The London pubs becoming outstanding food venues

Cycling back from King’s Cross on a recent early Sunday evening, I thought I’d pass by The Tamil Prince pub and grab a quick pint on my way home as I’d seen it had been on the market and had new owners running the show. 

On peering through the window of the attractive north London pub and noting a lack of space, I gave it a miss and went elsewhere (The Plimsoll at Finsbury Park, for those interested in such details). Maybe I should not have been surprised that the Tamil Prince was busy as it had been receiving some pretty decent reviews from a flurry of national newspaper critics, extolling the virtues of the Indian food it was serving up. It was quickly gaining a reputation across the city for its quality dining offer.

The Tamil Prince: Two pints of lager and a bowl of battered chillies

This was certainly great news for the locals, and pub lovers in general, because the property (previously called The Cuckoo) is one of those lovely Victorian boozers in a pretty smart residential area that simply won’t attract enough trade if focusing primarily on drinks. It had done reasonably well in its tucked away location, with food a decent part of the proposition, but not at a level that would draw people in from beyond the local area.

At the same time that The Cuckoo was on the block, The Baring, a couple of miles across town, was also looking for a new owner. It had gone through a catalogue of hopeful operators who no doubt found it tough to make the economics stack up. With new owners on board and a focus very much on food, the pub has become a destination venue for dining, and some buzz has been injected into the inner-city boozer.

The same description could absolutely be given to The Pelican, on the All Saints Road, that sits right on the edge of Notting Hill. It has gone through numerous owners over many years but has always failed to find its feet – until now, that is. The new owners have cleaned and polished the place up and brought food to the fore. Within a matter of weeks of reopening its doors, it is pulling in people from across London as the reviewers sing its praises.

Heading for better days: The Pelican in Notting Hill

The common theme that runs across these three pubs is they have been taken over by extremely accomplished chefs and front-of-house professionals with impressive pedigrees from highly respected restaurants. They represent a giant step on from when the first wave of such food-led activity occurred in pubs that created the dreaded gastropubs phenomenon. Many chefs simply had aspirations beyond their capabilities, and the focus on lamb shanks and triple-cooked chips in those early days was to the detriment of many venues that were stripped of all their pub life. They very much set the model of the gastropub, which all too often sat rather uneasily between restaurants and pubs, with their frequent pretentiousness skewing them more towards the former.

Over the years there have been many exceptions, of course, across the UK – and certainly with these latest London-based incarnations, whereby food-focused pubs have embraced radically more varied menus and much better balanced that tricky pub/restaurant dynamic. At The Tamil Prince, the kitchen is headed up by the former chef at the renowned Roti King, where customers continue to queue around the block for the flaky bread. These dreamy breads have been joined by next-level onion bhajis and pulled beef masala uttapum. Meanwhile, at The Pelican, the menu includes the likes of lobster and monkfish pie, and at The Baring, we’re talking quail shish and ricotta gnudi. 

Interior of Islington’s The Baring

In an old dog and new tricks sort of way, I’m still somewhat wedded to the old school way of demarcating my hospitality activity – it is restaurants for dining and going to the pub for my alcohol quota, alongside an assiette of snacks ideally comprising Scampi Fries, Mini Cheddars and Tayto Cheese & Onion crisps.

But maybe it’s time to change this thinking. Certainly, I’m incredibly pleased that we now have a wave of chefs going into what have in recent years been rather standard pubs in the capital and turning them into outstanding venues with very distinctive food at their hearts. They are doing these fine structures, with their rich heritages, a real justice and breathing new life into businesses that would otherwise, all too often, become a statistic on the dreaded pub closures list. Right then, now to book myself a table at the Tamil Prince, if they can squeeze me in.

Glynn Davis, editor, Beer Insider

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