The QT

Thursday 23 May 2024

Great grub and still proper pubs

The gastropub has been around for what seems like ever, writes Alastair Gilmour. Let’s celebrate it
The Rat Inn at Anick

Karen Errington points to the chalkboard in the pub she owns with her partner Phil Mason. Its handwritten temptations are obvious but she insists they don’t run a restaurant. “I’m very proud that I can say this is a pub,” she declares. 

The Rat Inn at Anick, near Hexham in Northumberland is undoubtedly a pub — three top-notch local beers on tap, intimate bar area, comfy counter for elbows, huge cast-iron range for winter warmth, a collection of knick-knackery that takes the devil of dusting, magnificent beer garden and award-winning food. She has a good right to be proud.

The Rat Inn has been included in the list of the UK’s Top 50 Gastropubs — organised by food and drink events business William Reed and sponsored by Spanish beer brand Estrella Damm — without a hiccup every year since 2013. 

The full figures make the feat all the more impressive; 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, 2024.

Today’s blackboard reads: Pork fillet stroganoff, schnitzel and terrine — and Karen knows the farming family where the pigs were reared. Peppered rump, sirloin or fillet steak — she knows exactly where the cattle came from and how carefully they’re tended. Cream of cauliflower and mature cheddar soup — it’s a safe bet she’s on nodding terms with the Brassica family.

Pheasant at The Rat Inn

Twenty miles downriver to The Rat Inn, The Broad Chare on Newcastle’s Quayside has also enjoyed identical UK Top 50 Gastropub success. Significantly, this pub is run by renowned chef and restaurateur Terry Laybourne who has amassed award upon award over the years (which includes a Michelin star in 1992). 

Laybourne is a ‘proper pub, proper food, proper beer’ type of guy who treats beer and food with equal reverence, which surely describes the notion of a gastropub to a T, with nothing fancy and nothing fussy on the menu, just delicious food served alongside proven local ales.

Back at The Rat Inn, Karen Errington says: “The Top 50 is a good thing to celebrate; it’s a prestigious list and a great one to be on. It’s all about good food, locally-sourced seasonal produce, good honest cooking — traditional cuisine. You can dine here or buy a packet of scampi fries, have a pint and chat to the bar staff.

“At the first presentation event we were at I was sitting next to Mike Belben who created the term ‘gastropub’ at The Eagle in Farringdon in London with David Eyre in 1991 and told him we must be the only pub here that’s got an outside netty. He said, ‘Wow you should be so proud of that, I bet no-one else has’.

“And we’ve still got it, though people are a bit surprised by it.”

The Top 50 Gastropubs list is 100 strong now, but only the top half receive a certificate, leaving room for improvement.

“It’s definitely put The Rat on the map, raised our profile,” says Karen. “Through that, we often get included in some of those ‘places to eat in the countryside’ type magazine features and get a lot of tourist groups, particularly Japanese and Americans because the first thing they want to see is a traditional English pub.

“That’s our style: traditional and relaxed with an emphasis on local produce. Our suppliers are listed on the blackboard and are all local enterprises. 

“There’s no real pattern to it; if something looks like it might work we’ll put it on the menu. We concentrate on cooking with flavours that go together. People like that as the menu changes daily to incorporate the best produce available.”

The Broad Chare’s blackboard is a bar snack lover’s delight

And, when you have a kitchen brigade that includes the talents of co-owner Phil Mason (Craft Guild of Chefs Pub Chef of the Year 2023) and head chef Kevin Maclean (national Pub Chef of the Year 2018) who headed south-east from the celebrated, Michelin-starred Three Chimneys on the Isle of Skye, there’s an awful lot to be said about what appears through the swinging doors.

Karen says: “And as for great beer, there’s no real need to go further afield than the locality, plus picking up casks from other parts of the country is always a problem, so we concentrate on Allendale, Hexhamshire, Corby and First & Last breweries.”

I once had a side hustle that involved showing beer enthusiasts round the delights of Newcastle’s pubs. The job description invariably drew a ‘lucky sod’ from those who knew. Sometimes a ‘jammy git’.

Depending on the visitors’ brief, this would include straight-forward, often ‘earthy’ pubs, perhaps a social club, but more often than not it was a chance to pause over lunch, sip a couple of beers and for me to describe our surroundings in a historical or social context. ‘Showing off’ my wife calls it.

The Broad Chare’s Scotch eggs

I quickly learned that Belgians couldn’t get enough of our local beer along with Scotch egg chasers — both of which were (still are) a bar speciality of The Broad Chare. Platters came and platters went while I fretted over the cost to my client at the end of the day.

Egg-bound, our guests then began picking over Lindisfarne oysters, pork crackling (from Middle White pigs) and cauliflower fritters served with curry mayonnaise. 

There’s more, but this was only Monday and the Belgians were in the region for a week… 

Alongside the UK Top 50 Gastropubs run of success there’s a recent Michelin Bib Gourmand for The Broad Chare to get its teeth into, plus a five-year residency in the number three slot of the American travel guide Big Seven Travel. 

And of course, this is a pub that takes its beer seriously with the likes of Anarchy Blonde Star, Hadrian Border Northern Pale and Intrinsic Energies Extra Special Bitter from Out There Brewery, based in the city’s Ouseburn Valley, barely a half-mile away.

The sole visitor is the once-legendary Draught Bass. “It’s what my dad drank,” reasons Laybourne. 

Haggis on toast at the Broad Chare in Newcastle

On receipt of Broad Chare’s latest Estrella Damm UK Top 50 Gastropub award, he posted: “The pub aims to treat both food and beer as equal partners, ensuring that the venue has a genuinely ‘pubby’ feel with separate bar, ‘snug’ and dining areas across the floor.

“Make no mistake, there’s some serious skill on display from head chef Dan Warren.

The Broad Chare’s menu is a broad church, with previous highlights including Jerusalem artichoke soup with hazelnuts; salad of celery hearts, walnut, pear and Beenleigh Blue; and game terrine with hedgerow jelly and sourdough for starters.

“Mains have consisted of dry-aged rib-eye steak with watercress and steak butter; charred celeriac with spelt, Spenwood hard sheeps’ cheese, black kale and truffle; and black pudding, wild mushrooms and devilled sauce.”

However, a side table in the Broad Chare snug that parades HP Sauce and Heinz Tomato Ketchup shows that a traditional pub’s culinary heritage — gastropub or no gastropub — can never quite be abandoned.


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