Rural pubs have suffered more than most from the decline of the Great British pub, or so I'm told. Our village, out in the 'shire an hour or so from London aboard the belly of the metal horse is probably typical. It had at least four when we moved there, now it has two and a few years ago had just one. The latter is a short stumble from home. A small pub, with a small bar, a small beer garden, a massive thatched roof, ales from Greene King sitting alongside Carlsberg (or similar), and the distinct reek of desperation from endless promotions chalked up on a board outside. Still, run better than by the previous owners, who once refused to make sandwiches for five hungry office workers with nowhere else to eat. Gift horse firmly slapped in the mouth.
In a previous life, the second pub - a longer stumble down the road - was our drinking hole from the age of 16, serving us once every Christmas Eve after we all fled home. Decor that hadn't been updated since pilots in the Second World War scratched their names into the window, a pool table, darts board, Stella on tap, and the culinary heights of cheese and chips. It must have balanced on the breadline for a long time before it closed, collapsing into ruin before being bought, refurbished, and relaunched last year.
Now called The Belle, the pub has gone gastro in an attempt to fend the Grim Reaper from the door...again. Rejoicing locals stirred by the appearance of something new in their sleepy hollow queued through the door on opening night and booked tables for weeks afterwards. Clearly, having firmly poked this new arrival and deemed it safe, they decided not to return. On our Friday visit, three other tables were filled in a room of twenty. Perhaps the football, perhaps the sunshine, or perhaps the slightly slow service put customers off. It definitely wasn't the food. Expectations were low since that basket of cheap cheddar smothered oven chips and cheap cheddar a decade ago, but a Jerusalem artichoke salad, sharing board, various fish, roast pork, and lemon tart were all beautifully presented and delicious. I was shocked.
Good food, good ale, so why was The Belle deserted at peak time on a Friday evening? Why has a pub that - on the surface - done everything right failed to attract diners?
I'd argue that it's moved in the right direction, just not far enough. The Belle is impressive for a local boozer, but it's still just a local boozer, albeit one with a hardwood floor and clean toilets. What it's not is a truly gastro experience, one to attract people from miles around. The locals have been there and done it. That market's exhausted and the food, while good, isn't enough to see people jumping in the tractor or Mercedes and racing for dinner from the surrounding farms, fields, and manor houses.
To fill the tables, The Belle needs to crank the culinary offering up a good few notches. Caesar salad, cod fillets, a burger, and an obscenely priced rump steak don't make a menu smack you in the face and get you pencilling lunch in the diary. I could play roulette with that menu and while whatever I ate would be perfectly well cooked, filling, and tasty, it wouldn't be memorable enough to mention to a stranger on the train back to London and definitely wouldn't justify a return ticket (sorry Mum). The menu talks about 'local sourced produce' - this would be a good place to start, ditching much of the seafood and the Thai fishcakes, and concentrating on what's grown in and around the 'shire. Besides, Cromer is 100 miles away and I doubt they get much lemon grass growing out on the fens.