Hugh Thomas explores the capital’s renewed interest in clean-cut, chef-led pubs
Saturday 20 November 2021
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If you haven’t been out for a drink in London in the last two years – and who could blame you, for most of it being in the midst of a pandemic – next time you do, things might look a little different. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for not-so-better (start getting used to £6.50 pints, in other words).
Pubs in London, just like everywhere else, have had a helluva time. Lockdowns meant pubs across the country had to pour away 87 million pints of beer, costing the beer and pub industry an estimated £331 million. For some, the ordeal proved too costly – from March 2020 to March 2021, an average 21 pubs and bars folded per day throughout the country, outdoing many of the headlines we’d read before anyone knew what a Covid was (compare to the peaks of 2.5 per week in 2018, or the five per week in 2016-17).
More recently, the industry at large has suffered from just about every shortage you can imagine: bar staff, carbon dioxide, delivery drivers, and, by extension, beer itself. First it was surpluses, and now it’s shortages. What a ride.
Either way, a shake-up was necessary. Drinkers have different ideas of what a pub should look like, and feel like, to what they did two years ago. Working and living in the same place for the last eighteen months – and if you’re on your boss’ good side, happily forever after – neighbourhoods are seeing new life. For the first time, many experienced adopting the pub as their office, or simply the pleasure of drinking in their local over lunch on a weekday.
Of course, those were the happier times. Given the majority of the last 18 months, there’ve been longer stints when pubs didn’t feature in our plans at all. “If I asked someone what they looked forward to the most post-pandemic,” Dom Jacobs tells me, “inevitably their response was having their first pint down the pub.
Because the pub was closed for so long, it had the opportunity to grow up the same way everyone else did
Dom may be a bit biased – he’s the new publican at The Cadogan Arms in Chelsea, which he took over and re-opened in July. Prior to that, the pub hadn’t opened for six years. “Everyone in the area has a story about it,” he says. “Whether their first date, their first ever pint, engagement drinks. A lot of things have been celebrated here. When we opened, we saw people walk in the door and make that assessment if we’ve ruined it all. Because the pub was closed for so long, it had the opportunity to grow up the same way everyone else did.”
Which, in this case, means the whole caboodle. James Knappett, whose sole venture up until now was Kitchen Table, which has two Michelin stars, oversees the catering. The pub has mosaic floors, stained glass, and a ‘hand-carved’ bar. But it is also a pub with a dartboard, and screens the footy in the basement (partly to keep impassioned Chelsea fans out of the other guests’ Sunday roasts). At the risk of this sounding like marketing bumf, it is a place where you can order a delicately-roasted brill with a ‘Rah Rah Martini’ just as you can a pint with some fried chicken or a pork pie.
The food lineup is telling: what makes The Cadogan Arms stand out the most, perhaps, is its affiliation with JKS Restaurants. Its honchos, the Sethi siblings Karam, Jyotin, and Sunaina, partner and back some of the most sought-after restaurants in London, including Bao, Lyles, Sabor, Brigadiers, and Gymkhana. This is the first time JKS have dipped their toes into the world of pubs, which makes you wonder if something is afoot.
Especially as it’s also part of a spate of clean-cut, chef-led venues that’ve opened in the last six months: Sally Abe, who formerly helmed the Harwood Arms, helped open The Blue Boar over the road from Westminster Abbey. There’s Publiq, on the edge of Hyde Park, with a special bent on producers. Over in Camden Market – the market’s very first pub – is The Farrier, billed also as a rustic neighbourhood restaurant. And Meatliquor, for the first time in ten years, has returned to the pub game, opening The Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill.
The gastropub format is getting stale in the UK
Those are just a few. All are pubs. Just as they all are, to varying degrees, not really pubs. The Blue Boar, for instance, is a casual restaurant where they serve scotch eggs, quiche Lorraine, and shepherd’s pie. We’ve all seen something close to them before. Some say The Eagle in Farringdon was the first of its ilk (or The Angel Inn in North Yorkshire, as others contest), back in the ‘90s as a sort of revolt against chicken in a basket. Since then, there’s been The Marksman with its well-kept pints of Five Points’ Best, Michel Roux Jr’s The Wigmore with its 3ft cheese toasties and Yonder collab beer. And, outside of London, Chris and Jeff Galvin’s gaff near Chelmsford, which won Best Pub in this year’s National Pub & Bar Awards; Josh Eggleton’s much-loved Pony & Trap in Chew Manga; and the Freemasons at Wiswell, where traditional English food went off on holiday and came back with a nice hat.
But still, something’s been missing. “The gastropub format is getting stale in the UK,” Dom says, “and hasn’t moved on for a decade or so. People were focusing on one thing – the same wine lists, cocktails, food. But inevitably there was a compromise along the way. My goal was to create a new experience where you could have all these things under one roof.”
When Orwell described his favourite public-house, the one that had everything from “barmaids” calling you “dear” (and definitely not “ducky”), who sold you tobacco and cigarettes, and aspirins, and liver-sausage sandwiches, with stout on draught, a garden where there are parties, and children fetch drinks for their parents, he finished with the point that no such place exists. And probably won’t ever exist.
Publicans might try to prove him wrong – whether or not exclusively at the moment, pubs are seen as a more reliable way than restaurants to nurture regulars. And regulars means a more predictable turnover – something hospitality has missed in recent memory.
And so to looking after anyone and everyone who walks through the door. “Familiarity is essential,” Dom says. “A pub should be an extension of your living room, whether it's on the King’s Road or a country lane. At some venues, you see people walk in and not know what the beers are, for instance, and they look a bit uncomfortable.”
Some industry commentators wondered if Covid would be the death of cask ale... things haven't looked that way
The Cadogan has taken steps to ensure that happens less often. Treating the cellar as the ‘engine room’ of the pub, some beers on their list could be a warning sign to explorative drinkers. But, again, Dom says that familiarity is intentional, starting with relatively commercial beers like Camden Helles, moving on to ‘mid-range’ names such as Purity, and then what he calls the more ‘avant-garde’: Thornbridge, Verdant, and Partizan.
Cask also has a presence here, that old gatekeeper element pubs have to beer. Some industry commentators wondered if Covid would be the death of cask ale, already struggling as it was, as it’s the only dispense relying on both breweries and pubs to function, and function well. Fortunately, things haven’t quite looked that way – upon restrictions lifting in the spring, Timmy Taylors recorded what they called an ‘unbelievable’ surge in demand for cask beer, not dissimilar to the volumes pubs asked of them two years ago. That being said, you will find some pubs have removed their hand pumps entirely, not satisfied with the potential of having to chuck away any more beer.
For some parts of London, there were few reasons for beer drinkers to visit. But a handful of pubs are changing that. There’ve been whispers of JKS looking to support a network of five pubs in the next few years. But then, everyone else is looking for a bigger slice of the (pork) pie as well. More pubs means more of the identikit ones – Wetherspoons has recently amassed close to £250 million with the intention of buying up more rundown theatres and old banks in London. If not already, there may well be a corker of a pub opening up in your favourite London neighbourhood soon. Just remember, a shit one could be just as likely.
Cover photos: Cottonbro | Unsplash
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