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Two pints of lager and a Michelin star: why gastropubs are roaring back | Food

It seemed a peculiar decision when, five years ago, Dan Smith told friends and colleagues that he was leaving London to run a pub in a small town in Kent. Smith was a sous chef at the Clove Club, which had recently been placed 26th on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, and he’d won an OFM Award for Young Chef of the Year in 2016. He and his partner Natasha, a pastry chef, were both 25, and while they liked going to pubs with their dog, they didn’t know the first thing about running one. “People thought we were mad,” says Smith, shaking his head. “It was a huge risk to take.”

A few locals in Fordwich were also less than convinced, at least back in 2017. There’s been a pub on the site for more than a thousand years and the previous landlords of the Fordwich Arms had been there for 25 years. Word went round that the Smiths planned to rip out the bar. “They call us DFLs: down from Londons,” says Smith. “People were like: ‘Who are these DFLs coming down to ruin our pub?’ It was quite brutal. We got emails the first week saying: ‘We hope you fail.’ People get very passionate about their local pub.”

Under the Smiths, the Fordwich Arms serves some of the most refined and inspired food in Britain: everything from grilled native lobster to their take on a Jaffa cake. But, even though it has held a Michelin star since its first year, do not call it a restaurant: it remains very much a pub. The Smiths didn’t, in fact, knock down the bar and even listened to locals who always drink Newcastle Brown Ale. “You won’t see it in the fridge of any other restaurant or pub locally,” says Smith.

In April last year, the Smiths opened a second pub, the Bridge Arms, in a nearby village. It was supposed to be less formal than Fordwich, but it too, now has a Michelin star. Still, it also has a large garden and a bat and trap team – an old Kentish pub game – that plays on Wednesday nights. And, Smith notes, it serves the cheapest beer in Bridge. “It’s important to Tash and me that it stays a pub, and it will always be a pub,” he says. “At Fordwich, you can come for a tasting menu, or you can sit with your dog and have a pint at the bar. Now that does get mixed reviews: we’ve had a few people moan that they’re having lunch and there’s a construction worker sat at the bar having a beer.”

The idea that you can find excellent, ambitious restaurant-quality cooking in pubs is not new: it’s been around since at least the Eagle in London ushered in the vexed term “gastropub” in the 1990s; there’s Stephen Harris’s award-winning Sportsman in Kent, while Tom Kerridge needs no introduction. But, when it is estimated that six pubs are closing every day, the idea is enjoying an unexpected renaissance. There were 14 pubs in Estrella Damm’s 2021 national restaurant awards, including Michael Wignall’s the Angel at Hetton in North Yorkshire, which placed second. At the Moorcock Inn near Halifax, No 14 on the list, Alisdair Brooke-Taylor (formerly of the revered In De Wulf in Belgium) cooks whole animals and fish over fire and serves them at a surprisingly not-eye-watering price in an oak-beamed pub.

Sometimes, struggling pubs are taken over by young, ambitious chefs keen to put their stamp on a menu, like the Smiths. But there has also been a boom in big-name restaurateurs bringing in pubs alongside their fine-dining operations. Paul Ainsworth relaunched the Mariners in Rock, Cornwall, in 2019. Gary Usher recently announced he was taking over the derelict White Horse in Churton, near Chester. In November, Margot Henderson, whose cooking career began at the Eagle, will bring veal mince on toast and other delicacies to the Three Horseshoes, a 17th-century inn in Batcombe, Somerset.

For Henderson, who grew up in New Zealand, there has always been a special, maybe even uniquely British charm to the pub. She even met her husband, St John co-founder Fergus, at a Sunday lunch at the Eagle. “What great spaces these places are,” she says. “It’s really important that we don’t turn them all into people’s houses. They are community spaces, they were built so that you could have smaller homes, and you had somewhere to go and hang out. It’s such an incredible part of British culture, and restaurants add a different dimension to the people who are running these places to make it profitable. You can’t just make it on beer any more.”

For some of these established names, opening a pub is a form of brand extension. Another factor, perhaps, is an acknowledgment of how we like to eat now: we don’t necessarily want our napkin to be origamied every time we go to the loo.

James Knappett, Cadogan Arms, Chelsea.
James Knappett, Cadogan Arms, Chelsea.

Some chefs just really love pubs. One of these is James Knappett, who trained at Noma and Per Se and is now head chef of the intimate, 20-cover, two-Michelin-star Kitchen Table in central London. Before cooking in the world’s best restaurants, Knappett was schooled in boozers: his mum ran one for a decade in Soham, Cambridgeshire, and his uncle had one near Peterborough. “Everyone called my mum Peggy Mitchell,” Knappett recalls, referring to the EastEnders matriarch played by Barbara Windsor. “She was literally the same height, and they looked like twins. In the country, sometimes things can get a bit hairy, but she had no trouble barring someone or cutting them off.”

Last year, Knappett took over the food offering at the Cadogan Arms in Chelsea; then, earlier this year, he relaunched the menu at the George, just off Oxford Street in central London. Visitors to these places who know Knappett’s food are sometimes surprised to see that you can still order a burger or fish and chips or a scotch egg – it may be the best scotch egg you’ve ever tasted, flecked with black pudding and served with fruity, spicy Oxford sauce, but it is very recognisably a scotch egg.

“I want you to order a prawn cocktail and get prawn cocktail,” Knappett explains. “Sometimes I feel, especially in pubs, you might read a dish on the menu and then it comes out and the chef’s been all creative with it. And you just go, ‘Noooo!’ Because you’ve read the menu, and you’re like, ‘This is going to be incredible!’”

For Knappett, the perfect pub is the Garrison, from the TV series Peaky Blinders. At the Cadogan Arms, they brought expert wood carvers out of retirement to restore the bar. Other elements have been a learning curve: “We’ve changed the fryers twice in both pubs, because none of us were fish and chip chefs and they weren’t big enough.” As a homage to the pubs he grew up around, paper doilies feature prominently. “The doilies are on, 100%, straight underneath my prawn cocktail!” he says. “Everyone was pissed off when I mentioned doilies, but have you seen how many pictures of them there are on Instagram?”

Ruth Hansom, head chef at the Princess of Shoreditch.
Ruth Hansom, head chef at the Princess of Shoreditch. Photograph: Amit Lennon/The Observer

Over in east London, at the Princess of Shoreditch, Ruth Hansom takes a less traditional approach to pub food. Because of its location, on the edge of the City, there are fewer locals to rely on and keep happy. This has led the 26-year-old chef, who trained for many years at the Ritz, to make the pub a destination, somewhere diners will travel to for an eight-course tasting menu upstairs, and a less formal offering on the ground floor. “What’s really nice about it still being in a pub is that we’re at an advantage where we can over-deliver,” she says. “Even coming into the dining room, up that staircase, you are like, ‘Oh, OK, this is actually a nice restaurant up here!’ The journey starts there, and then hopefully the food continues to do that.”

For Hansom, the days of many pubs being able to survive on their “wet trade” are clearly numbered. “If you don’t own a pub, you don’t understand, ‘Oh, why are they charging £7 for a pint?’” she says. “Well, actually, it’s because we really have to do that, and money goes to the breweries. So having that food offering is great for the customers, because you can get really good food with your beer. But it’s a good way for pubs to be able to stay open.”

Hansom, Knappett, Henderson and the Smiths have different ideas about what food should be served in pubs but they agree that, at a time of existential crisis for many venues, the boozer needs to adapt in order to survive. “Pubs used to be limited by what you could do in people’s minds,” says Dan Smith. “A pub would be a pub, where you would go and have a burger or fish and chips or whatever. Whereas people now have realised the potential in them. Essentially, it’s a site, it’s a building, it’s a location, but usually with a lot more history than others. The possibilities are endless.”

5 essential food pubs

The chef’s special

The Sportsman
The Sportsman Photograph: David Rowland/Alamy

The Sportsman, Seasalter, Kent
In 1999, genial, brilliant Stephen Harris transformed a run-down pub near the Swale estuary into a multi-award winning marvel.

The rising star

The Moorcock Inn, Norland Moor, Yorkshire
“Lip-smackingly, head-spinningly good” was the verdict from Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner.

The No 1

The Unruly Pig, Woodbridge, Suffolk
Currently top of the annual, industry-voted Top 50 gastropubs list. There’s even a “piglet’s menu” for the under-12s.

The destination

Parkers Arms, Newton-in-Bowland, Lancashire
Beautiful food in an Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The original

The Eagle, Farringdon, London
The first head chef, David Eyre, set the template at what’s often called the original gastropub, followed by Tom Norrington Davies and now Edward Mottershaw. Still does a killer steak sandwich.

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