Spit and sawdust contravene food hygiene laws and dartboards no longer meet environmental safety edicts. Beer is dear and drink and driving laws are tight. The British pub has had to go gourmet to survive. The one arm bandit has been replaced with a sommelier and toasted sandwiches by the likes of oyster schnitzels, muntjac pate en croute, pheasant escalope in sourdough and Lancashire hogget hotpot with damson pickled red cabbage.
Across the UK, pubs have transformed. The Snug has become the gastro lounge. Landlords have become chef patrons and boozers usurped by gourmands. Gone are the days of the lump of hard cheese with a hard tomato ploughman’s lunch, lukewarm shepherd’s pie, partially microwaved pasties, and not much fish in a lot of batter.
With this change in pace comes a new set of criteria to work towards, great food and well chosen drinks in a comfy setting, and this list is seeking out the best. In its 13th year, the Top 50 Gastropubs list ranks the UK’s best gastropubs according to the votes from more than 400 gastropub owners, food critics and other industry experts, and Suffolk’s Unruly Pig has come out on top.
The ‘Britalian’ pub restaurant in Bromeswell is one of five east Anglian pubs in the annual Estrella Damm Top 50 gastropubs List for 2022. Eighteen pub restaurants in London and the south-east were recognised.
Head chef, Dave Wall said: “This list is the gold standard. It’s the business. To be a part of such a prestigious group is a huge honour and a very real privilege.”
His feted menus comprise treacle cured trout oyster, Orford lobster risotto brown crab, chilli and lime, pumpkin agnoletti, saddle of hare, caramelised celeriac, Cropwell Bishop and pear, mallard, salsify, sprouts and damson, cote de boeuf, chorizo and nduja mac cheese. His speciality side is dripping chips, and three-four set menus start at £25.
London’s top pub and restaurants are The Guinea Grill which has a been a steakhouse since 1952 and whose specialities include beef, oyster and horseradish pie, and Stockwell’s Canton Arms which offers dishes like ‘butter’ rabbit leg, cashew cream, roast cauliflower, venison neck, red wine, porcini mushrooms and mash (for two), Essex coast skate wing, chips and dhal (for two £44) and seven-hour Salt Marsh lamb shoulder, potato and olive oil gratin (for around five) £84.
Highgate is represented by the Bull and Last, well known for its north Essex short horn sirloin and prime rib and The Red Lion and Sun, a dine-in and takeaway with menus including baked Dorset crab Basque-style and coq-au-vin pie.
Sally Abé’s The Blue Boar in central London was voted ‘one to watch’ and The Princess of Shoreditch in East London, headed up by Great British Menu’s Ruth Hansom, earned ‘newcomer of the year’.
So, who were the runners up? Michael Wignall’s The Angel at Hetton in the Yorkshire Dales came fourth with the county’s Star Inn (currently closed after a fire) third. The runner-up was Stosie Madi’s Parkers Arms in Lancashire.
Madi said: “Making the prestigious Top 50 list is one of the best morale boosters for the team. My business partner Kathy Smith and I have worked together since 1989. We started our first venture together in the Gambia in West Africa. After three other successful ventures we decided to move our next venture to Europe due to a worrying time after a messy coup d’etat and dictatorship. We launched a restaurant seven miles away from Parkers. This was a great success but it was a small venue and although we had been allowed to believe the council would let us expand it, this never happened. A friend suggested we looked at Parkers. A closed abandoned run down pub that had been trading unsuccessfully for several years.
“It has been a labour of love. Breaking into the list as an indie female-owned business is very rewarding and a wonderful achievement.”
The menus at the Parker Arms in Newton-in-Bowland are short and seasonal. The winter menu features wild game livers and port parfait, pie of the day plant or meat based, roasted ballotine of local estate wild pheasant breast Lancashire black kale, sherry sauce, skinny fries or creamed mash, charcoal grilled 10oz 40 day aged Bowland beef sirloin steak. Dessert is a must, be it Kathy’s Wet Nelly or Valrhona chocolate cheesecake slice with salted milk ice cream. A great British pudding is best sampled in a British gastropub.
Tom Kerridge of The Hand and Flowers, which came in tenth, said: “A great gastropub is somewhere that feels like home from home. A place to relax and unwind and enjoy yourself with friends and family, people should leave a gastropub feeling like they’ve just had a big hug.”
The TV chef’s Marlow pub’s seventeenth century dining room offers a Monday set two-course, £42 lunch menu as well as an a la carte featuring delights like guinea fowl breast with poultry tart, poppy seed turnips, almond butter, tempura fillet and pear ketchup (£58) and £26.50 desserts. It also offers wine pairings. English blackberry soufflé with bay leaf custard and roasted walnut ice cream is complemented by a Uruguayan Tannat Licor Familia with the warm Bramley apple and vanilla Bakewell with tonka bean crémeux and custard Ice cream. If you were in doubt about what goes best with custard.
Head chef Tom de Keyser said: “We focus on top quality produce, using the best of the best and treating it with love and patience. A great pub should be like your front room at home.”
Many of the pubs are historic. Steven Smith’s Freemason’s in Wiswell (pronounced wize-well) near Clitheroe in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley is built from three cottages, one of which was a freemasons’ lodge. The name of the village is said to come from Old Molly’s Well, a local landmark later to become known as Wise Woman’s Well (Wise Well). Alternatively, it is thought by some that ‘Wis’ was the name or part of the name of a pre-Christian chieftain and the hamlet was developed because of a well which provided essential water.
The Freemason’s menu includes soups like velouté of woodland mushrooms, pickled ceps, fondue of Procter’s kickass cheddar and truffled cheese hot dog and starters like Manx lobster with butter poached tail, tempura craw and knuckle dumpling, puree and pickled carrot, sweet and sour blood orange. Typical main courses include Sika deer roast loin smoked over local moor pine, haunch sausage, parsnip, pear, Stilton and pickled walnut.
Adam Handling, who runs the The Loch and Tyne in old Windsor, Berkshire with co-chef proprietors, Steven Kerr and Jonny McNeill said: “I’m so happy and proud that our little pub with guest bedrooms has made it in to the Top 50. This is our first time opening a pub and it’s been great fun to adopt our restaurant style into a super informal setting.”
Snacks include sourdough, chicken butter and cheese doughnuts and mains, baked halibut with kohl rabi, brown shrimp and caviar sauce.
Other pubs named in the list include The Dog at Wingham, The Pyne Arms in Barnstaple, Halifax’s Shibden Mill Inn, Stephen Terry and Henry Macleod’s The Hardwick in Abergavenny, Newcastle on Tyne’s The Broad Chare, Dominic Chapman’s The Bee Hive overlooking the cricket ground at White Waltham in west Berkshire, Biborough’s The Kentish Hare, Barnsley’s The Pipe and Glass Inn and Daniel Smith’s Fordwich Arms in Britain’s smallest town near Canterbury.
Among the London pubs making the list are Stockwell’s Camden Arms, Mayfair’s Guinea Grill and The Bull and Last in Highgate.
Blackboard specials are evolving all the time. Jack Leach’s Harwood Arms in the Fulham Road offers a three course £55 menu which includes chestnut soup with wild boar sausage roll, Aynhoe Park fallow deer faggot, red berries and elderberries. For dessert, either Earl Grey tart, candied apples and Jersey milk, malted treacle slice stout and crème fraiche ice cream, pear trifle, hazelnuts, butterscotch and whisky ice cream custard flan or poached rhubarb and rose. Regulars pine for the return of the pub’s marmalade ice cream sandwich.
British publicans have become chef du cuisines. Now, it’s locally sourced tender stem broccoli with hazelnuts and chicory tart tatin and orange and olive oil braised turnips rather than just the supermarket-bought frozen garden peas of the past. British pub grub has come a long way. The choice is now much wider and mouth-watering than between just KP peanuts, salt and vinegar and cheese and onion or, as a special treat, ‘Bovril’ crisps.
For the best British gastronomic pub grub, you need to ask the Unruly People. Sherry trifle and rhubarb crumble and custard are still alive and well but now cheeseboards are hyper-local and the dessert trolley, at the UK’s finest gastropub, now carries delicacies like plum and almond crumble, calvados panna cotta blackberry granita washed down with the poison apple, a tiramisu martini Baileys, Bakewell tart amaretto, or a banoffee shooter.
Publisher Chris Lowe commented: “After a tough two years for the hospitality industry, we are thrilled to see such a strong list of contenders this year, including a new number one and several new entrants! The Top 50 Gastropubs provides a platform for food-lovers to explore the very best offerings across the country.”