How did a sleepy Shropshire town like Ludlow (population 10,000) come to have three Michelin-starred restaurants—the highest concentration in Britain outside of London?To be sure, the place has all the traditional charms of an English country village, including cobblestoned streets and a medieval walled center, with an intact castle dating to 1086. But it's the abundance of high-quality grocers distributing local produce and game that really explains why chefs seeking an alternative to big-city rents are settling in this hamlet, four hours northwest of London, just off the M5. And as England's culinary scene outgrows the confines of its capital, gourmands in search of a memorable meal in bucolic surroundings are following their lead, making Ludlow's annual food festival in September the biggest and most popular in the country.
Shaun Hill gained Ludlow its first Michelin star when he opened the Merchant House (Lower Corve St.; 44-1584/875-438; dinner for two $140) in 1994. Set in a Jacobean-era building, Hill's restaurant has just seven tables, a tiny kitchen, and zero pretense. The simple menu is based on the best seasonal food he can buy each day. His straightforward creations—sautéed monkfish, saddle of venison with foie gras—never fail to impress.
• Just below the castle ramparts, on the banks of the Teme River, Scotsman Chris Bradley and his wife, Judy, preside over the restaurant and inn Mr. Underhill's (Dinham Weir; 44-1584/874-431; dinner for two $140, doubles from $176), which opened in 1998. Chef Chris's deconstructed comfort food includes fillet of beef scented with orange zest, thyme, and sweet peppers and served with a smoked butter sauce.• The Hibiscus Restaurant (17 Corve St.; 44-1584/872-325; dinner for two $140), Ludlow's most recent Michelin honoree, is run by Frenchman Claude Bosi, who served under Alain Ducasse before falling for a British girl and setting up shop here. Order the roasted turbot with spiced quince purée, coffee, and cardamom sauce when it's on his ever-changing menu.
This month, those who can't secure a table at one of these venerable restaurants (they're often booked three months in advance) can sample some of the town's finest bites at the Ludlow Marches Food & Drink Festival (September 10-12; www.foodfestival.co.uk). The Sausage Trail is a cult favorite: for just $4, visitors can taste dozens of varieties created specially for the event by five butchers, and cast their votes for the People's Choice Awards. Recent winners have been Reg Martin & Sons Butchers (1 Market St.; 44-1584/872-008) and D. W. Wall & Son Butchers (14 High St.; 44-1584/872-060).