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The London boozer is getting a culinary makeover. Yet, don’t even breathe that now much maligned gastro-pub term hijacked by mass operators. Some of London’s most talented chefs are seeking out public houses or pubs for their new solo culinary ventures. Pubs with exceptionally good kitchens and talented chefs are becoming a most likeable trend.
Change of direction
“I’m back to doing what I love best” chef Neil Bothwick recently posted on twitter. What makes his heart sing? Presiding over an unfussy, resolutely old-school menu upstairs at The French House, the iconic 18th century Soho pub much frequented by actors, wits and, it is said, even the odd royal. It’s a pub dining room with stellar heritage. The wonky floored intimate dining room above The French House is where Fergus Henderson of St. John restaurant and his wife Margot Henderson of Rochelle Canteen started their culinary career. The room, most definitely still has the feel of a pub dining room and has laid fallow for a while so the announcement made by Bothwick, caused quite a stir.
It’s a surprise change of direction for Bothwick who counts some titans of the French food world (including Michel Bras) among his former employers, before working at The Connaught where he met Angela Hartnett, whom he is now married to. He left Shoreditch’s Merchant’s Tavern to revive the kitchen of the Soho institution. His launch menu plays tribute to St. John style brevity. It’s made up of the kind of resolutely uncomplicated trend-oblivious dishes chefs crave to eat, cooked with deep culinary understanding: rillettes, lamb broth, aligot, John Dory with green sauce and Paris Brest.
The St. John's lineage
Chefs turning to pubs is not exactly a new phenomenon, though it has long been more prevalent beyond the capital. A recent shining example is Michael Wignall who left 2 Michelin star Gidleigh Park to take on The Angel Inn at Heddon, Yorkshire. Yet, one of the most renowned pub chefs Tom Kerridge of two Michelin star Hand & Flowers in Marlow has bucked the trend. In addition to his Marlow pubs, he has just opened a magnificent bar and brasserie in London’s Corinthia Hotel.
There’s a definite St. John’s lineage running deep. Tom Harris and Jon Rotherham are former St. John’s chefs who took on venerable Hackney mahogany paneled The Marksman public house, retaining it as a proper neighbourhood pub serving food of great vigour. It won Michelin pub of the year in 2016, first time accolade to a London as the editor Rebecca Burr said: "It cleverly combines a place to drink with new era pub food.” This translates to a resolutely British menu with dishes like devilled mussels on toast and pheasant and trotter pie besides their signature “buns” and fantastic honey brown sugar tart.
“It’s liberating,” explains Dan Doherty, former Chef Director of Duck & Waffle who renounced his high-flying role and turned to pub chef buying Marylebone’s The Royal Oak earlier this year. Tellingly, he has gone into business with a friend, an operation director, from his early days at The Old Brewery in Greenwich working for Meantime Brewing. “What appeals it is getting back to the kitchen and hospitality being at the core. We fell in love with the building, it has a beautiful soul, one that we wish to bring back to life through plenty of hard work.”
“I firmly believe pubs are the anchors in a community; facilitating great times rather than dictating them” asserts Doherty. Foodwise, on the ground floor, there’s his iteration of classic pub fare: Scotch eggs, sausage rolls, even pickled eggs on the bar. He’s planning oysters too and puffed beef tendons with Marmite seasoning. “There will be familiar things yet with a twist in there.” The upstairs dining room remains informal yet with a little more refinement. Doherty promises octopus on the plancha inherited with the pub and using a little coal fire to do dishes such as beef with artichokes and a brown yuzu butter. Explains Doherty: “There won’t be small plates, it'll be more of a starter and main plates kind of vibe. We want to create a great pub, but at the same time put our own mark on it. Whilst we're humble, we're also ambitious”.
The Duke of Richmond
Chefs turning to pub's kitchens is a sound practical and commercial decision too as pub premises are more readily available, and more reasonable than fiercely fought over restaurant locations. Tom Oldroyd of the hugely popular, yet tiny Trullo restaurant in Islington needed to expand to satisfy and his customer base as well as provide a new outlet for his team to flourish. The Duke of Richmond in East London’s Hackney was a pub he’d passed frequently and turned out to be available.
“I relish being able to feed people with the kind of food I want to eat as a parent of young children,” explains Oldroyd who first made his name cooking for Russell Norman’s Polpo restaurants. “It is boisterous yet well thought out food using English produce with a French sensibility,” explains Oldroyd. Hence, robust Hebridean lamb chops cooked over wood with dauphinoise potatoes, name-checked breeds for Sunday roasts, with extra Yorkshire puddings at 50p each. Crucially, there’s a separate bar menu from the same kitchen, including joy of joyscrab and chip butty (bun) with pickled samphire and chips with bearnaise.
A taste of France
Henry Harris, a much-respected Francophile chef and restaurateur, formerly of Knightsbridge luxe bistro Racine has partnered with James McCulloch, owner of The Harcout in Marylebone, to acquire three endangered London pubs and fill them with good food, craft beer and wine with gastronomic integrity.
At the legendary Clerkenwell Coach (formerly Coach & Horses) there’s choucroute and confit duck, whilst in the city’s Three Cranes, reflecting the pub’s history, the focus is on grilled meat and fish. At The Hero of Maida the menu is unapologetically francophile, concise and straight to the point, with chicken liver pate, classic steak tartare generous with capers and cornichons, rabbit with mustard, creme caramel and seven-hour-roasted shoulder of lamb with rosemary on a Sunday. It’s become a favourite neighbourhood hang out of iconic chef Pierre Koffmann, yet is still a pub where locals happily nurse a pint.