I recently wrote about the delights of the Vaults in Uttoxeter, but even that small town (population 13,100) has two of them – Marston’s Dapple Grey on the retail park, and Whitbread’s Water Bridge as part of the “Service Area” on the bypass.
A couple of years ago, borrowing somewhat from a blogpost by Phil Mellows, I wrote in my Opening Times column:
While these pubs cater for a different market than your average Wetherspoon’s, they come off pretty well in a direct comparison. They often demonstrate a much higher standard of seating comfort and materials, and also beat Spoons hands down in areas such as providing natural light and toilets on the same level as the bar area.They probably sell a lot of beer too – after all, only one person in a family group has to drive. And virtually all of them will offer real ale. Yet, for various reasons – no interesting beer, not somewhere they regularly if ever go – this is a phenomenon that has largely passed under the radar of the Beer Bubble denizens.
And they’re proving extremely successful, demonstrating that there are thousands of families across the country who, rather than cook and eat at home, prefer to go out for a meal once or twice a week. And it's the pub industry that's increasingly providing the kind of relaxed, informal atmosphere and value for money they’re looking for. It’s noticeable how busy these pubs can get around tea-time when much of the trade that traditional pubs once enjoyed has evaporated.
I recently had cause to visit a classic example – the Corn Mill at Toton on the west side of Nottingham, owned by Greene King under their Eating Inn brand, which is pitched a little upmarket of Hungry Horse. Not surprisingly, it’s right opposite a modern retail park. As it happened, I didn’t have an alcoholic drink at all, for the combination of reasons that I was driving, it was a very hot day, and the main reason I was there was to help a friend move into their new house following a job relocation. But we enjoyed a decent, well-presented meal in congenial surroundings, and it was noticeable how it was fairly busy even mid-afternoon on a Tuesday.
It’s a very big place, with the floor area of at least twenty micropubs, ranging from a definite “vault” area at the back with pool table and dartboard (so no dusty welcome to drinkers here) through to “family dining” at the other end. I’m not sure whether that meant that children were discouraged in the area on the other side of the sign. Apart from the usual Greene King beers, there were a number of guests on the bar, including Draught Bass and some from local micros. As I didn’t try any I can’t comment on the quality. I didn’t check, but no doubt there was an East Coast IPA tap and a few bottles of Punk IPA in the fridge to give a nod to the craft beer revolution.
Certainly far from my ideal pub, but I have to admit that owes more to the concept of heritage than modern business. They’re also going to get people into pubs who otherwise wouldn’t dream of visiting them. And does the success of the new-build dining pub suggest that we are increasingly dividing into the two nations of “Retail Park Britain” and “Northern Quarter Britain”?