Sometimes, it pays to look at a place’s surroundings on Google Maps before a day out. We’d decided to take the five-year-old to Great Notley Country Park for the day: a 100-acre space that’s home to two Sky Ropes adventure courses, plus Essex’s longest play trail. The 1.2km trail of play equipment kept him well entertained…but also worked up an appetite.
The Skylark Cafe inside the park’s Discovery Centre didn’t seem the most appealing from a Google Maps trawl, so we skipped past it. On the same map, though, I’d spotted Cafe Plaza just south of the park…and a quick scroll through their Instagram cemented the decision to try the place for lunch.
Sister cafe to The Booking Hall Cafe in Rayne Station, you’ll find Cafe Plaza inside enterprise centre The Plaza. I won’t lie, heading over there at the weekend when the office spaces were closed felt a bit odd and we did wonder if we were in the right place. As soon as we approached the front entrance we did see signs of life in the cafe, but it would be handy if there was more signage out the front.
What we did notice in the car park was a blackboard advertising free parking in The Plaza’s car park when you spend £9.50 at Cafe Plaza. Given the high car park charges at Great Notley Country Park (£6.30 to park there all day, at the time of writing), I wondered if it would be possible to park there, eat and still spend the rest of the day in the country park. As they confirmed in a comment on Instagram, “once your registration details are in our system your car parking is free for the rest of the day” – a top hack for those looking to grab a meal or a coffee and cake and still enjoy all of the fun of the park without paying too much for parking.
At the weekends, the menu at Cafe Plaza has a very breakfasty feel, with everything from full cooked breakfasts to things on toast – plus chips, dirty hash browns (I won’t deny that I was tempted) and a huge range of hot and cold drinks – including milkshakes made with your choice of Joe Delucci’s ice cream flavours.
Behind the counter are sandwiches, paninis, and various savouries – as well as a huge selection of incredible tempting-looking cakes.
I’m not sure how much the Brie, bacon and cranberry sandwich from the chiller cabinet cost, but it was nice to see that it was served with a portion of salted crisps and a small side salad with a retro balsamic glaze. The fillings were plentiful and the Brie perfectly gooey, the bacon stripped of its fat to ensure a delicious eating experience.
My salmon bagel (£10) was equally generous. The bread was chewy and dense as you’d expect, but could have benefited from being buttered before serving. With a mound of fluffy scrambled eggs, piles of smoky fish and plenty of creme fraiche, it was so stacked that it nearly collapsed. If I’m really being picky I’d have preferred the lemon cut as a wedge rather than a round to make it easier to squeeze, but in all honesty, the lemon wasn’t really needed.
The child went for one of the milkshakes (£3.80), choosing cookies & cream ice cream as the base. Topped with a mountain of squirty cream it was sizeable and the ice cream flavour came through strongly – no skimping on ingredients here.
I’m already being told that I need to take him back to Great Notley Country Park – and with such an impressive play trail, I’m really not surprised. Whether it’s for coffee and cake or a full meal, I think we’ll definitely be heading back to Cafe Plaza beforehand – not only for the car parking benefits, but for the delicious food too.