Out of the cold and into the pub

Cowering under a slightly-too-small umbrella to protect myself from a blackened sky that was gushing out a torrent of rain, while receiving no benefit whatsoever from an outdoor heater that was bereft of gas, was not my idea of how to conduct a business meeting.

When you add in the choice of only two bog-standard beers, dispensed from the temporary outdoor bar, then it was sadly a poor alternative experience to that we’d have enjoyed if we had been inside the sumptuous The Wigmore pub, attached to The Langham hotel. It encapsulates all that is good about a British pub and my experience in its (no doubt lovely in the sun) alfresco terrace encompassed all that can be disappointing about being forced to drink outside.

The Wigmore is a relatively newly reimagined boozer that launched in 2017 and brings together a smart interior that references the Victorian glory days of pub architecture along with a contemporary drinks offer and a top-notch pub food menu devised by renowned chef Michel Roux Jr. I’d be very surprised if The Wigmore is not the model for the work recently carried out on the Blue Boar Pub, which is attached to the Conrad London St James hotel.

The interior of The Wigmore

The Blue Boar Pub owners suggest it is a modern take on the classic London pub and, as well as the work done on the interior, it has also attracted a top name chef, Sally Abé from the Michelin starred Harwood Arms, who completes the package of what many of us today want from a pub. The chef’s move, and the investment in the infrastructure, reflects some interesting activity in the sector.

Among the exciting developments is the creation of Camden Market’s first pub, which opened earlier this month. The Farrier is another example of a sophisticated take on a boozer with the requisite quality food and smart interior, along with a Camden touch via a vintage hi-fi system and DJs doing their thing at the weekends. 

It describes itself as a neighbourhood local, which is much the same path due to be trodden by the exciting partnership of the JKS Restaurants team, pub operator Dominic Jacobs and chef James Knappett. Everything JKS has touched to date has turned into gold so I’m particularly interested to see how they sprinkle their sparkly dust onto pubs. First up will be the Cadogan Arms in Chelsea in July and then it is understood The George on Great Portland Street will push them towards a planned five-pub portfolio by 2024. Also joining the pub party in London is MeatLiquor’s Scott Collins who returns to his roots by taking on the Dartmouth Arms in Forest Hill. 

Camden Market’s first pub – The Farrier

Such activity reflects the enduring appeal of the pub to inspirational people in the hospitality sector and hopefully heralds an exciting time for the industry that has had a particularly tough time over the past year with many closures. The full impact is yet to be felt until there is some visibility on the rent moratorium situation. 

This might then unleash the much-discussed wall of money that has supposedly been ready to descend on the pub sector. To date, it has been something of a damp squib. Talk from senior executives at companies such as Shepherd Neame, Greene King and St Austell is more about focusing their efforts and funds on their existing estates rather than embarking on grandiose acquisition sprees for distressed assets. There is a belief that the innovation they’ve had to employ to squeeze revenues out of their assets with one hand tied behind their backs this past year has given them some insights into how they can sweat their assets much more fully when they are free of any trading constraints.

As we all venture out from beneath umbrellas in pub gardens around the country and the clouds begin to lift – metaphorically rather than meteorologically speaking – the glorious British pub looks like it remains a great place to be (inside) regardless of whether you are a drinker, an operator or investor.

Glynn Davis, editor of Retail Insider 

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.