WHAT makes an award-winning pub?

There are probably no people better positioned to answer that question than Gil Richardson and Phil Spellacy. For they are at the helm of not just one accolade-accumulating hostelry but two.

The two pubs, the Bruce Arms and the Bull Inn, are within a few yards of ale of each other in West Tanfield with just the A6108 Masham-Ripon road and a small donkey field between them.

Given that West Tanfield is just a small village one can’t help thinking that two pubs in the same hands is a recipe for a bit of rationalisation.

But no, the Bull is different from the Bruce. Perhaps the ideal way to sample the best they both have to offer is to turn up early on a summer evening, grab a pint at the characterful Bull and enjoy in its beer garden beside the slow-moving River Ure. Idyllic.

And when the shadows have lengthened sufficiently and tummies are rumbling it’s just a short stroll to the Bruce where the food is the main attraction.

The Bruce does have a beer garden too, and we settled there briefly while we waited for friends to arrive. It catches the late evening sun too but the outlook (car park and main street) is somewhat less appealing than the Bull’s view of the Ure.

Now, those awards. The Bull was Yorkshire’s Favourite Pub as decided by a popular vote in a 2016 Welcome to Yorkshire competition having been runner-up in 2014 and 2015.

The Bruce’s success was more recent. This year it was shortlisted in Visit England’s Awards for Excellence for the best Tourism Pub. In the event it came third but that’s pretty good in a nationwide awards scheme.

So what caught the judge’s eye? From the outside the Bruce Arms has solid, stone-built, no-nonsense look about it. But once inside it reveals its considerable traditional charm. The stone-flagged floor and fire hearth in the bar is worn shiny from more than 200 years of stout boots. The robust country furniture is from an era when comfort always triumphed over style and the off-white and deep red walls create an intimate atmosphere when the evening light fades and the fairy lights sparkle.

We were very well looked after. We may have said this before but what really distinguishes pubs and restaurants these days, what really sorts the wheat from the chaff, is the service. Most places can turn out a half-decent plate of food but few can really get the service spot on day-by-day, week-in, week-out.

We suspect The Bruce is one of them given the easy professionalism of every member of staff we came across. We think they were led by someone called Maggie (it was her name on the till receipt) who was super-attentive at all the right moments but otherwise left us to enjoy our food and conversation.

And the food coming out of an open kitchen rather strangely situated just inside the pub’s doorway was almost as good.

A five-starter, nine-mains, a la carte menu was supplemented by a specials board which featured lots of fish which is what attracted us for our starters.

Sylvia and Philip gave an unequivocal thumbs-up to their cod goujons (£7.95) and the very lemony garlic mayonnaise dip that came with them. Karin went all seasonal with some super-fresh English asparagus (£7.95) and poached egg and I was lured, as ever, by Doreen’s black pudding (the wonderful triangle stuff made at Thirsk) which came with three monster scallops £8.95, barely cooked but soft and almost pillow-like in their yielding translucency, and “textures of apple” – puree, batons and tiny ones halved.

When it came to mains, a friend had raved about the rich, almost chocolately velvet venison casserole and although it was on the specials board on this occasion, it really wasn’t the weather for such a wintry dish.

So it was more seafood for me in the shape of an excellent slab of roasted hake (£19.95) on top of a hearty broth of mussels, prawns and pearl barley which was further enlivened with samphire and saffron.

Sylvia and our guests felt the prospect of 35-day aged steaks from R & J Butchers just down the road at Kirkby Malzeard were too good an opportunity to pass by.

Karin had the “Butcher’s Secret Steak” – a secret that we can’t recall – but Karin thought it very fine and at £18.95, it was £3 cheaper than the sirloins that Sylvia and Philip enjoyed. All were cooked on the button – medium rare, medium and a well done – and came with all the usual trimmings (tomato, mushroom, skinny fries and flavoured butters).

We sort-of shared a truly epic “Tour de Yorkshire Peleton” cheeseboard (£9.95) – four cheeses including a brie paired with figs, Swaledale Cheese Company’s Bedale, which is billed as a cheddar but is really a tangy Wensleydale, with rhubarb compote and a Duke of Wellington soft blue cheese with sweet onion marmalade. Terrific.

Collectively we also demolished a lemon cheesecake (£7.95) with a crunchy granola base and lemonade jelly topping.

Including drinks (almost £50 was spent on a bottle of Malbec, soft stuff, half a lager, two glasses of house wine and two coffees) the bill came to £183.35 which on paper seems a little on the steep side but, given the service and cooking, worth it.


The Bruce Arms, 2 Main Street, West Tanfield, HG4 5JH

Tel: 01677 470325

Web: thebrucearms.com

Open for food: Wednesday-Saturday noon-3pm and 6-9pm; Sunday noon-4pm and 6-9pm

Disabled access. Allergens catered for.

Ratings (out of 10): Food quality 9, Service 10, Surroundings 8, Value 8