THIS really has been the year of the country pub. Time after time in 2013 we came across rejuvenated village inns, many reopened after periods shut.
A common factor in many of the more successful hostelries was ownership. The pub companies are now selling their massive estates and at sensible prices too.
What this year has proved is that village pubs can be made to pay in private hands, but there isn’t enough profit in them to create the margins required by PubCos.
The best example of this was the Bridgewater Arms at Winston which Greene King finally gave up and patron/ landlord Paul Grundy, the man who created its reputation, is now back behind the bar and in the kitchen. Many people have said how pleased they are to see Paul and his wife, Kathryn, back in charge.
The new small pub entrepreneurs continued their good work. Provenance Inns purchased and will reopen in 2014 the much-missed Black Bull at Moulton, near Richmond. West Park Assets, the Richard Sykesbacked concern, took on the Angel at Topcliffe which just snuck into our top ten and took the total number of North Yorkshire pubs they own to eight.
The Bridgewater, which although comfortably in our top ten for its excellent fish dishes and efficient service, was some way behind our 2013 stand-out destination, the only recipient of the coveted four 10 scores.
Perversely perhaps, what made the Horseshoe Inn at West Rounton special was its very ordinariness. It’s a small, simple, village pub re-opened after a number of years closed and on the Sunday we called it laid on a superb traditional lunch.
There was absolutely nothing fancy about. It was just the perfect roast (slowroasted silverside) and three veg with roast potatoes, followed by a peerless apple crumble and custard.
English classical cooking at its very best served by pleasant people in a spotless, refurbished Yorkshire inn. What more could anyone want? On that particular Sunday we couldn’t think of anything.
The White Swan at Danby Wiske fell into the same smashingly simple category and the Carlton Inn at Husthwaite scored highly for another great Sunday spread. Again this was a pub newly re-opened in private ownership after a period shut.
New ownership at The Buck at Maunby lifted it to equal second place. What impressed us about this isolated hostelry between Thirsk and Northallerton was the way everything was made on the premises, from the herby bread served with the starters to the complimentary handmade chocolates which came with the modest bill.
Jointly in second place with The Buck was Yorebridge House at Bainbridge, the Yorkshire Dales boutique hotel created by David and Charlotte Reilly. Despite the absence of a head chef, the food was inventive and top notch. But it was the service which really made the occasion special, which bring us to our second theme of this year’s review. Service is so often the difference between the bog standard and the exceptional.
These days it is not hard to find passable food. Indeed, this year we found hardly anywhere which provided terminally dire fare (not even the grim Bridge House Hotel at Catterick Bridge was that bad). Almost every pub, cafe and restaurant can produce a decent plate of grub but service standards are almost always ordinary at best. Given that many hospitality industry staff are young people filling in gap years/holidays/time before a “proper” job comes along, it is perhaps not surprising that they are not always totally committed.
Finding any place where the waiting staff are genuinely and engagingly interested in looking after you is actually quite rare. At Yorebridge, it helped enormously that the ladies in the party shamelessly fell for the Gallic charm of the maitre d’, but middle-aged ladies’ infatuations aside, the staff were just so switched-on and attentive without going over the top that it made the occasion.
Service was good too at Richmond’s Grill and Brasserie, a most welcome addition to the town’s eating offer and some fine dining competition for the Frenchgate Hotel, which demonstrated in November that it has returned to top form.
Finally, a word for Dropswell Farm Shop, near Trimdon in County Durham where we enjoyed a memorable breakfast and experienced the passion of butcher Paul Craddock, who makes pancetta, sobrasada and chorizo from locally-reared pork. Bizarre but beautiful.
And finally finally, those who can remember what happened before Christmas may have noted that Bells, the fish and chip restaurant in Durham that scored so highly last week isn’t included in the 2013 top ten. If it had it would have come 5= with the Bridgewater. Because this was largely compiled before Christmas, Bells didn’t make the cut, but it will be considered for inclusion in the 2014 list.