Drunkenly leaning walls propping up low-beamed ceilings and sunken armchairs sitting snug next to open fires: it’s all part of the enduring archetype of the British country pub...
There’s a slew of centuries-old rural locals across the UK in which chefs and owners are rethinking what it means to serve pub food, and in turn transforming unassuming villages into rightful food destinations. Here’s our round-up of the best ones for a weekend away.
The Peat Inn, Fife St Andrews
A kind-of rarity: the relaxed Michelin star restaurant. This roadside inn balances that crown on its 18th century roof and has done so since the mid-80s, when it won Scotland’s first Michelin star. Since 2006, under Katherine and Geoffrey Smeddle, it has retained two AA rosettes with a menu that is—in the lofty world of restaurant stars—relatively accessible and unpretentious.
There’s a six-course tasting menu for £76, with locally sourced produce like smoked venison tartare with quince puree, tournedos of dry aged Scotch beef, a well-curated cheese board, and the pefunctionary wine flights. The lunch menu is, unsurprisingly, where to experience head chef Nick Briggs’s mastery without the price tag, with a three-course set menu for £25.
The Duncombe Arms, Staffordshire
This part of the Peak District, the southern tip between Staffordshire and Derbyshire, sees little action aside from the seasonal traipse of ramblers. So quaint is the village of Ellastone that it inspired George Eliot’s fictional ‘Hayslope’ in Adam Bede, and it could easily be described as the back-end of nowhere if it weren’t for the draw of the The Duncombe Arms, a rambling old pub saved from disrepair by Laura and Johnny Greenall.
Under the couple’s watch it has become a destination of its own, serving a monthly changing menu of imaginative dishes that are at once familiar (fish pie and mash) and slightly unexpected (pumpkin pithivier with kale and butter emulsion). There’s a handful of well-designed rooms and it’s close enough to the peaks to make for a weekend of walking, but The Duncombe is also very much here for people who simply want to eat, drink, and move cyclically from chair to bed and back again.
Llys Meddyg, Pembrokeshire
Foraging has quietly proliferated over the past few years, thanks in part to younger generations’ hyper-awareness of the climate catastrophe and pivot to the natural world for wellness remedies. Llys Meddyg’s chef and owner Ed Sykes championed foraging long before it became a hip food trend, and sources produce from the Pembrokeshire National Park in which the Georgian former coach house sits. It is laid-back fine dining, where simplicity reigns and a fair amount of the ingredients are picked wild to reflect the seasons.
A la carte there’s Welsh shoulder of lamb with foraged sea vegetables and cod with cockles, with seafood sustainably sourced from the Irish Sea (less than a mile away) and meat straight from the local butchers. Sykes’ new venture is artisan smokery The Smoke Shed, which maintains the ancient technique of smoking to enhance flavour and recently birthed its first product, cold smoked salmon from the waters of Northern Scotland.
The Rose and Crown, Snettisham, Norfolk
Imagine a twee watercolour painting of a British village pub and it probably looks something like The Rose and Crown in Snettisham: a squat, whitewashed stone building with just the right amount of ivy framing its front door. Inside there are low-beamed ceilings and wall-width open fires and its 16 bedrooms adhere to a ‘seaside’ theme, for the beach is five minutes away.
Really, though, people are here for the food: it won The Good Pub Guide’s Norfolk Dining Pub of the Year 2020 with a split menu of classics and slightly modern ‘gastropub’-esque plates. Beer-battered haddock and chips aside, a snapshot of the menu includes venison suet pudding with clapshot mash and roasted lamb loin with mini shepherds pie and confit carrots.
The Stump, Cirencester
Owners Baz and Fred were careful not to strip out The Stump’s old-world spirit when they took over in early 2019. Formerly known as the Hare and Hounds, they reopened the inn in August 2019 with local craft beer on tap, barrel-aged negronis, and a short but pleasing menu of inventive pizzas and pastas—they also still run the pizza stall in London Bridge’s permanent street food hub, Flat Iron Square, from where they started out.
The inn’s interiors are all exposed beams and stonework, original panelled wall seating and gnarled bar stools, offset by alternate whitewashed and moody grey walls, and colour-pop prints. A breezy drive away is Cirencester and some of the Cotswolds’ most-visited villages, including Bourton-on-the-Water and Bibury.
The Grazing Goat, London
Proving that it is possible to evoke countryside quaintness in central London, The Grazing Goat’s ground floor pub and first floor restaurant flow seamlessly into eight bedrooms, each a study in a very specific brand of contemporary timelessness. Muted Farrow and Ball tones, warm oak furniture, period-style prints and roll-top baths all feature, along with sprawling beds and Egyptian cotton sheets.
The restaurant promises produce sourced from across the UK, and so is typically seasonal. Through winter there’s roasted pheasant, an oyster mushroom burger, and the hearty goodness of a changeable ‘pie of the day’. All of this in Marylebone, a ten-minute walk from the maelstrom of Oxford Street.
The Bull Inn, Totnes
Organic is often conflated with elitism, but in the case of The Bull Inn—an organic pub by entrepreneur Geetie Singh-Watson—to focus too intensely on profit margins is to defeat the object of community-minded sustainability altogether. Singh-Watson opened the world’s first certified organic pub in 1998 in Islington, London, and The Bull Inn is her fourth venture. As is the case with the other three, here the onus is on avoiding zeitgeisty fads and instead sticking to strong core values, namely a commitment to keeping environmental impact to a minimum by, for example, saying no to air-freighted goods.
Everything on the menu is ingredient-led and made entirely from scratch by head chef James Dodd (a particular delight is the chance to sample the ‘staff’s tea’ for a very reasonable £8). Upstairs its eight bedrooms are troves full of Singh-Watson’s flea market finds—she spent years sourcing antiques enough to fill each room of the inn.
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