The Great British boozer’s had a bashing. This is nothing new — for the past 20 years they’ve been calling last orders. But if there’s been a death rattle for two decades, these past 16 months have seen a stony-hearted switching off of life support: since the pandemic first swept ashore, nearly 2,400 pubs have rolled out the barrel for the very last time and one figure suggests a full fifth will close by August. Campaigns are now unfurling across the country to help keep doors open and pumps pouring — one of the more high profile, Long Live The Local, sees landlord (and model) Jodie Kidd calling on the Government to lend a hand by reforming VAT, beer duty and business rates. It may not be enough.
An inauspicious time to get into the game, then. And yet that’s exactly what’s happening, with a rush of openings announced as new faces and old hands alike try out life behind the taps. When in doubt, it seems, go to the pub.
If it seems surprising, that’s how some of those involved see it, too. “If 10 years ago someone would have told me I’d be opening up a pub, I really would have laughed,” says Tatiana Fokina, who, along with her eccentric billionaire partner Evgeny Chichvarkin, has just opened the White Horse off Mayfair’s Shepherd Market. “But, you never know where life will take you.”
Quite. Fokina and Chichvarkin — who dubs himself “the Willy Wonka of wine” — are better known as the duo who’ve driven Piccadilly’s three-storey, Michelin-starred behemoth Hide to its substantial success, and for running Hedonism Wines, the merchant just off Berkeley Square that draws those in the know for its astonishing cellars (want to drop £100,000 on a bottle? Easy), and those who just want feed-worthy photos (the shop’s extravagant frontages are famous; recently, there’s been a field of wheat, a sculpture of pastel egg cartons, and giant Valentine’s hearts made of white Champagne bottles). But their new pub, which Chichvarkin is keen to stress is really Fokina’s project, is no expensive whim — in fact, they say, against conventional wisdom, they’ve opened a pub to save a little cash. Seeing the site inspired an idea. “So it’s an abandoned piano bar, and it used to be a barber shop, and it’s split over two floors, and we just realised — this is interesting,” says Fokina. “The pandemic made us see you can work anywhere, and we really don’t need our old office space. So we work here during the day, and then it’s a pub from 5pm, and the plan is the pub pays for our offices.”
The space is a beautiful one, and Fokina designed every inch of it, right down to blow-torching the candles that sit artfully melted in the marble fireplace. While the pair insist it is a proper pub — and it is, there’s beer, they screened the Euros — the draw is in the wine. Bottles start at £34, but a glass can be had for a fiver. “Mayfair isn’t great for pubs with decent wine,” says Fokina, “but here there’s a really, really interesting list; nothing too geeky, but there’s some good stuff if you want it.” She’s being modest; a bottle of 2015 Corton Renardes burgundy is listed at £350. Fokina says she’s been delighted to see locals embrace the place, and Hide staff popping in for a wind-down drink after service.
“Pubs aren’t really in Russian culture that much, so we’ve listened to our teams, we’ve embraced their feedback and ideas. We made sure our menu of food was right for drinking with” — she nods to the buttermilk chicken, the barbecued aubergine, the short-rib bun — “and we made sure it all felt right, because the pub, it’s such a quintessentially British thing.” So it is, and Fokina and Chichvarkin have been careful not to toy with things too much.
Down in Vauxhall, the team behind the freshly-launched Jolly Gardeners know just how much a place can mean to its neighbours. “A lot of people had heard it was turning into flats and when they saw us throwing out stuff into skips, we had them coming over, all ready to have a go,” says Jon Kaye, the one-time Oblix, Neptune and Delaunay man who’ll oversee the front of house, “But once they heard what we were here to do, to restore the place to a proper local, we had all sorts from around here helping us — electricians, plumbers. Some of them didn’t even want paying, they just wanted a bar tab!”
We fantasise about the Italian aperitivo, the French wine bars, but we have the envy of the world in our pub culture
Kaye is one of three hospitality types who, after a rough year in the industry— “we all lost a couple of jobs” — teamed up with two old mates, engineer Ryan Vivian and surveyor Rob Humphreys, to find comfort in their love of pubs. Beside Kaye are brothers Dan and Nick Blucert, looking after the kitchen and bar respectively, and between them the three have had stints at Polpo, the original Silo in Brighton, Big Easy and time with the D&D group.
The five friends found the place after Dan, who lives a few doors down, came in to look around after the lights went out on its previous incarnation, Zeitgeist, a German beer, sausage-and-schnapps place. Then they found out the history. “We’ve got the piano Charlie Chaplin used to play on,” says Kaye. “Allegedly. And it’s the back bar where Guy Ritchie filmed bits of [2000 film] Snatch — you know the Desert Eagle scene, when Vinnie Jones tells the gunmen to f*** off?”
The quintet say they’re trying to keep the local in “a local”. “I’d rather have a pub full of regulars than a restaurant full of first-timers,” is how Nick puts it.
They’re working with south London breweries for their beers, name-checking Mondo in Battersea and Walworth’s Orbit, but in a nod to the pub’s previous life, are keeping two German offerings. “There’s a guy who comes in four times a week and has his wheat beer. We keep it on just for him, I don’t think he realises,” laughs Kaye, “We just call him Wheat Man.”
It seems the era of the identikit-opening is out. “To be honest,” says MeatLiquor co-founder Scott Collins, who a fortnight ago welcomed Forest Hill punters to a revamped Dartmouth Arms, “I opened because I needed a good pub near my house to drink in.”
The need was enough to pull Collins back into the fray, 10 years after he last opened a pub (in fairness, the enormous success of MeatLiquor has kept him fairly occupied). “Look, I missed them. I’ve been looking for two or three years and now felt… serendipitous.” Now — really? I mentioned the one-in-five stat. Collins is unmoved. “Well, be honest, most of those are sh*t. The plague has done quite a lot of due diligence on the industry.”
Besides, Collins adds, “People have fallen back in love with pubs because of all this. I’ve been a pub geek for years.” Determined to keep things appropriately boozerish — and to reverse “years of gastro pub mediocrity” — Collins says the Dartmouth Arms is “75 per cent pub, 25 per cent MeatLiquor”, and will serve the chain’s full menu. “The biggest seller in pubs is always a burger. It’s taken me this long to figure out that I should just go back to a pub and do burgers in one,” he says. “Turns out I’m a bit of a slow learner.”
Like the Jolly Gardeners lot, the locals are the thing for Collins: “I inherited the pub’s Insta and picked up on this account, @colincactus, really paying attention. He’s lived opposite the placefor over 20 yeas, I think he sells old punk paraphernalia. A regular. I invited him in for a drink and he actually got emotional. ‘Genuinely’, he said, ‘you’ve made it into a pub again, this is f*cking brilliant.’ He was the acid test.”
Collins isn’t the only one to be drawn back to pubs after a time away. Two-Michelin-star Kitchen Table chef James Knappett, who grew up in a pub, is overseeing the menu at Chelsea’s Cadogan Arms, open July 28. This will be a proper food-lovers pub, with ex-Ledbury and Harwood Arms chef Alex Harper in the kitchen, and Running Horse owner Dominic Jacobs looking after the day-to-day. The detail is everything, Jacobs says, and they went so far as to bring craftsman out of retirement to decorate the pub; the Georgian-style linen-fold panelling wouldn’t have been done otherwise, ditto the stained glass windows.
Knappett says it’s the familiarity, the friendliness and the feeling pubs give that attracted him to work in one after years of fine dining. “I remember knowing the locals, playing pool, going to the social club with Dad; it was a ritual. It’s knowing the barman. Or as a teenager, going and getting wrecked — I’d probably prefer to forget some of those times! — but the pub always gives a good buzz. We’re unique in this country to have such an array of them.”
Jacobs agrees. “After a very challenging year, it’s an honour to be opening somewhere, not closing a place. We often fantasise about other countries’ drinking cultures — the Italian aperitivo, the French wine bars — but every city in the world has one ‘British’ place. We have the envy of the world in our pub culture.” Quite right. And on the strength of London’s latest lot, the capital might soon just have the envy of the rest of the country, too.