The pub is a cultural touchstone, so much so that when you travel abroad, most cosmopolitan cities will have their version of the British staple – often serving fish and chips, bangers and mash or other dishes that are seen as the heart and soul of UK cuisine.
But back in this country, tastes are moving beyond the classics, and more people than ever are seeking out meat-free alternatives and international spins. So how do you balance the conflicting desires for the traditional and the modern?
We spoke to three pubs that have been praised for their innovative food to discover how they balance being community watering holes and gastronomic destinations.
The Sun Inn, Dedham, Essex
A finalist for in the Best Food category at this year’s Great British Pub Awards, The Sun Inn describes itself as a “proper coaching inn,” but that doesn’t mean the food has stayed the same for hundreds of years.
In fact, the menu at this pub, located in picturesque Constable Country, changes every six weeks. Head chef Jack Levine builds his recipes around seasonal ingredients, while owner Piers Baker checks new dishes for repetition, balance of ingredients, methods and price.
“We don’t like to repeat dishes, so we’re always tweaking and evolving the menu,” says Baker.
“We don’t aim to be especially experimental but to put together dishes that are clean and focused – things we like to eat. We don't want to have too many elements on the plate and let the main item shine, whether it be a monkfish tail, crown prince squash or a piece of pork.
He describes the main menu at The Sun Inn as “modern British with strong Italian influences.” Previous dishes have included smoked haddock risotto with grilled leeks, cured egg yolk and pickled mustard as well as roast sole with purple sprouting broccoli, brown shrimps, capers and new potatoes, though rare breed steaks are always popular.
“Chances are we do alienate the average pub-goer,” adds Baker. “If they’re expecting bangers and mash or fish and chips, they’re not going to find it at The Sun.”
Having said that, there is also a bar menu that stays relatively traditional for more conservative punters, featuring sandwiches, burgers, soups, and cheese and meat platters.
Baker says his aim is to create a warm atmosphere that “provides the perfect balance for those that just want a drink and those who want to eat,” while also being integrated in the local community through employment, procurement and charity.
The Fox and Hounds, Hunsdon, Hertfordshire
Owned and run by husband-and-wife team James and Bianca Rix, The Fox & Hounds also looks to European influences (specifically French and Italian) to add something extra to the food.
James Rix, whose experience as a chef extends to stints working with famous figures like Gary Rhodes and Alastair Little, says simple menu descriptions that are clear, clipped and to the point are key to getting customers to engage with food that strays from notions of British ‘pub classics.’
“Anything people might not know about we generally put a short description of the item,” he explains.
Dishes include crab tacos with mango salsa, and black pudding from Normandy with sautéed mushrooms and a fried egg. Like The Sun Inn, The Fox & Hounds is also keen on its rare-breed meat, like Swaledale lamb and Old Spot pork, while also featuring dishes made from local game, such as the haunch of local venison.
Offering different menus for different parts of the week has also been effective, according to Rix, who notes that he works with suppliers to keep prices down mid-week, also offering a fixed-price set.
“At the weekend, when people are wanting more of a special night out, we change the menu to include more ‘special’ and ‘different’ options, such as scallops in the shell, Porterhouse steaks to share, whole roasted turbot to share and lobster,” he adds.
The pub is particularly renowned for its version of the classic Sunday lunch, which was among the finalists for the Observer Food Monthly’s award for Best Sunday Lunch.
“We cook steaks and finish our whole ribs of beef for Sunday lunch in a special charcoal Josper oven that works like an indoor barbecue to give the meat a fantastic flavour while keeping it moist and tender,” says Rix. “We also use the Josper oven for whole fish, squid, scallops and mussels in their shells to enhance their flavour and sweetness.”
Like Baker, Rix believes being supportive to (and supported by) the local community has been a part of the pub’s success, while at the same time he tries to appeal to a wider market, “such as people driving out to the country for a nice lunch, or having a private event or special occasion in a nice country pub.”
The Cleveland Arms, London
“You can have fine dining in a relaxed environment, and I think that’s very much what we’re trying to achieve,” says Maria Tamander of her pub.
Situated in the capital, The Cleveland Arms has a slightly different set of challenges when it comes to creating a communal atmosphere, but also has the advantage of being able to work with other businesses who are based nearby. In addition to the internationally influenced menu – cooked up by Elisabeth Passédat, who has previously worked under leading lights such as Pierre Koffmann and Claude Bosi – the pub has attempted to work with wholesalers to put people directly in touch with their food and drink.
How do they hope to achieve this? Through hosting talks and markets in the pub. In the past, they’ve featured truffles, as well as a gin distillery.
Being sustainable, working with local producers and keeping the menu short and sweet are all part of Tamander’s strategy, as is making sure to cater for a wide range of diets.
“I think traditionally you always had to have a fish and a meat and maybe a pasta option, but today it’s very much you have to have a vegetarian as well as a vegan option,” she says. “You have a backbone of core ingredients that you work with and then you tailor it depending on what seasonal ingredients are on offer.”
While weekly specials might range from British classics (fish pie) to vegetarian Indian (lentil, chickpea and coconut dahl), you can’t beat a Sunday roast when it comes to top pub sellers. At The Cleveland Arms, diners can choose from chicken, beef, pork and a pumpkin-jackfruit option, as well as a shoulder of lamb for six people.
The Saturday brunch has also really taken off, according to Tamander, as customers take the time to enjoy their weekends with a cross-continental mixture of schnitzel, shakshuka and sweet potato curry.