Nothing beats a great pub lunch. It’s one of life’s uncomplicated joys. The blackboard menus, the wooden beams, the honest grub. Hell, I’ve missed it. Of all the deprivations of the past year, this one I’ve felt particularly keenly. Now gastropubs, among the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic, are being restored to us. It’s like a starter pistol has gone off. I can’t wait to do the rounds of all my favourites, embark on a pilgrimage to pay my respects and offer thanks.

The royal in St Leonards-on-Sea picked up a Michelin Bib Gourmand award in January
The royal in St Leonards-on-Sea picked up a Michelin Bib Gourmand award in January © Georgina Cook
Venison, Jerusalem artichoke and spiced red cabbage at The Royal
Venison, Jerusalem artichoke and spiced red cabbage at The Royal © Georgina Cook

Among the newest boozers on my crawl will be The Royal in St Leonards-on-Sea (3), which opened in October 2019. Its chef and co-owner, Sam Coxhead, used to work at Great Queen Street in Covent Garden, as did James Hickson, who runs the front-of-house. Hickson also worked at St John in Smithfield and the Canton Arms in Stockwell, one of my favourite gastropubs in London. When I first visited The Royal ahead of the third UK lockdown, I had every reason to expect good things and it didn’t disappoint. Among the starters on the short daily menu was an extraordinary prawn bisque that was light and full of flavour (it turned out to be dairy-free). My onglet steak, a barrel of meat on slow-roasted tomato halves in a pool of mustardy juices, was not remotely artful but it was delicious, particularly with chunky chips to mop up the juices. And the Mirabelle plum and almond tart for dessert had me clamping my eyes shut to savour every bite.

It’s a meal I’ve returned to in my mind again and again in the months that have followed. But I wasn’t even sure The Royal had even survived; current reports suggest that more than 2,000 pubs have been forced to close permanently in the past year. Fortunately, after picking up a Michelin Bib Gourmand award in January (for exceptional food at a moderate price), The Royal plans to restart service from 19 May, when most pubs will fully reopen.

Tom Kerridge’s chocolate and ale cake at The Hand and Flowers in Marlow
Tom Kerridge’s chocolate and ale cake at The Hand and Flowers in Marlow
Inside the Hand and Flowers
Inside the Hand and Flowers

There are now 15 pubs in the UK with one Michelin star. The Hand and Flowers (1), which chef Tom Kerridge opened in Marlow in Buckinghamshire in 2005, is the only one with two; it also warrants a visit. The food is a masterclass in how pub classics can be elevated. Kerridge’s take on smoked salmon with brown bread, for instance, is a brined, smoked and confit salmon fillet with discs of frozen salmon parfait, a pine emulsion and beer crackers. When I last went, I had the famous glazed omelette of smoked haddock and parmesan. The tea-saucer sized dish was so generous in flavour (by which I mean creaminess) that I could hardly finish. That richness was also in evidence in my main, a slow-cooked duck breast with sweet and sour onion tart and almond crumble, as well as my dessert, a hypnotically wobbly banana and chocolate soufflé.

Another standout is The Harwood Arms in Fulham (2), especially for its Sunday roast. They know better than to meddle with the traditional main. The roast chicken and beef are well-sourced, cooked beautifully and come with all the trimmings, including some blowsy Yorkshire puddings and crisp roast potatoes. But there are other innovations. When I ate there last September, I was especially taken with the starter of Porthilly oyster and English sparkling soup, for which a frothy cream was poured from a jug onto a lone chopped oyster with avruga caviar on a bed of spinach. An oyster beignet was served alongside in an oyster shell. The dish tasted not dissimilar to moules marinières, which struck me as a neat trick: a familiar pub flavour being delivered in an unfamiliar way.

The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent
The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent © Philip Harris
Whitstable native rock oysters with chorizo, pickled cucumber and Avruga caviar
Whitstable native rock oysters with chorizo, pickled cucumber and Avruga caviar © Philip Harris

Some of the best rural pubs have made a virtue of championing local produce. Take a bow The Parkers Arms in Lancashire (6), The Star Inn in North Yorkshire (8) and The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent (4). Sixteen years ago, Stephen Harris, chef-patron of The Sportsman, introduced a tasting menu (a very un-pub-like concept). In 2008, it won a Michelin star. When I went in October, I had some of the best food of my life: sublime Crown Prince pumpkin soup, a faultless grilled slip sole, succulent roast lamb, and a stunning quince soufflé with cream cheese ice cream. Everything was spot-on. 

I remember reaching The Sportsman, in its remote spot beside the sea, by skirting the coast from Whitstable by foot. As I walked, the sun went down and the mudflats glistened in the fading light. By the time I arrived, it was pitch-black outside and the pub was literally a beacon of light. It may sound corny but the picture stayed with me. It seemed to sum up what pubs are all about: a focal point and haven where you can get drinks and a meal with loved ones in cosy, convivial surroundings. That’s surely why we cherish pubs and have missed them so darned much. 

@ajesh34

UK pub crawling with Ajesh Patalay

1 The Hand and Flowers, 126 West Street, Marlow, Bucks (thehandandflowers.co.uk)

2 The Harwood Arms, Walham Grove, London SW6 (harwoodarms.com)

3 The Royal, 1 St Johns Rd, Saint Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex (theroyalstleonards.co.uk)

4 The Sportsman, Faversham Rd, Seasalter, Whitstable, Kent (thesportsmanseasalter.co.uk)

Five more for the road:

5 The Gunton Arms, Cromer Road, Thorpe Market, Norfolk (theguntonarms.co.uk) – for Ivor’s crab pasta with chilli and coriander or the rib of beef to share, cooked on the open fire 

6 The Parkers Arms, Hall Gate Hill, Newton-In-Bowland, nr Clitheroe, Lancs (parkersarms.co.uk) – for the hogget, either in a Lancashire hotpot or roasted with mash and root vegetables 

7 The Scran & Scallie, 1 Comely Bank Rd, Stockbridge, Edinburgh (scranandscallie.com) – for the signature fish pie that changes depending on what’s fresh

8 The Star Inn, Harome, North Yorks (thestaratharome.co.uk) – for the grilled black pudding starter with pan-fried foie gras and salad of pickering watercress 

 9 The Wild Rabbit, Church St, Kingham, Chipping Norton, Oxon (thewildrabbit.co.uk)– for the Daylesford dry-aged ribeye steak with mustard slaw and chimichurri

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