THE BELINDA Castle didn't welcome strangers. The landlord might have done. The regulars, who treated the place as if they owned it, didn't. He was understandably eager to sell the lease. Plenty of shrewd professionals and idle speculators must have thought this Islington pub was ideally placed to go gastro. Turning an old boozer into a gastropub looks like the easiest way into the business of giving pleasure and making a merry living. But even for those who know what they're getting into, success isn't guaranteed. Some have hit the jackpot - just in this area of north London, The Social, The Duke of Cambridge and The Drapers Arms are packed - but a few echoingly empty done-up pubs exist to remind entrepreneurs to be wary.
At 28, Barnaby Meredith's CV is impressive: hotel management school in Switzerland, cooking at Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, maitre d' and then manager of Quo Vadis, and one of the team that launched The Well, a successful, ungimmicky gastropub in Clerkenwell. By last November he'd been looking for a pub for almost a year, and had seen and rejected 70 properties. "I was getting a bit desperate. But as soon as I walked in here I knew this was the one. I knew you could do so much with it, but because it wasn't on the beaten track I ummed and aahed." Now he's convinced himself it's the best site in Islington.
For the past three weeks The House has been open for coffee, lunch, dinner, wine, beer and glasses of grappa from the elegantly retro liqueur trolley Meredith had set his heart on. In a newly built kitchen extension, four chefs are turning out perfect parfait of foie gras and chicken livers with Armagnac and slices of toasted home-made brioche, meltingly tender shredded oxtail in a north African brik pastry parcel on densely buttery mashed potato with Shiraz sauce, and a sumptuous hot chocolate pudding with coffee ice cream. This is not, says Meredith, a gastropub. He'd prefer to call it a pub dining room. "More refined than a gastropub, not as intimidating as a restaurant. There will be no rules. You can eat what you like and drink what you like anywhere."
Whatever you call it, the holy grail's the same. The elements of location, interior decor, prices, food and service must alchemically come together as a convivial venue that draws customers away from the local competition. And into an atmosphere so seductive that they can't resist the third course, the second bottle of wine and one final digestif from the trolley. The wrong location can fatally skew an otherwise winning formula. Or not, in exceptional, unpredictable cases. The prices a place has to charge to pay the architect's overspend can put off the customers they'd counted on.
Gastropub watcher and restaurant writer Charles Campion has some words of warning. "Buying a pub used to be a cheap way to get a restaurant lease. Now it has become an animal all on its own. The look has been templated, and the food is formulaic. To succeed you have to be completely in tune with your surroundings."
No one knows how many pubs have spruced themselves up in the food department, and as Peter Haydon, brewing industry consultant and beer writer points out, as brewers start to fake the gastro part, there's a huge difference between former pubs serving top-class food and the bare-boards and blackboard menu effect with barely average food. He doesn't believe we've reached pub dining saturation. He says, in industry speak: "There is a growing market for premises that cater for fine dining arrangements," and that as times get harder for restaurants, gastropubs are set to pick up people who want to eat out and not pay West End prices.
There's no poetic justice in the restaurant world, but if anyone deserves to and ought to be able to make it work, Meredith and his team should. No one could accuse them of hubris. They've gone over budget by only pounds 20,000, and he's paying himself a modest pounds 12,000 a year and sleeping over the shop. …