- guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 12 May 2009 15.54 BST
There's a running joke in the film Brief Encounter in which Myrtle, the station buffet manageress, consistently asserts that her sandwiches and rolls are fresh when all the evidence points to them being stale. The joke about British rail sandwiches curling up like dead men's toes ran on and on for decades.
Last week, following his much publicised tour of the British rail network, rail minister Lord Adonis put the boot in further, describing the services at many major stations as "downright poor", and announcing the appointment of two "stations champions" for England and Wales to put things right (the Scots will have to sort things out for themselves, it seems). Although, in their defence, facilities have improved greatly since the dire days of the curly sarnie, still too many buffets show a lamentable lack of invention, seeming content to deliver pricey snacks in premises modelled after high street fast food chains.
Not so in France, where even small provincial stations often sport a more than decent restau while, in Paris, the Gare de Lyon's Train Bleu is positively palatial. But then, of course, you'd expect that in a country of gourmands.
The good news is that, despite Lord Adonis's damning criticisms, there are decent places to eat and drink on British stations - and I don't just mean the preternaturally long champagne bar at St Pancras. As a travel journalist and author who has visited more stations in Britain than is probably good for my mental well being, I'm pleased to say that I have occasionally fetched up at establishments that have made waiting for a train a delight.
So, as a service to peckish travellers everywhere, here are a few suggestions as to where you can get real fare along with your rail fare, followed by some favourites supplied by railway insiders. If your own station café of choice hasn't made the list (and there must be some good ones in Wales, surely?), do feel free to alert the world to it and perhaps together we'll prove that not all the buffets have hit the buffers.
1. The Waterside Seafood Restaurant, Kyle of Lochalsh, Wester Ross
Run by the McCray family, who take full advantage of Kyle station's dramatic setting on the town's pier looking across the sea to Skye. All their seafood is caught in local waters - much of it by Neil McCray himself from his fishing boat - and is landed on the pier, so diners can eat fish so fresh its practically still alive.
• +44 (0)1599 534813
2. Whistlestop cafe, Woodbridge, Suffolk
So good that local people who have no intention of catching a train come here just to enjoy the top notch all-day brunches. Then there's the Bakewell tarts, brownies, scones, fruitcake and pies that are all homemade on the premises. And, in summer, there are sponge cakes, too. If you over-indulge on a grand scale you can always retire upstairs to one of the rooms in the Station Guesthouse.
• woodbridgestationguesthouse.co.uk +44 (0)1394 384831
3. Grindleford Station Cafe, nr Bakewell, Derbyshire
A buffet once dominated by the character of one Philip Eastwood - writer of a thousand pithy signs and notices - Grindleford Station Cafe is now run by his son. Watch out for the extremely large portions, the pints of tea, spring water from the very grounds of the cafe, and a no-nonsense menu (Latte? No. Milky coffee? Yes). And those signs: "If you want to be a fire guard, join the fire brigade." So, no hogging the fire, then...
And from the experts
• +44 (0)1206 391114
4. St Erth Buffet, Cornwall
Mark Smith, The Man in Seat 61
This is a tiny station where time appears to have stopped. You have to change for trains for the St Ives branch line here so I always end up popping into the small independently-run buffet for a cuppa. Things may soon go more upscale since a group of local steam enthusiasts is planning to locate a vintage dining car at the station where travellers may eat in style.
5. Station Buffet, Manningtree, Essex
Dan Milmo, Guardian transport correspondent
Manningtree's Station Buffet on platform two is the sort of place that makes missing trains a pleasure. Actually a pub rather than a buffet, you can sit on a stool with a pint of well-kept bitter and gaze out of the window as your train pulls out of the station. Then the next, and the next - and perhaps a few more after. Manningtree is a nice enough Essex town with a station on the London-Ipswich-Norwich line so it is somewhere you could usefully break a journey. My visit, returning to London after walking the 81 bucolic but thirsty miles from Epping to nearby Harwich on the Essex Way, was well warranted. The beer, of course, tasted better than ever.
6. Brief Encounter Cafe, Wymondham, Norfolk
Nikki Millns, community rail partnership officer, South Pennines
An award-winning cafe on an award-winning station - who could want for more? The Brief Encounter Cafe was the winner of the best retail outlet category at last year's Association of Community Rail Partnerships awards, while the station it sits on was voted Best Small Station in the 2006 National Rail Awards (and also doubled as Walmington-on-Sea in Dad's Army). The beautifully restored cafe is decked out with seats taken from venerable first-class railway carriages, has a trained chef at the helm, a menu packed with local produce, and serves cream teas in the afternoon and dinner in the evening.
• +44 (0)1953 606433, wymondham-station.com
7. The Refreshment Room, Carnforth, Lancashire
Jim Trotman, tourism manager, Lancaster City Council
This is the actual station that starred as Milford Junction in Brief Encounter. The Refreshment Room specialises in homemade soup, sandwiches and cakes (though, unlike Myrtle's, these ones really are fresh). The surroundings are 1940s but the service and refreshments are excellent, and if you just can't get enough Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, Brief Encounter is shown daily at the adjacent Carnforth Station Visitor Centre.
• +44 (0)1524 732432 , carnforthstation.co.uk
8. The Head of Steam, Huddersfield, Yorkshire
Neil Buxton, general manager, AcoRP
One of Huddersfield station's two pubs, The Head of Steam offers more micro-brewery real ales and Belgian beers than you can shake a stick at, but also serves a very wide and reasonably priced menu including exotics such swordfish steak and curried haddock salad. Huddersfield station is a Grade I-listed building and boasts just about the finest railway architecture in Britain.
• +44 (0)1484 454533, theheadofsteam.com
9. Station Master's Cafe, Barnstaple, Devon
Richard Burningham, Manager, Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership
Opened in late 2008, the cafe is based in the old station master's house which had lain derelict for more than two decades. It took owner Mike Day four years to raise the money, restore the building completely and open the cafe, which now serves everything from full breakfasts to sandwiches freshly made on site, via pies, pasties and sausage rolls. Furthermore, any shoppers taking the train to Barnstaple can exchange the outward portion of their Off Peak Day Return ticket for a free cup of fair trade tea or coffee.
10. The Railway Cafe, Worksop, Nottinghamshire
Robin Lumb, Friends of the Derwent Valley Line
The station is a real gem and I was delighted to find a one-man run cafe/tea-shop in the old station buildings. It was very clean, warm and welcoming, the menu was extensive and prepared to order. What was so appealing though was the large number of old photos thoughtfully displayed around the walls showing views of this lovely old station over the years, bringing home to us how important it had once been.
• +(44) 01909 470991
These station cafés also come highly recommended:
Bridlington, Carnforth, Corbridge, Crediton, Delamere, Dewsbury, Dingwall, Great Malvern, Haverfordwest, Hebden Bridge, Malton, Northwich, Spean Bridge, Sherborne, Skipton, Stalybridge, Westbury, Yeovil Junction and York.
• Dixe Wills is the author of The Z to Z of Great Britain and Places to Hide in England, Scotland and Wales (both Icon, £7.99)