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  • Writer's pictureCharlie McVeigh

Baggy Trousers & Pubs

I don’t know about you, but I am suffering slight trouser anxiety. For an awfully long time mornings have been straight-forward. Get up, put on some variant of the skinny jean. Or maybe a chino. Notice how I am using the singular for trousers. Eg, ‘The pant’. I have adopted that recently, while nervously scanning – God forbid – men’s clothing websites. The problem is that the ‘just in’ pages now feature what look to me like a radical new cut. The closest comparison is what a few millenia ago were called Oxford Bags, very wide from the top down. I have noticed the kids wearing these for a while, generally bought in charity shops, but now, terrifyingly, they are edging into the mainstream. I actually bought a pair, and made the mistake of asking the opinion of wife and daughter. Cue general tears of hilarity. Too early in the style-cycle is my optimistic take on that.

Fashion changes. Suddenly that guy with the Japanese Selvedge narrow jean looks like someone from the sticks who buys his clothes at the country casuals stand at a county fair. Eventually, us skinny pant-wearers will be ordering them from the back of the Telegraph Magazine, the place where men’s fashion trends go to die.

I mention this because I am getting back into the pub business after an extended hiatus (I haven’t really been involved in the design of a bar since 2018). At that time, from memory, we were probably at the tail end of post-industrial, steam-punk chic – who remembers the ‘squirrel bulb’? Cheap to install because it was just a naked pendant fitting, but then you had stock up up on the bulbs themselves at £14 a pop. We had newly-fitted pubs which looked like they had emerged fully-formed  from the Mutoid Waste field at Glastonbury in the 1980s.

For that trend, I blame the genius who is Adam White, creator of the Riding House Café which launched in 2011. Everyone sat in his totally packed, beautiful restaurant and marvelled at how his almost entirely reclaimed interior felt like it had been there for ever, an instant classic. Within a few years every new launch had reclaimed everything. Most did not really pull it off, but that also is the way of trends. The Draft House, for a spell, had forests of squirell pendants and artfully distressed stools made of weird – and let’s be honest fake – bits of factory salvage. And neon – Christ! Neon! Acres of it. It looked cool (for a while) but too much it was blindingly bright and sucked all the warmth out of the room.

In the intervening period, there has of course been a shift. The re-invention of the gastro-pub as the high-end pub-restaurant shot through with DNA overlapping with that found in the cells of Margot Henderson (Rochelle Canteen) and her husband Fergus (St John).  Doing simple well is the hardest thing, and that is what this strand of pub is all about.

I would say it started with the Camberwell Arms way back in 2014. By rights, this should never have worked, a terrible mid-terrace pub site on a fumey, bus-heavy red route with narrow pavements in South London. But a supremely confident team and menu – which changes daily with the seasons have ensured success to such an extent that on my last visit it looks like it has created its own eco-system with other upscale operators opening in the immediate vicinity.

Then came The Pelican in my manor during covid, the opening salvo from what is now called The Public House Group. A nice Victorian corner site located on a notoriously challenging drug-dealing corner in which I have seen probably ten operators fail in the past twenty years. Chunks of high-end beef and whole turbots on the specials board, accompany a simply-worded hyper-seasonal menu, explained by a wonderful waiter who re-writes the specials on your menu while kneeling by your table.

Joe Grossman (founder of Patty & Bun) last year snaffled Sam Andrews, a Camberwell Arms alum, for The Waterman’s Arms on the river in Barnes. A walk there for Sunday lunch has become one of the great pleasures of London.

Then there is the epic Devonshire, which needs no further publicity, and anyway may be pointing to a new iteration of wet-led, with posh food on a separate floor.

It is no exaggeration that these pubs, and they very much are still pubs, offer the supreme food and service experience in London just now. They are not easy to do and there is a question-mark over whether they are scaleable. Almost certainly not in general, though Phil Winser and James Gummer from the Public House Group are having a good go at proving me wrong.

Meanwhile, hopefully humbly, I am helping Jamie Allsopp of Allsopp’s Brewery to launch The Blue Stooops in Kensington, his own contribution to the field with a kitchen to be led by Lorcan Spiteri whose experience has significant ‘previous’ at the key source restaurants mentioned above. We will be splitting the focus between our own take on that ‘simple’ menu and an attempt to promote marvelous foaming pint-glasses of cask ale – that much abused treasure of English beverage – in an elevated setting. Cask ale in London is pretty broken so it may be a Quixotic quest, but when we launch in September by God will we ever give it a full swing of the bat.



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