OK, so the restaurant (that just happens to be in a pub) is not the catchiest of definitions but this is maybe the best way to describe that rarefied strata of seriously gastronomically ambitious ‘pubs’. Stephen Harris didn’t take on The Sportsman, in Seasalter, Kent, because he wanted to run a pub, he did it because it was a cheap way (still is) of opening his own 50-cover restaurant.
“I remember reading that it costs £1m to open a Michelin-star level restaurant and thinking: ‘Shit, I’m never going to be able to open my own place’,”
he says. “The pub option comes along and suddenly I can get a business up and running and cook the food that I want, all for 20 grand."
Harris deliberately chose a remote pub where there were no regulars to upset and quickly abandoned plans to provide a menu for walkers and such. There was no money in it. If there is space in the conservatory you are welcome to drop in for a drink but, otherwise, all the tables are laid and clearly reserved for diners. “It wasn’t always the case, but we’re full now,” says Harris. “People get pissed off but my attitude is: we’re in the middle of nowhere and, therefore, we’ve got the right to do what we like. Just because it’s sunny and you walk in, it doesn’t mean our business is going to stop. Conveying that politely can be difficult.”
Harris has done little to alter the building. It may operate as a restaurant but it still looks and feels like a pub. Beer is served on tap, there is a bar, the tables are left bare and, despite its Michelin star, there is no sommelier. As a tenant, there is little incentive for either him or his landlord, Shepherd Neame, to spend money modernising the building.
That slight contradictory state has created a virtuous circle for Harris. Because he has taken a pub, people generally don’t expect the same level of service and comfort they would get in a restaurant which, in turn, enables Harris to keep prices competitive and tables full. “It’s a bit like being a boxer,” he says. “You’ve got to be quick on your feet. When it suits us to be a pub, we’re a pub. When it suits us to be a restaurant, we’re a restaurant.”
The downside? There is a ceiling – starters £10, mains £20, desserts £7 – as to what you can charge for even extraordinary food (such as Thornback Ray, Brown Butter and Cockles) in a pub. And, occasionally, customers won’t be impressed. “We do get the old bourgeois crowd coming in dressed up to the nines, wading through a flooded car park into a not particularly attractive pub, and they’re appalled. It makes us laugh. It makes you feel like you’re still doing something slightly subversive.”
In Wales, at The Hardwick in Abergavenny, Gwent, Stephen Terry’s situation is slightly different. “Technically, it’s a pub – we have draught beer and an old pub sign outside – but The Hardwick is really a restaurant-with-rooms.” Last year, a £1m refit saw the premises given a new gloss, kitchen, function room and eight bedrooms.
It has just three regular drinkers so its bar is, fundamentally, a holding area for the restaurant. There are no bar snacks. “We stopped doing grilled
sandwiches. It was a waste having the kit.”
The £26.50 set lunch menu features ‘pubbier’ dishes (fish and chips, a pie, a salad), and services a multitude of customers, from people popping in after work to those celebrating an anniversary.
How to spot one
Tell-tale signs include a strong wine list, sommelier, tasting menu and a Michelin star. It’s unlikely to be a place people will stop just for a drink.
- The Hardwick (Abergavenny, Gwent),
- The Sportsman (Seasalter, Kent)
- The Hand & Flowers (Marlow, Bucks)
- The Opera Tavern (West End, London)
- The Harrow at Little Bedwyn (Little Bedwyn, Wilts)
- The Yorke Arms (Harrogate, N Yorks)
- The Curlew (Bodiam, E Sussex)
For all articles in our Redefining the gastropub series click here