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Pies, Pints & Pesto

There are already ten UK pubs with Michelin stars, and more expected this month. Nick Yates finds out how the successful taverns have struck foodie gold without losing their soul


If you were after a barometer of the growing importance of food to the pub market, the Michelin series of guidebooks would be a pretty good place to start. The Michelin Eating Out in Pubs guide 2011 is due to hit shelves about the same time as this magazine. Last year, 573 pubs were deemed good enough for a listing, and it is likely that more will get the nod this time. It will continue the trend established by the latest edition of its daddy, The Michelin Guide, which awarded coveted Michelin stars to a record 10 pubs.

The number of pubs that are judged to be competing with the very best restaurants has been growing slowly but steadily since The Stagg Inn became the first to get a star in 2001, Michelin having first felt it necessary to include a pub category in the 1998 copy of the guide.

Star Quality
As the UK’s population of around 53,000 pubs (down from around 58,000 in 2005) continues to shrink in an on-trade version of the survival of the fittest, more and more licensees are turning to food in addition to the fundamentals of beer, wine and spirits to keep their businesses afloat. The small but significant number included in Michelin’s elite represent the pinnacle of the market – although not necessarily as you might think.

The democratisation of The Michelin Guide to consider pubs means that stereotypically classy grub is no longer a prerequisite if you want to win the marketing power that comes with being awarded a star. After all, haute cuisine is generally not how pubs attract the custom of diners.

What the accolade essentially means is that an establishment has been recognised as providing the food to satisfy customers – whether it’s a pub classic like sausage and mash or a delicate fish dish, all the judges are looking at is the quality on the plate. As such, all 10 starred pubs are unquestionably successful, profitable businesses driven by food. They provide useful models for all those boozers undergoing by-the-numbers refurbs and bringing
in chefs for the first time.

Perfect Ten
Michelin-starred pubs in full

The Harwood Arms
Fulham, London
The Hand & Flowers
Marlow, Buckinghamshire
The Masons Arms
Knowstone, Devon
The Nut Tree
Murcott, Oxon
The Olive Branch
Clipsham, Rutland
The Pipe & Glass Inn
Beverley, North Humberside
The Royal Oak
Paley Street, Maidenhead
The Sportsman
Seasalter, Kent
The Stagg Inn
Titley, Herefordshire
The Star Inn
Harome, North Yorkshire

For most, getting a star has been a natural side-effect of serving food that satisfies and pulls in punters. For example, while the award of The Star Inn’s first star in 2002 got its name out and added an estimated £100,000 to its £1m turnover that year, ‘there was barely any inkling at the time that a pub could get a star’, according to Andrew Pern, owner and head chef of the country pub in Harome, North Yorkshire.

‘If you worry about getting or
keeping a star, you probably
don’t deserve one’
Phil Harris

Phil Harris, licensee of the Michelin-starred Sportsman, in Seasalter, Kent, agrees. ‘The thing about a star is, if you worry about getting one or keeping it, you probably don’t deserve one,’ he says.
‘Since the star is about consistency of quality, it’s not as if you get one by trying extra hard in the week the inspector comes in. Once you have attracted the attention of the judges, you will already have got your offer right and have enough clientele.’

The Star and the Sportsman are both clinically thought-out businesses obsessed with quality and consistency, with no expense spared. ‘We have manufactured it to be the perfect pub business,’ says Pern of a thatched area cleverly split up to provide a range of settings to suit any diner – from ye olde flag-stoned bar, to linen table cloth-type private dining rooms, to a lush beer garden.

‘I will bollock somebody if they overcook the asparagus. It’s about having standards. There’s no point having a good product that you’ve gone to great lengths to source from a proud producer if you’re going to fuck it up.’

The Sportsman’s Harris says: ‘I know how much attention to detail goes into very, very good food. It’s those details that matter. It’s about the home-baked bread coming with nice butter. The olives we give away for free cost an arm and a leg, but setting them down on a table when someone arrives sets the tone, which is then maintained through the rest of the meal. The actual core of the dish, the piece of lamb or turbot, is important but it can’t be let down by crappy veg.’

Balancing Act
The Michelin reviewers say there is growing demand for quality food served in the relaxed environment of a pub – and crucially, ‘pubs’ is exactly what these places want to remain, rather than graduating to being considered as restaurants.

It is hard to tell exactly what makes an eatery a ‘pub’ and indeed The Michelin Guide is somewhat sketchy in how it defines the category. There is consensus, however, that pubs – unlike many restaurants – will not turn away customers who just want to sit at the bar and drink.

‘We are never going to be fine dining.
A lot of people misinterpret what
Michelin stars are all about’ Alex Sergeant

This certainly applies at The Harwood Arms, the first pub in London to be awarded a star. Down a back street in posh Fulham, it has worked hard not to alienate its thirsty regulars and pre-match football fans by keeping pub staples such as a weekly quiz.

Nevertheless, general manager Alex Sergeant explains that it has been a challenge balancing
the aspiration to remain a traditional pub with the expectations of the influx of foodies since
the Harwood got its star last year.

Seeing Double
Inevitably, some of the more down-to-earth customers have been scared off, he says, though he has developed a policy of keeping space free to accommodate drinkers. The flip side is that ‘in the first few weeks after the guide’s publication, we had new people coming in and complaining because the service was not up to fine dining standards. We are never going to be that. A lot of people misinterpret what Michelin stars are all about.’

Michelin revisits its featured pubs each year to check whether they are still worthy of the listing, stripping stars if standards have slipped, and upgrading to two or even three stars if they have further improved.

Is it only a matter of time before we see the first two-starred pub? And what would it mean to these impressive members of a pub market in which food is being established as a mainstay?
Enthusiasm for a second star varies between The Star, Sportsman and The Harwood. ‘Getting the
star was like winning a gold medal at the Olympics,’ explains Pern. ‘Once you have one, there’s a competitive thing going on, where you want more.’

‘If I turbo-charged the service, got a few French accents in, charged a bit more, I could probably get a second star,’ claims Harris. ‘But that’s not how I want to do it – it would alienate our customers who have got us where we are.’

Whether or not such pubs want the adulation of a second star, the increasingly large number of licensees turning to food suggests that the sector is likely to keep attracting the attentions of Michelin inspectors.

Tips for pubs hunting a star

Pay up for a top chef
Stephen Williams, formerly of Notting Hill two-starred restaurant The Ledbury runs the kitchen at The Harwood Arms, for example.

Spare no expense in the quality of your ingredients
‘There was a time when you could fool people with a Brakes Brothers menu. Not now. People are far more attuned to quality food,’ says Sportsman’s Harris.

Sourcing good ingredients generally means shopping around among premium suppliers and watching for what is in season. The Star Inn uses a complex network of local North Yorkshire farms and businesses, in many cases specifying on the menu exactly where the dishes’ components have come from.

Be consistent
Above all, the Michelin judging process is a test of whether your food hits the spot time after time. An off day can mean the difference between getting a star or being overlooked.

Maintain wet sales
Keep in mind that you are still a pub and drinks sales matter. At The Harwood Arms, general manager Sergeant talks passionately about the pub’s food, but also its signature Bloody Mary and the finely honed pricing of the drinks menu.

Don’t alienate the locals
Your casual customers who come in for a pint and perhaps a snack still represent important income streams from repeat business, so they should not be pushed
out by over-prioritising food.

The Star Inn boss, Pern, remembers a diner objecting to waiting for his table while a group of drinkers finished their game of dominoes. The diner was diplomatically told where he was going wrong in claiming that the £100 or so he and his friends were going to spend on lunch should make them the more valued customers.

Think carefully about your pricing structure
The Harwood, Sportsman and The Star have all been wary about using Michelin as an excuse to pump their prices up to the levels of up-market restaurants.

Think about a USP suitable for a pub
At least two of the 10 pubs with Michelin stars have spectacular Scotch eggs on offer, for example. Chat show king Michael Parkinson challenges other kitchens to compete with the Scotch eggs at his starred pub, The Royal Oak. The venison versions at The Harwood Arms would be a very good match.

The Sportsman is known for curing ham in salt harvested from the local beach, although Harris stresses that a USP must tie in with the rest of the menu: ‘It’s like a clock. The ham is one of the cogs, but the whole thing wouldn’t work without all the parts working together.’

Be honest
If you don’t have the skill and resources to create complicated dishes, you are more likely to succeed with simpler ones that you can be confident of getting right, advises Harris.

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