Visiting York recently for a weekend stay involved a much-anticipated meal at Roots restaurant where the elaborate tasting-menu, contemporary décor and exemplary service was exactly what I was expecting from the Michelin-star venue operated by acclaimed chef Tommy Banks.
What came as a surprise though was that the Tudor-style building housing the restaurant had previously been The Bay Horse pub. The bar and beer taps have long gone along with Banks’ original concept of operating an informal small plates menu. This was jettisoned as it became a more high-end venue during the pandemic.
It is a similar story at Banks’ other Michelin-star, tasting menu-only venue, The Black Swan at Oldstead in Yorkshire. You don’t need me to tell you that this smart restaurant operates out of what was also a former pub. His plan was to run it as a pub with rooms offering a more mainstream menu but as the chef’s skills evolved it quickly became a destination venue for Michelin standard food and all the formality and booking-ahead palaver that comes with it.
Banks is having a third attempt at running a genuine, easy-going pub having just taken on The Abbey Inn, a mere stroll down the road from The Black Swan. He has stated that it will be nice to have something more informal in the portfolio again, especially as he has young children and the relaxed nature of the pub is his thing right now on a personal level.
Banks goes as far as to state that the pubby concept for The Abbey Inn is “set in stone” and that there will be no drifting into the tasting menu domain again as seen at his previous two locations. Sometimes it can be very difficult for acclaimed chefs – especially those like Banks who have become TV personalities (from Great British Menu and Saturday Kitchen) – to run more relaxed hospitality venues because customers invariably come with high culinary expectations.
Simon Rogan, holder of three Michelin stars, some years back took on the pub in the village of Cartmel close by his flagship L’Enclume restaurant. He had no intention of running anything other than a down-at-heel boozer for the locals but customers from out of town were attracted to it. They were invariably disappointed to find it had none of the foodie trappings of its sister site. Rogan chose to curtail his pub ambitions and instead opened a brasserie-style venue in the village with accommodation upstairs.
Fellow high-end chef Daniel Clifford also sought to run a regular pub, The Flitch of Bacon in Essex, alongside his Midsummer House restaurant in Cambridge but this proved a challenge because again the customers’ taste was for top-notch food because of the reputation of the chef. The pub today, without the involvement of Clifford, is very much a restaurant with rooms serving tasting menus.
Clearly other high profile chefs have also gone down the pub route over the years, including Heston Blumenthal with The Hind’s Head and Tom Kerridge with his Hand and Flowers and The Coach in Marlow, but in many cases they have hardly ever been pubs you could wander into for a quiet pint.
Whether or not these ventures have truly looked to retain the character of real pubs – with all the informality and egalitarianism that comes with these unique institutions – they have all largely failed in having the feel of a pub because they have had the reputation, profile and skill of great chefs involved.
Judging by the demand for tables at these establishments they absolutely have their place but they also highlight how joyous is a regular pub. The ability to simply walk in off the street, not have a menu thrust into your hand, being able to sit where you choose, and staying a long as you wish are all welcome attributes. Although the food is unlikely to ever be as good as that found at the Hand & Flowers the bill at the end of your visit will undoubtedly be easier to swallow. Let’s hope it can be third time lucky for Tommy Banks and that The Abbey Inn does not succumb to offering tasting menus but instead successfully hangs onto its true pub status.