This weekend I wanted to write a review of a local pub restaurant so we booked a table at a lovely little freehouse Gastro Pub in a nearby village. We set off, looking forward to an evening of delicious seasonal food, vintage board games and shabby chic furniture. We weren’t disappointed on arrival – there was a shelf full of board games (not really vintage but hey ho), fresh flowers in rustic jugs, cotton napkins and copper candle sconces on all the tables.
We commented on the charming way the window was propped open with a vintage copy of Nicholas Nickleby. Sipping on large glasses of Aperol, and snapping interesting angles that I planned to add to my idyllic pub blog review, we perused the menu and enquired as to the dish of the day. I wasn’t entirely impressed with the two vegetarian options of veggie burger or risotto but I remained positive and went for the latter. Matt went for seabass with chorizo which sounded nice enough. My daughter Coco opted for the fishcake. All good and the game of Nab-It got underway as we settled in for a quintessential evening in the pub.
However… when the food arrived it was not as expected. Nothing wrong with it at all. it was just… nothing special. The risotto was tasty enough, but lacking texture. As is often the case with risotto it was bland after a few mouthfuls. It could have done with a small well dressed salad to break up and enhance the flavours. The fishcake was clearly done in a deep fat frier and too crispy. The seabass was ok but on the overcooked side.
The candles in their lovely sconces didn’t get lit (until there was a powercut and we borrowed a lighter from a fellow diner) and there wasn’t much of an atmosphere. The staff were sweet and friendly – average age 17, they tried hard, but they had no idea what an Aperol was and had to check on the specials when we asked.
We decided not to have desserts and asked for the bill which came to £70 not including service. Hmmmm…. since when did a decidedly average gastro pub meal end up being £70… ok we had a couple of Aperols but really – £70??
This pub isn’t alone. We live in Hertfordshire, 45 minutes North of London and are surrounded by cute little villages. They all have sweet little pubs working to a similar formula – shabby chic interiors and an interesting menu but poor food and service. There are a couple of anomalies that serve really great food – they tend to be the ones that don’t try too hard and stick to what a good pub should be – fish & chips, pies, beers and a decent Pinot Grigio. Unfortunately it all goes wrong when they aspire to Gastro status and start to introduce sweet potato fries and Chablis. We’ve visited every single one of our local pubs and I would say that 3 out of 15 deliver on what they promise. If a pub wants to be Gastro, they have to commit to it. If they can’t, it’s much better to be true to what they are good at and simply be a brilliant pub. It annoys me that there are so many inbetween pubs that end up being bland and expensive. What has happened to the Great British Pub?
I did a bit of googling about British Pubs and the restaurant market. According to The Telegraph, on average 20 pubs close in the UK every week. The article puts this down to Beer Tax being too high, but I suspect that some are closing due to customers losing patience and going elsewhere, after all we have more options than ever before – with the rise of high street chain restaurants, there are cheaper, more reliable (although often more formulaic) alternatives, most of which offer voucher schemes and incentives to win clientele. I’m always up for a good curry, chinese or pizza (see previous post) but a local pub is generally my preference, especially on a Friday night.
In my opinion there are clear differences between Pubs, Gastropubs and Restaurants:
- A pub serves a simple menu with decently priced main courses (£10 maximum unless its a steak) and real ales. Ploughmans is an absolute must at lunch time. As is prawn cocktail.
- A gastro pub offers an expanded menu, upscale cooking techniques, better service and charges higher prices. Gastro Pub was a term coined in the 1990s which started with The Eagle in Farringdon (my old local when I worked nearby which obviously makes me an expert on the subject).
- A restaurant offers a more formal menu with great service.
So with that in mind, these are my requirements from Pubs and Gastro Pubs:
- A pub menu should be robust and focus on British fare. If you offer a gastro menu, make sure you employ confident staff who are trained in the menu (drinks as well as food).
- Don’t design your menu to look like it’s part of a high street franchise. Embrace individuality and the history of the village. Use local produce. Serve real ale.
- Think about the entire dining experience – if there are candles, light them and dim the main lights. Have background music.
- Include a few decent vegetarian options. Don’t be half hearted. And serve a proper Sunday roast with all the trimmings, not a vegetarian lasagne or goats cheese tart (yawn); Vegetarians like roast potatoes too (just not the goose fat).
- Cater for intolerances too – don’t make people with intolerances feel sidelined, make sure you have proper options with information on all the ingredients.
- Make sure you have plenty of board games, and if there is space, a pool table. A pub is a social place, not just for drinking. Have regular quizzes! BE part of the community. Sponsor the local fete.
- Have a real fire in the winter and a bbq in the summer.
- Make sure you are delivering a service that matches your prices – if you’re charging a lot, your customers expect good service.
- Allow dogs and provide drinking water for them.
- Look after Kids – offer a few interesting alternatives, some age appropriate board games and a play area in the garden.
It’s a shame as I took some lovely photos of the pub we visited and I really wanted to write a fantastic review. Sadly instead they’ll get a very honest review on TripAdvisor which I hope will get their attention and ensure future diners get better value for money.
For readers local to Hertford, my two recommendations are:
My favourite pub is a no frills establishment called The Horns in Datchworth. We often go for fish & chips and a pie on a Friday. Its friendly and packed with locals (and their dogs). They have a beer festival in the summer and put up tinsel at Christmas. They keep it simple and do it well. Gastro pubs could learn a lot from them.
My favourite Gastro pub is The Wellington (or Welly). It doesn’t take bookings, has a wide range of daily specials and a good regular menu. Wine is served in price brackets. Service is fantastic, knowledgeble, efficient and friendly and there is always a roaring fire in the huge fireplace in winter (however having said all that, recent TripAdvisor reviews are not too favourable, please don’t say the Welly is deteriorating too….!).
I do hope that British pubs are not on the decline and that owners/ managers will be quick to realise what is it that diners want. TripAdvisor is one of my favourite sites as it allows us to give honest feedback – its this type of valuable insight that will enable Pubs/ Gastro Pubs and Resaurants to improve (as long as they read it!).
My quest for the perfect pub is far from over, but if someone has to be out there every friday, sampling wine and fish and chips, I’m happy to take on the task 😉