GETTING THERE: Chester is 183 miles northwest of London, in the county of Cheshire. It is about a four-hour drive or a 2 1/2-hour train ride.
WHERE TO STAY: There are a number of hotels in and around the city, but the 98-room Chester Grosvenor is the best. Rates for a double range from $92 to $154, with breakfast. The Grosvenor is on Eastgate Street, Chester CH1 1Lt, England, phone 244-24-024. Information on other accommodations is available at the Chester Visitor Center.
WHERE TO EAT: The hotel's Grosvenor Restaurant menu is very French and has a fixed-price dinner at $22 per person and an a la carte selection that includes first course and dessert. Among the options are braised quail with mango sauce, followed by salmon flavored with garlic and pernod, for $36, and beef glazed with white cheese and herbs, for $35. All are quite delicious, served in a gracious ambiance.
Two other eateries are worth noting. Porter's on Watergate Street is run by David Newman, a portly eccentric who wears bow ties and specializes in Old English recipes. On the same street is Pipper's, which has a classic French menu and piano music most nights.
Chester has 58 pubs, with the Falcon on Lower Bridge street of particular interest. It was built in the 17th century on the base of a 13th-century crypt. Even if you're not thirsty, the timberwork is worth a look.
SIDE TRIPS: A number of pleasant excursions are available out of Chester to nearby villages. I found Malpas particularly enjoyable.
About 15 miles south of Chester, Malpas is one of Cheshire's oldest towns and situated in the heart of the rich dairy country. You'll find an old 14th-century church, St. Oswald's, with traceried Flemish windows and a paneled roof. In Old Hall Street there are old "magpie" cottages where on Boxing Day (Dec. 26) people gather to watch fox hunters move off. There's also a pub here called the Old Vaults Inn on Church Street, serving lunches and dinners, with bed-and-breakfast accommodations available. The 13th-century Red Lion Hotel, which was an important stop for coaches traveling on the London to Liverpool route, also serves lunch and dinner and offers bed-and-breakfast accommodations.
Two miles from Malpas is historic Overton Hall. It has been restored by its present owners and you can go through (by appointment only) and watch the famous Cheshire cheese being made -- the perfect sharpness and consistency for making that traditional favorite, Welsh rarebit.