Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The price of success

In 1996, as part of a series of articles on Cheshire pubs, I reported for Opening Times on the Grosvenor Arms at Aldford a few miles south of Chester. Although at the time we did not recognise it as being part of a chain, this must have been one of the first mentions of a Brunning & Price pub in a CAMRA publication. My conclusion was:
If your ideal country pub is a down-to-earth rustic alehouse, then the Grosvenor Arms may not appeal. But it's undoubtedly an attractive, confident, stylish and successful pub which is run with a great deal of care and attention to detail, and sets high standards of food, drink and ambience. Most importantly, where many other places with similar ambitions might settle for a solitary handpump and a Caffreys dispenser, it gives beer the prominence it rightfully deserves. These qualities will surely see it before too long making an appearance in both the Good Beer Guide and the Good Pub Food Guide.
At the time, B&P was an independent chain that had been founded by Jerry Brunning and Graham Price. As their company history records, the Grosvenor Arms was one of their first pubs in the North-West. While unashamedly upmarket and food-oriented, they were in many ways a breath of fresh air in comparison to chain dining pubs, with a strong emphasis on cask beer and fresh, local ingredients, and a respectful, individual approach to renovating the pubs they acquired. Over the years, I enjoyed a fair few meals at B&P pubs, including some birthday celebrations, with the beautifully-situated Dysart Arms at Bunbury being a particular favourite.

The chain gradually expanded to fourteen pubs, most in Cheshire, Shropshire and North Wales, but with a handful in the South-East. While the essentials didn’t change, it was noticeable that the menus got a little more ambitious and gastro, and the new conversions a little less “pubby”. I remarked in my review of the Grosvenor Arms that it had what was almost a vault area with a bar billiards table – you wouldn’t see that in the new ones. More and more, they were becoming places you really wouldn’t feel at home just visiting for a swift pint.

Then, in 2007, the company was acquired by The Restaurant Group, owners of Garfunkels and Frankie & Benny, which maybe didn’t seem an ideal fit although, given that the founders were probably approaching retirement age, nobody can really blame them for cashing in. Since then, it has grown to 55 pubs, with many new openings in the South-East. I can’t say I’ve been to any of these, but Martin Taylor, who has, concludes that they’re adopting a cookie-cutter approach to interior design, and they don’t have the turnover to support their beer range.

Nothing can stop the march of Brunning and Price though, and their Packhorse at Mapledurham is exactly what you’d expect from the chain, as easy to detect from the interior now as a Wetherspoons or Ember.

Nothing wrong with smart old dining pubs with decent beer, of course, and I’ve always found somewhere pleasant to sit with a half and listen to light ’80s pop (yuk). Their ale range, with beer miles displayed, are always well judged, but I never find the quality better than average (Maggs Magnificent Mild NBSS 3).

Like Wetherspoons, their commitment to cask is meaningless when everyone is drinking wine and lager with their £15 lunches.

They have also become far more unashamedly gastro than they were when they started out – look at the menu for the Grosvenor Arms and draw your own conclusions. And nobody can tell me that menu doesn’t rely heavily on the freezer. I can’t help thinking that such places are in effect pub-themed restaurants and can’t in any meaningful sense be regarded as pubs in the normal sense of the word. They have taken over the place in the market that smart restaurants occupied thirty years ago.

14 comments:

  1. Syd Differential21 June 2016 at 11:51

    That menu looks to me to be a pretty standard range of pub grub dishes at normal prices.
    Unless you're in a poncey gastropub in that their London I don't see how you can produce a menu like that without using a freezer - with the subsequent higher prices that entails.
    Personally I can't stand eating in pubs but I know many of them would be out of business without catering for the ladies who lunch and the sales rep being given a gee-up by his area manager.

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    1. Normal gastropub prices, maybe, but I'd say 50% above normal "pub grub" prices around here.

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    2. Syd Differential21 June 2016 at 18:58

      You only pay nine quid for a 10oz rump steak with horseradish butter, mushrooms, tomato and chips ?
      Does it still have a bridle in its mouth ?

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    3. 50% above would mean £12, not £9. And how about this - Sizzling Pubs, 10 oz rump steak, with onions, chips, tomato and mushrooms, £7.99. And, unlike B&P, you can have curly fries :-)

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  2. Can you get a pint of Smooth at 8am in these posh Spoons?

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    1. I doubt whether they open until 11 or 11.30 (like most non-Spoons pubs). Maybe next time he's in one, Martin Taylor could check whether they have Smooth on the bar.

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    2. Does anyone actually drink Smooth?

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    3. They certainly do in your average Spoons!

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  3. The only B&P pub that I know of is the Sparrowhawk in Formby. I've heard the beer is very expensive and so I haven't visited. Some fellow CAMRA members tell me the beer is in good nick, but I see little point in a longish bus journey to pay through the nose for a pint in a restaurant.

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  4. I can only comment on the Cheshire & Shropshire ones, but most around here seem to have a decent turnover of cask beer. They are pricey mind, a good 50p a pint more than any other pub in the area, but it seems to work for them. I've had a couple of pints served a bit cold, but never any that have gone off.

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    1. I think, and I'm sure Martin Taylor would agree with me, that the problem is not beer that has gone off, but beer that is dull and tired due to lack of turnover.

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    2. Lack of turnover, and too big a range, means slightly tired and warm beer. Never had a chilled pint to be honest, or a real duffer that you'd take back. I imagine if a group of CAMRA members turned up on a Friday evening they'd get a decent half, and be (over) impressed with the range, but a different issue on a Tuesday lunchtime. I've rarely seen cask served in my visits.

      Their food can be good, but portion size isn't great

      https://retiredmartin.com/2015/09/22/brunning-pricey/

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  5. My mate supplies their fish cakes to their own specification and they are very good indeed. I've never been to one but as the food offering is supposed to be good, pubs like this are really restaurants. Very similar to, but more upmarket than M&B's Vintage Inns perhaps?

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  6. Just come across this piece. My local is a Brunning & Price pubs, one of the last developed by the founders before the sale to the Restaurant Group.
    I think there is a danger of over simplification in some of the comments above, my local sells six cask beers, of which three are permanent, and the manager still has genuine freedom over the brands he chooses.
    As a result 2 or 3 at least are local brands at any one time, and the "usual suspects " are nowhere to be seen.
    It helps that there is a proper bar survey, unlike some of the more recent developments, and that the manager runs a weekday "happy hour" till 7 PM on the cask brands, making them £3.10 per pint rather than the rack rate 3.70 or 3.80.
    From talking to staff it is clear that the Restaurant Group want to move even further in the food direction, and a recent refurb unfortunately softened some of the more "pubby" elements of the interior.
    The food menu typically offers 15 main courses and the sales mix is apparently 70% food/30% wet; given the pub's appeal to the grey market, I suspect a number of the more elderly customers actually drink very little.

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