wine list to match, including gems such as Chateau Y’quem at €300 a pop and the slightly more affordable Moray St Denis 2005 at €96.
Schilo is more Asian-influenced and designed to feel like a night at the theatre with all the chefs taking centre stage in a production at one end. Neither disappoint.
4. Venta Garcia
Previously a spit and sawdust ‘truck stop’, it is little short of amazing the magic Juan Jesus has weaved on this strategic spot.
A kind of Ibizencan redoubt, where chic urban lines meet stunning country views, what really pleases is the quality of the food.
Broadly ‘modern Spanish’ the menu is large and enticing and, while, a bit less adventurous than some of his rivals, it has an emphasis on quality ingredients and good, solid cooking.
There is an excellent value menu del dia, but the a la carte menu has some chestnuts like leg of goat with prune and raison sauce, a beef wellington and an amazing sea bass.
Practically full at weekends, the place – that has been in Jesus’ family for three generations – is also frequently rammed at lunch and you have to be patient if you want a table.
But hey, sit outside with a glass of Manzanilla and wait your turn, for you certainly will not be disappointed.
5. Venta Victoria
Open since 1942, charming Venta Victoria is now in the third generation of the same Saborido Cozar family.
Once a stopping off place for ‘arrieros’ who used to transport goods, primarily wood and esparto grass, by donkey, it is now one of the most authentic places to eat in Andalucia.
Beautifully decorated inside it has a fabulous dining terrace, sheltered from the sun and wind and with excellent views towards the coast and mountains.
Different to its rivals, this is a true family affair with half a dozen brothers and sisters running the show.
It is open for breakfast and serves up a great range of dishes.
Expect to eat the most hearty of meals, both well sourced and extremely tasty and home cooked, including pate and amazing lamb chops.
There is always plenty of celebrated Andaluz fare such as bull’s cheeks and stew.
Chicken in cognac with bacon and goat stew come highly recommended.
6. The Forge
The grandfather of the modern restaurant scene in Casares is The Forge.
Opened two decades ago by Michael and Athene Forge, this 200-year-old farmhouse is elegant in the extreme and has a fabulous menu to match.
Thanks to the couple’s love of jazz and theatre, it is little surprise to discover numerous stars have dined here over the years including Cecil Parkinson, Terry Lawless and Kenny Ball.
Sit on the charming terrace or the candle-lit dining room and opt for exciting starters such as Devils on Horseback (melt-in-your-mouth chicken livers wrapped in bacon) or spicy minced lamb ‘empanadas’.
Mains include Cape Malay chicken curry and roast rack of lamb and a superb pudding is chestnut cheesecake.
7. Arroyo Hondo
Things really started to get exciting when clever Christian and his Japanese wife Noriko opened Arroyo Honda a decade ago.
A true Dining Secret, Christian and his sous chef David Jones honed their skills in London and the Far East.
“We bounce ideas off each other and spur each other on,” explains Christian, who changes his menu weekly and uses mostly seasonal produce.
With an emphasis on quality dishes, with a twist, the menu might include such delights as braised oxtail with Parmesan gnocci with white truffle oil and king prawn tempura with a Wakame salad and Ponzu dressing.
There is even a brandade of cod Scotch egg, with chorizo and roast pepper sauce and a braised feather blade of beef with truffle peas.
They also try and have plenty of game through the winter, including dishes like loin of venison wellington with jamon serrano and mushroom duxelle.
Hidden high in the hills with amazing views of both mountains and nature, Celima restaurant is a charming spot for lunch.
Part of Hotel Hermitage, the restaurant is half way along a nice marked trail into the mountains and counts a light, airy dining room and good attention to detail.