Britain made several distinctive contributions to the pleasures of eating out during the last decade, most notably a wave of exciting chefs, the renaissance of traditional farmhouse cheeses and some eye-catching restaurant design. But the most particular and most widely beneficial may prove to be the emergence of g`astro-pubs, a phenomenon happily undergoing a second wave of openings despite its ungainly name.
Gastro pubs emerged in the early 1990s as the breweries were forced to sell off their pubs (Margaret Thatcher, then PM, is the unlikely patron saint of this movement). Mainly run-down boozers that had long given up any pretence at good food or even hospitality came on to the market at a time when young chefs were starting out on their own, voluntarily or otherwise, without much capital. The Eagle in Farringdon Road, EC1, is still cited as the gastronomic paradigm whilst the Prince Bonaparte, London W2, may prove to be the most cost-effective transformation. Converted for no more than £35,000 it boasts annual sales of £1.2 million.
They were, however, not that easy to recommend in this column. Most served a particular neighbourhood; many did not take bookings; and the level of comfort rarely matched the cooking which could be one-dimensional due predominantly to the insignificant, poorly located kitchens most pubs were equipped with (not much space is required for a microwave!). Ingredients were invariably well sourced but most menus, or blackboards in many instances, incorporated dishes that were variations on a pan-fried piece of this on a mound of that. The atmosphere, however, was great, the prices keen and there was not a hint of pretension in the air.
Two pioneers of this new wave, Tony Estridge and Nick Sharpe, want to retain these vital ingredients but by investing considerably more, in each case over £300,000 in their new ventures, they also want to take gastro pubs up a notch. In Estridge's mind it is to add comfort and individuality in the manner that the traditional, independent landlords of yore used to supply whilst for Sharpe it is to make smarter pubs the shop window for today's much improved quality of British food.
The Waterway is Estridge's second gastro-pub (he owns Golborne House and plans to open two more, off Fulham Broadway and Sloane Square, later this year) and exemplifies the natural advantages many pubs retain despite years of neglect by their freeholders, the brewers. Built in the early 1970s as a community pub for a nearby council estate, its frontage onto the Grand Union Canal, a five-minute walk from the swanky quarter of Little Venice, is stunning.
The interior is now genuinely cool, with comfortable, red leather cushions in the separate dining area, smart wood finishes throughout and a new, open kitchen dividing the restaurant from the open bar. 'It has to be contemporary but not sophisticated,' Estridge explained. 'Customers want more than the stripped floorboards of the first wave of conversions but they still want the informality and value for money. And they also want better wine lists and a barman who knows how to mix a good cocktail.'
Our meal delivered all of the above. Spicy Bloody Marys were followed by a fresh, minty, watercress, feta and watermelon salad, goats cheese and balsamic red onion tarts and plates of well constructed antipasti; two vegetarian main courses, aubergine fritters with buffalo mozzarella and salsa, a risotto studded with broad beans and peas were both as well executed as a more traditional chunk of roast chicken on mash. One dessert excelled, a thick red fruit soup laced with vodka - this is a pub, after all. Our bill for four was just over £100 and I left with only one regret - during our lunch the sun had made a rare appearance and we should really have been out on the terrace where they serve a more limited menu.
After my meal at the Ealing Park Tavern Sharpe came out to talk to me exuding the enthusiasm that has allowed so many committed individuals to make successes of these pubs long ignored in the brewers' corporate boardrooms. In his hand was a huge tome, the 1885 edition of Building News, the year the Tavern was built.
'Look at this,' Sharpe exclaimed. 'These are the drawings for the Arts and Crafts interior and the price - it cost £2450 to build the whole place. That's why we went for it. I already run the St John in Archway Road, N19 [NB not the Smithfield restaurant of the same name], where we serve over 1000 customers a week and I wasn't really looking for anywhere as large but we just saw this place and fell in love with it. The only problem is that we have spent over £300,000 and there is still some way to go.' For the only time in our conversation Sharpe's smile disappeared, albeit momentarily.
Sharpe and his chef/partner Vince Morse are spending to ensure that the food matches the wonderful, wood panelled interior they have inherited. A wide open kitchen has been installed into the main diningroom and two separate eating areas will soon open, builders and finances permitting. At the end of the wooden bar, now topped with 26 metres of zinc, is a section that will serve 'British tapas', mainly pork charcuterie that Morse will cure himself in the former coachhouse out back along with his own chutneys, pickled onions and shallots. And the garden, completely replanted and currently being fitted out with wooden furniture from sustainable forests, will soon boast a spit for roasting suckling pigs on Sundays and game birds in the autumn.
Two dishes in our exemplary meal encompassed Morse's two gastronomic passions, for the cooking of south-west France and Britain. His duck terrine with prunes was fantastic, with thick pieces of moist duck meat studded throughout, the kind of dish that would satisfy even the hungriest of French rugby players. Then after thick slices of calves liver and a trio of apple and pork sausages came an individual summer pudding served with clotted cream that would have graced any garden party. Other attractions include eight wines by the glass, two house beers, Timothy Taylors and Adnams Broadside, and keen prices that hover around five pounds for starters and desserts and ten for main courses.
Now all the new wave of gastro pubs need is a new and more fitting name.
- Anglesea Arms, 35 Wingate Road, W6 (tel 020 8749 1291)
- The Eagle, 159 Farringdon Road EC1 (tel 020 7837 1353
- The Prince Bonaparte, 80 Chepstow Road, W2 (tel 020 7313 9491)
- The Salt House, 63 Abbey Road, NW8 (tel 020 7328 6626)
- Golborne House, 36 Golborne Road, W10 (tel 020 8960 6260)
- St John, 91 Junction Road, N19 (tel 020 7272 1587)
- The Angel, Hetton, Yorkshire (tel 01756 730263)
- The Punch Bowl Inn, Crosthwaite, Kendal (tel 015395 68237)
- The Three Lions, Stuckton, Hants (tel 01425 652489)
- The Old Passage Inn, Arlingham, Glos (tel 01452 740547)
- The Eagle Park Tavern, 222 South Ealing Road, W5 (tel 020 8758 1879)
- The Drapers Arms, 44 Barnsbury Street, N1 (tel 020 7619 0348)
- The Oak, W2, 137 Westbourne Park Road (tel 020 7221 3395)
- The Waterway, 54 Formosa Street,W9 (tel 020 7266 3557)