As we head into the latter half of our tenth year at The Drapers Arms, I’d like to be relaxing in the knowledge that we have a great chef, kitchen team, drilled front of house and fabulous loyal customers. I’d like to bathe in the incredibly kind and generous love of our peers and spend hours planning the frankly decadent 10th birthday party that I’ve had in mind since... well, since our fifth birthday party. Instead most weeks, and especially across this last summer, I have been experiencing existential angst for the pub. Will we even make 10 years?
Costs are up – not just food, drink, staff, utilities; our business rates alone for example went up 60 per cent in 2017 and again this year. Competition from restaurants is relentless and of course we aren’t immune to the digital revolution. Just think of all those times when a bleakly uninspiring fridge and nothing to watch on telly would in the past have seen you grab your jackets and head to the pub... that now see you reach for your delivery app and scroll through your box sets. Times, frankly, have been a bit tough.
When I heard that three of London’s best restaurant chefs - Tom Oldroyd of his eponymous Islington favourite, Henry Harris of the legendary Racine and Dan Doherty who had the world at his feet at Duck & Waffle – were all opening pubs in quick succession I didn’t know whether to laugh, warn them or weep at the illustrious competition that would undoubtedly shine a less than flattering light on our laboured efforts. I settled instead on asking them the obvious question... “what were you thinking?”.
One of the things that I have always loved most about pubs as a customer is that they are deeply user defined... a good pub lets you choose how to use it rather like a private members’ club for locals, or indeed customers. So sit with a coffee for hours with a laptop, have a pint by yourself, grab a quick but enjoyable lunch instead of having a sandwich at your desk... introduce your girlfriend to friends over a long Saturday afternoon in the sunshine with decent rosé... recover with the papers and a great Sunday lunch with no washing up to do afterwards. In the same way the attractions for this trio of chefs of opening a pub are less homogenous than expected and the accessibility and flexibility of the pub format enables it to stretch over a number of business goals, career objectives and personal choices.
Dan Doherty, coming off a high- end big-budget restaurant at Duck & Waffle would have felt the pressure to pull off something spectacular as a restaurant follow up – with all the third-party investors, financial pressure and Instagram-able food entailed. Opting for a relatively modest, self- funded, low-budget pub has enabled him to escape the corporate, get back in the kitchen and rediscover cooking as his prime role. Tom Oldroyd, on the back of a restaurant so small he can run the pass and make cocktails at the same time, sees a decent-sized but still affordable pub as a significant growth opportunity for his business. Henry Harris and Tom both see their pubs as opportunities to place the sort of cooking they want to offer; honest, enjoyable, predominately French influenced casual dining, in a relaxed dining room adjoined to a casual bar space.
Henry describes his thought process post-Racine of wanting to get away from a restaurant where essentially you do one thing – book to eat there, have a pre-dinner drink, eat and head on your way. He wanted to move the food offering to a more relaxed and informal one, at the same time as creating a space for a more flexible hospitality offering including for drinkers; it dawned on him that the concept he was thinking of already existed in the form of a pub with a dining room. I have to agree that the way we can let people use The Drapers in a way that suits them – including arriving with no intent to eat but choosing to spontaneously after the fact of getting there (from a bar snack to a full meal) – is one of the most attractive aspects. Dan Doherty makes the same point – that the pub space belongs to customers and is inclusive for all budgets and whatever people’s aim is for their visit.
I find it interesting that there isn’t a lot of focus in our conversations on the relative economics of pubs versus restaurants. We are all in agreement that the hospitality industry in London is facing challenging times, both currently and with the uncertainties of Brexit. Staffing is a challenge, but for both types of offering, and the same goes for food and drink costs. We do agree that even a pub with a significant focus on its food offering, or a restaurant within a pub as I think we should probably all admit we offer, probably has some advantages from the underpinning of people who just come in to drink.
Preserving that pub welcome, having space that people can feel very comfortable just sitting and drinking in without having to reserve and where you don’t assume table service is a philosophical must to all of us. Tom Oldroyd goes as far as to have a clear section of the pub where the dining menu simply isn’t available making sure that at least some of the space is going to be used for predominately drinking laced with some consumption of his strong bar snack offering (those crab and chips buns right?). Although I raise a quizzical eyebrow at the way people will react to that when the dining area is full and there are only spaces left in the non-dining area I can’t help but admire the purity of the idea.
All of the lovely pubs I visit have been carefully preserved as proper pubs that provide a local resource and a warm, informal welcoming space – which is in each case a tribute to the customer-facing sensibility of these talented chefs. I suspect none would be viable without an attractive food offering bringing in not just locals but people from further afield too. For that, local people have a reason to be grateful to these talented chefs choosing to ply their trade as publicans, whatever their motivation.
This article was first published in Issue 16 of CODE Quarterly
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