Once upon a time, in a magazine office not particularly far away, journalists would tell each other tales of the fine establishments they’d dined in the night before and the exotic drinks they’d supped while eating. Remarkably, the establishments were pubs.
Soon after, ShortList’s Pints & Pistachios column was born. We’ve visited and reviewed the finest gastropubs in the land, premises where bread was dipped in oil, chips were triple cooked and ale was crafted by brewers out of love (and maybe a bit of profit).
This year, we thought it was time to rate the best, with your help – 5,000 of you cast your votes at ShortList.com, and we emerged with a definitive result. Shine your shoes, blast the trumpets, stand to attention: ShortList presents the 10 most magnificent gastropubs in the land.
10 The Victoria, Birmingham
Essential info : 48 John Bright St, B1; thevictoriabirmingham.co.uk
Specialities : Nine different types of burger, plus Deep South-style Sunday roasts that feature Cajun rubbed beef and cola-glazed hams.
Ale tale : As if you’ll have any room after all that meat… But if you do, the pub offers resident ale Wye Valley Butty Bach and guest ales including Thornbridge Brother Rabbit and Beer Geek Noble Geek.
What we say : Without a doubt, the most original gastro theme for any pub on our list, this Midlands venue plays host to a full-on Deep South diner. There’s no doubt that chefs Soul Food Project have stolen a march on the rest of the country, so expect a Deep South theme at your local soon. Failing that, head to The Victoria for, what we described as “a genuine taste of Louisiana”.
What you say : “The food, the cocktails, the staff, location, clientele and ambience. What's not to like?” Ben A Harvey
9 The Three Fishes, Lancashire
Essential info: Mitton Rd, BB7; thethreefishes.com
Specialities : It would almost be rude not to try the Lancashire hotpot, but then you’d miss out on the locally sourced 21-day steaks and the chargrilled rump burger.
Ale tale: Cask ales including Moorhouse’s Blond Witch and Thwaites Half Nelson can be sampled via beer bats, on which three thirds of pints are placed – meaning you can taste more.
What we say : The only country pub in our Top 10. The Ribble Valley establishment prides itself on its heritage. We noted: “Share a starter platter of local seafood then the Lancashire lamb hotpot before hitting the – you guessed it – all-Lancashire cheese board.”
What you say : “The Three Fishes serves generous, honest and delicious British food, locally sourced with a wide selection of beverages.” Luke Roberts
8 The WestRoom, Edinburgh
Essential info : 3 Melville Place, EH3; thewestroom.co.uk
Specialities: Other than the famous ‘fish and chips in the bag’ (see ‘What we say’), you can arrive early to sample a breakfast selection that includes Scottish, vegetarian and eggs Benedict.
Ale tale : A fairly straightforward beer selection is backed up by an excellent cocktail menu, including its own espresso martini.
What we say: In the middle of Edinburgh’s West End, this pub has most boxes ticked with gastronomic delights, cocktails and large screens. But in our initial review we were most taken with one element of the menu when we journeyed north: “Never tried local ‘delicacy’ chippy sauce? Head to this stylish, intimate pub for a bag of fish and chips served with the brown-sauce-and-vinegar mix.” When in Rome and all that.
What you say : “The WestRoom is like a home from home for me. Whether it’s for a quiet pint, a slap-up meal or a night on the tiles, you’re guaranteed a great experience.” Gary McGuff
7 The Lion & Unicorn, London
Essential info: 42 Gaisford St, NW5; geronimo-inns.co.uk
Specialities: Sunday roasts are not to be missed although you can go in any day of the week and take on the roast cannon of lamb (as long as you pay).
Ale tale Sambrook’s Pale Ale and Redemption Pale Ale are currently available, alongside a decent selection of craft beers to keep any ale aficionado satisfied.
What we say: Aside from the beer and food, you could have a top night out here thanks to the Giant Olive Theatre which sits above the pub. We weren’t lucky enough to sample a production while we were there, as we were too distracted by the fantastic menu.
What you say: “They know our names and they know our tipple, they don’t know our business because they’re not inquisitive or intrusive. And when we choose to dine on the spur of the moment, they will always do their best to accommodate us, however big our party is.” Chris Brown
6 The Crooked Well, London
Essential info : 16 Grove Lane, SE5; thecrookedwell.com
Specialities : Just the ‘usual’ culinary fodder here: rabbit and bacon pie for two. Pig’s cheeks also feature on a monthly-changing menu.
Ale Tale : The focus is on cocktails and the list is comprehensive: long, tall, short, er, wide? If you like your gin, there’s a mouth-watering selection too.
What we say : There’s a nice story about how the three people behind this Camberwell pub came together to start their venture, but let’s not get bogged down in sentimentality, eh? Suffice to say that chef Matt Green-Armytage, schooled at Le Gavroche, has conjured up an extraordinary menu that demands to be tasted. As we declared on our trip to south-east London: “The rabbit and bacon pie for two is worth the journey itself.”
What you say: “The Crooked Well is a godsend – the ideal local we’d been waiting quite some time for in this corner of London. It’s the perfect blend of friendly people and fantastic food. It’s one of those places you’re proud to ‘show off’ as your local to your mates, but secretly hope not everyone finds out about because you want to keep it as your own secret London place.” Gareth Clark
5 The Brook Green Hotel, London
Essential info : 170 Shepherd’s Bush Rd, W6; brookgreenhotel.co.uk
Specialities : An excellent traditional pub menu starring homemade burgers, sausages and mash and beer-battered haddock.
Ale tale : It’s a Young’s pub so its ales dominate alongside the usual lagers. There are also weekly guest ales.
What we say : This former coachhouse features 14 bedrooms but, with homes of our own in the capital, we were more concerned with the food. We concluded that “great Sunday lunches may be relatively easy to find these days, but superb ones are slightly more tricky to track down”. And just in case there’s any doubt, that meant we thought this was a superb one.
What you say : “The food is amazing, beer amazing and staff amazing, I love it!” Jay Heneke
4 The ship, London
Essential info: 41 Jews Row, Wandsworth, SW18; theship.co.uk
Specialities : It’s hard to look further than the chargrilled sirloin steak
but, if you have to, there’s also roast rump of lamb, braised pork belly and a seared fillet of trout.
Ale tale : A varied selection that caters for almost every taste and features, among many others, Bitburger Drive, Young’s Ramrod, Double Chocolate Stout and Special London Ale. Also, ask for the ‘Under the table’ wine list which boasts an excellent selection.
What we say: It may not be as scenic as other Thames-side locations closer to the centre of town, but this Wandsworth Bridge pub still packs a solid atmospheric punch with the south London locals. We were suitably impressed too on our visit: “Synonymous with Pimm’s, pints and hot summer days on its deck area. But in winter, the food is enough to lure you back.”
What you say : “I’ve been coming to The Ship for years and feel like I’ve grown up there. I even bought my flat close by because of it. This brilliant pub is always fantastic with better food than most restaurants.”
3 The Sheep Heid Inn, Edinburgh
Essential info: 43 The Causeway, Duddingston, EH15; sheepheid.co.uk
Specialities: The wholesome menu features lamb shoulder, rib-eye steak, a fine burger selection and a net full of locally caught fish.
Ale tale: The three regular cask ales (Deuchars IPA, and Harviestoun Bitter & Twisted and Natural Blonde) are aided and abetted by guests such as Inveralmond Lia Fail, Caledonian Golden Sun and Hawkshead Windermere Pale.
What we say: If we were dishing out prizes for history, this pub – which has been feeding and watering for six centuries – would win. But this is about the here and now – and winning a bronze medal in these awards is good going. As we noted: “Scotland’s oldest pub conceals a historical treasure: an antiquated skittle alley. Apparently a favourite watering hole of royals such as King James I and Mary Queen Of Scots, The Heid has, thankfully, had a facelift since those days, but it’s still serving high-class food.”
What you say: “The skittle alley is a lovely place for parties and get-togethers with family and friends. The beer garden is a sun trap during the day and a great place to meet friends for a beer and something to eat.” Bill Brow
2 The Salisbury Arms, Edinburgh
Essential info: 58 Dalkeith Rd, EH16; thesalisburyarmsedinburgh.co.uk
Specialities: Take your pick from slow-cooked pork belly, pan-fried Barbary duck, or a solid choice of beef or venison burgers.
Ale tale: Rotated draught ales include Purity Mad Goose and Harviestoun Natural Blonde. Kegs include Harviestoun Schiehallion.
What we say: What’s that you say, another Edinburgh pub? It seems the Tartan Army has been mobilised to vote to great effect. When we visited, we summised that “they know how to feed you… the huge menu is matched by giant portions”. Jay Rayner, eat your heart out.
What you say: “Seldom do you find an establishment that provides the right ambience for work and play, or feels right whether it be for coffee, lunch, supper.” Alan Webb
1 The Oast House, Manchester
Essential info: The Avenue Courtyard, Spinningfields, M3; theoasthouse.uk.com
Specialities: Ploughman’s boards, deli boards, barbecued burgers, steaks and ‘hanging’ kebabs – they’ve pretty much got your hunger covered.
Ale tale: A fabulous ale selection including Brewdog Punk IPA, regional brew Coronation Street, wheat beers and local dark beers such as Marble Chocolate and Brewer’s Dark.
What we say: This traditional Kentish hop-roasting building in the middle of Manchester walks away with the top prize less than a year after opening. There wasn’t space for a kitchen on the premises so the owners simply built one outside. Now that the sun has finally arrived, there’s a huge outdoor terrace where you can eat our recommendation of flattened rump steak with seasoned chips.
What you say: “A great atmosphere in which to eat and drink. The large range of beers, fruit beers, ciders and cask ales makes the food taste even better.” Stuart Thorley
What they say: “To receive such a remarkable accolade with our first pub is amazing.” Tim Bacon, managing director, Living Ventures
Favourite pubs of the famous:
Hugh Boneville, actor: The Rising Sun, Iping Rd, Milland, Hants, GU30
I've been going to the The Rising Sun in Milland, Hampshire, on and off for 35 years. In the past it has sometimes been a dull and unwelcoming pub but under Ben Burston and Frankie Swan's ownership it has blossomed into a big-hearted, vibrant centre of the community, serving delicious food from Richard Bridgens' kitchen. At peak times, and these seem to be frequent, Pete Alderman and the rest of the bar staff operate like whirling dervishes but always with a smile, not a scimitar. And I can highly recommend the Bloody Mary - like the pub, it's unique. rising-sun-milland.co.uk (Twenty Twelve Series 2 is available from BBC DVD and to download now)
Mylo, DJ: The Clapton Hart, 231 Lower Clapton Rd, London, E5 8EG
The best thing about the Clapton Hart is that it’s colossal. There’s a huge space upstairs and walled garden at the back, and, although I haven’t talked to the freeholder yet, I’m planning to use it as a venue for a cosmic space disco, next summer. Plus it’s a pub which brilliantly caters to middle class tw*ts like me: its interior is chic, a hell of a lot sleeker than my other local boozers which don’t seemed to have changed since Shakespeare’s time, the atmosphere is affable, and as a Scot, I can thoroughly recommend its rousing collection of single malts.(Mylo is mentoring Ronika for Bacardi Beginnings as part of Bacardi's 150th Birthday. See bacardi.com/beginnings)
Rhod Gilbert, comedian The Waverley, 3-5 St Mary's St, Edinburgh, EH1
The Waverley is a heady mix of old men in forty-year-old ties and yellow hair, festival goers like me, bemused tourists and stoic locals drinking whiskey and soda, beer from dimpled pint glasses, listening to live acoustic music wafting down from upstairs and getting high on the smell of the carpet. The Landlord is like a vampire who's finally decided to go straight. 120-years-old, with a turning circle like a narrowboat and hair like a vintage snooker cue ball. Grumpy and totally indifferent, shuffling and painfully starchy, but so much part of the furniture I imagine if there were cleaners, they'd just give him a once over him along with the ancient wooden beer taps.In terms of food you could try the crisps, but check the sell by date. As you can tell, I’m of the belief that all modern pubs are s**t. (Rhod Gilbert 'The Man With The Flaming Battenburg Tattoo' will be at the EICC from 15th-26th Aug, visit edfringe.com)
Ian Rankin, author, Chez Lucien, Ottowa, K1N, Canada
People are probably fed up with me raving about Edinburgh's Oxford Bar. It's where I drink and where my character Inspector John Rebus drinks. So instead I'll offer a far-flung alternative: Chez Lucien in Ottawa,Canada. It has great beers (including local crafts brews), a great jukebox, friendly regulars, and does good food. I feel at home whenever I walk through its door, usually with a bag of vinyl under my arm from a nearby record shop. It's a place for conversation, good humour and much-needed respite from life's travails. Pretty much my pub requisites, wherever I am in the world. (THE IMPOSSIBLE DEAD by Ian Rankin is available now in paperback, £8)
Jon Culshaw, impressionist, The Stag, 67 Fleet Rd, Hampstead, London, NW3
One of my favourite pubs is the good old Stag in Hampstead. The landlord Alex is a very amiable chap who runs a very tight ship. He's a rugby-playing fellow with the look of someone who could do origami with an alligator so there's rarely any trouble. It's Dickensian Victoriana on the inside and the beer garden is like an O.K. Corral from the future, with cabanas to sit in and two-bar electric fires stuck on the walls. There's always a nice atmosphere about the place.Sometimes it's fills up with Time Out reader types - all hats and attitude, it's like Hoxton-on-Sea in there. Which is part funny, part cool. Whatever happens, you're always guaranteed a grand time. thestaghampstead.com (Jon Culshaw is appearing as King Arthur in Monty Python's Spamalot at the Harold Pinter Theatre from 2 Aug - 2 Sept. Visit spamalot2012.co.uk)
Ed Macfarlane, lead singer of Friendly Fires Royal Albert, 460 New Cross Rd, London, SE14 6TJ
The Royal Albert serves crisp parsnips over one of the finest roasts I have ever tasted. Honestly, the food there is just incredible and I defy anyone to find a better Sunday menu in the whole of south east London. Though I should note that the social events are also worth going for. You can enjoy bohemian-like open mic nights, jazz evenings and DJ sets - a friend of mine regularly spins everything from techno to funk. Oh, and I’m also a fan of its charming fireplace, an amenity which - of course - any member of Friendly Fires looks for in a pub. (Friendly Fires are mentoring Aluna George for Bacardi Beginnings - see bacardi.com/beginnings)