Silver service or pub grub? We ask those behind some of the most successful gastropubs how they strike the balance
It's a familiar scenario. You knock back a couple of halves in the downstairs bar, ascend the rickety staircase to the dining room and you know it in an instant – it's one of those gastropubs. The linen's pristine, the silverware's sparkling, and the bill is correspondingly high.
The only mystery facing the guest is how the service will be.
Will it be penguin-suited French professionals or jeans and trainer-clad local students. Tom Kerridge, Chef/Patron of the Hand and Flowers in Marlow, thinks it's all about managing expectations. "Because we have a Michelin star, people envisage it being more than it is. But we're not charging the prices to be able to afford sommeliers and lobster and truffles every five minutes. We get CVs from staff who expect £35k a piece, but we can't pay that."
Kerridge has consciously maintained a friendly, casual pub feel so it's clear that silver service is not on the agenda. He's pleased to employ locals for waiting and bar roles rather than staff trained in the minutiae of the fine-dining world. "I don't care if some customers know more about wine than the staff so long as 99 per cent are having a really nice time," he says bluntly.
An encyclopaedic knowledge of Larousse isn't a prerequisite.
I just say, ‘don't blag it, don't lie.' I would rather they ask than make something up – which has been known."
Kerridge is happy to have students, local sixth-formers or jobbing actors on his books. "Some would turn up their nose, but our temporary and part-time staff are really important. The students come back every year; they're full of beans; they're proud of their job, and they've got something to talk about other than work."
"We get a lot of CVs from people with Michelin star experience, but if they're going down that road with their career, then we're possibly not the right place for them," he admits. "This job can involve 14-hour days, so you have to love it. Working in a place this busy is a good stepping stone."
At the Hat and Feathers in Clerkenwell – the spiritual home of the gastropub – General Manager Ryan Gatward has gone down the other route, only taking staff with solid restaurant experience.
They dress smartly in black and white and work in a dining room neatly set with flowers, cruets, napkins and linen. "We don't want to be wrongly categorised as a gastropub. Ours is a first floor restaurant." If you want a pint, you go downstairs. In other words, if you're more ‘gastro' than ‘pub', make it obvious so nobody's misled.
For Tom and Ed Martin, the brothers behind four wildly successful gastropubs, including the Gun in Docklands and the White Swan in Clerkenwell, service is paramount. Feedback and experience tells them as much, "People have high expectations of us because they're aware of our reputation and because our prices are higher than some other gastropubs," says Tom Martin.
"We're trying to offer the quality of food you'd find in a restaurant so we owe it to our customers to offer service at the same level," he says. "It's like a military operation, with a hierarchy from General Manager down to runners." This not only divvies up responsibility systematically so you don't end up with staff doing "either everything or nothing", but also offers staff a framework within which to progress in their career - "You won't retain them without it." They have a ‘massive training regime' involving a four-week induction when staff shadow the head waiter, take weekly product knowledge tests and do food and wine tasting.
"We want to stay at the top of the league so it's got to be fantastic every time. If you're in a room with tables laid and white linen, you should be pretty surprised if you get shoddy service.
Service often goes out of the window, so much so that it brings down the whole image of gastropubs."
It's a tricky balance, maintaining high standards while honouring the ‘pub' part of your name, but Tom Kerridge has the last word, "We're a pub. Just come and have a nice time."