Best British Gastropubs
At the Sportsman, a seaside pub on the pebbly Kent coast, I recently ate the best lamb I’ve ever tasted. A pale pink chop, a hunk of crisped shoulder confit. Outside the window the animal’s brethren grazed in the mist. The Sportsman’s chef, Stephen Harris, also cures ham from nearby pigs in fleur de sel he made himself. A dish he calls “rockpool” has cockles, crabmeat, and candy-sweet clams in a dashilike broth made with scavenged seaweed. This was a pub. No tablecloths. Old wood tables. A place you could stop in just for a beer. But you’d quickly realize something different was happening in the kitchen.
In London, at his famed “nose-to-tail” restaurant St. John Bar & Restaurant, Fergus Henderson told me about what has happened to lowly pub grub. There was a time not too long ago, he said, when British chefs had to post a Beefeater outside to signal their intention to serve their own cuisine. That’s all changed now. Britons seem to have come to terms with the existence of something called British food. The better news is that some of the most satisfying stuff is coming not out of high temples of gastronomy, but from that indigenous treasure, the English pub.
What we want from a pub is honest British food, respectful of tradition and place but not stuck in time, served in a relaxed atmosphere of beer, cheery barmaids, a fireplace. What we want is a spot like Heston Blumenthal’s Hinds Head Inn, a low-slung 15th-century Tudor building in the tiny village of Bray, 30 miles west of London. There are local ales on tap and locals at the bar drinking them. The menu is composed of Heston’s refined, expert versions of such pub classics as oxtail-and-kidney pie, potted shrimp, and Quaking Pudding.
If you’ve never heard of Quaking Pudding—a grayish, spiced 16th-century dessert that shivers and shakes but doesn’t fall—that’s because Heston and his team are collaborating with the kitchens of Hampton Court Palace to bring historic dishes back to life. “Any English pub should have a pudding because we invented puddings,” Heston said. “There is much more confidence now in British food so you’ll see possets and syllabubs, potted shrimps and hot pots. There’s a pride there.”
With the guidance of several chefs and local observers—and the aid of a GPS—I set out on a cross-country pub crawl to taste the best of what was coming out of today’s British pubs. I managed to find plenty of beer and enlightenment-and some surprisingly good dinners along the way.
The Anchor & Hope, London
The Menu: Straightforward English cooking, gutsy and without pretension. Rabbit is braised with tomato and anchovy. Briny-sweet potted shrimps on crusty toast. The only thing wrong with the place is that they sometimes run out of dishes quickly and cross them off the daily menu, so go early to avoid heartache.
Fox & Anchor, London
The Story: For a century the place served Smithfield meat purveyors their early morning pints and full English breakfasts. Times changed; business slumped. The old Victorian tile façade and woody insides were slated to be gutted so the place could reopen as a curry shop. Malmaison management stepped in and saved it by fixing up the bar, creating a proper menu of British classics (fish-and-chips, pies, a carving trolley) and adding six modern bedrooms upstairs with big copper bathtubs and artful black-and-white photos of the surrounding market.
The Hand & Flowers, Marlow, Buckinghamshire
The Classics: Kerridge’s menu relies on seasonal ingredients and changes often, but there is one constant: roast beef and pork on Sundays.
The Harwood Arms, London
The Critic’s Choice: Jay Rayner is the food critic for the London Observer and author of The Man Who Ate the World and other works. He discussed the state of British cooking over a Harwood Arms dinner of Scotch eggs, boiled salt-beef and Yorkshire curd tart. "There's almost the creation of a British identity," Rayner said of the current interest in traditional British cuisine. "Is it an invented form of England? I wonder if it matters. Sure you could eat Scotch eggs in pubs before, but they have never been as good as the ones we had here."
The Hinds Head Inn, Bray, Berkshire
The Menu: The Scotch Egg here is the authentic item—just somehow better. It′s made with a quail egg, wrapped in spicy sausage, and fried to an exquisite runny-crispness. And at Hinds Head, under Head Chef Kevin Love, oxtail stands in for beef in the classic steak-and-kidney pie, with pastry made from traditional suet.
The Olive Branch, Clipsham, Rutland
The Comfort Food: The menu, of course, is predicated on local ingredients; the fish pie, Grasmere farm sausages, and sticky toffee pudding are all as stabilizing and comforting as the warm bath waiting in your room.
The Sportsman, Seasalter, Kent
The Ideas: Pork scratchings are the most traditional, most basic of English pub snacks: fried pork skin and melted fat. But these are elevated scratchings. Crispy, salty, slightly sticky-they elegantly sum up what the outer bits of the animal have to offer. “The idea is it′s a pub snack that we′ve taken to the ultimate,” says chef Stephen Harris. The milk-fed lamb comes in one pale pink chop, with a hunk of crisped shoulder confit. Underneath, pale wilted cabbage, tiny cubes of zucchini. And broad beans, electric green and peeled. The lamb has a deep, salty mellowness that’s hard to place. “The grasses they feed on were seabed not long ago,” says Stephen′s brother Phil.
The Star Inn, Harome, North Yorkshire
When in Yorkshire: For Sunday lunch, nothing else but Yorkshire pudding, served with roast beef cut as thick as a Penguin paperback.
Three Fishes, Mitton, Lancashire
The Provenance: The long menu of regional dishes and locally sourced ingredients includes a map of “Regional Food Heroes,” so you can find the lamb purveyor or the cauliflower farmer. Lancashire hot pot is a classic, steadying dish of potatoes and lamb.
St. John Bar & Restaurant, London
The Story: Vegetarians need not read further. The philosophy concerns meat and nothing but meat. Every part of the animals is utilized, from bone marrow to chitterlings to calf’s liver. The spirit of his “nose to tail” approach—respectful of place and seasons, rigorously unfussy, unapologetically British—hovers over many of the best pub kitchens. The restaurant’s baking operations were so successful that they moved into a private space: First to Spitalfields in 2003, now St. John Bread and Wine, and later to Druid Street in Bermondsey.