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What happens when one of London’s top chefs takes over a much-loved but down-at-heel Marylebone pub? Does it stop being a pub and become a restaurant instead? Can it create genuinely good food while remaining a proper boozer? The Journal heads to Dan Doherty’s recently relaunched Royal Oak to find out

Interview: Clare Finney
Images: Nina Sarkhel, Orlando Gili

To misquote Shakespeare, what is in a proper pub? A pub by any other name should smell as much of beer and sound as much of laughter. A pub should grant visitors at least four or five vital ingredients: they must serve beer on tap, they must have seats and an adequate standing area, they must have character, form a key part of the local community, and ideally serve some sort of food.

Of course, it’s this last pillar that proves most controversial, with foodies fawning over a gastropub’s guinea fowl and purists eschewing anything fancier than peanuts. But take a turn off Baker Street, amble down a tree-lined street of Georgian townhouses and enter The Royal Oak, and you’ll find two men whose dream it is to create a proper pub—one that pulls pints and punters of all guises—while at the same time serving top quality food.

Their names are Andy Ward, formerly of Meantime Brewery, and Dan Doherty: chef, food writer and judge on the heart-warming BBC1 cooking series, Britain’s Best Home Cook. Dan is best known for cooking at Duck and Waffle, one of London’s finest and most innovative restaurants. “For the past three or four years I’ve been thinking, what next after Duck and Waffle?” he explains, over two strong coffees before lunch service begins at The Royal Oak. “What would I do if it were a place I was directly involved in—if it were my restaurant? And the things that I kept coming back to were things like ‘rustic cooking’ and ‘relaxed environment’—things that, however I translated them, just said to me ‘pub’.”

A beautiful soul
So it was that in April this year, after six long years as executive chef, Dan left Duck and Waffle. By July, The Royal Oak had reopened under his and Andy’s ownership, after a deep clean, a paint job and a brand-new kitchen. Announcing the imminent opening on the only suitable medium for foodie news these days, Instagram, Dan explained: “It’s not in the best state, but it has a beautiful soul, one that we wish to bring back to life through plenty more hard work.” They retouched the ceiling, cleaned the drains (“They used to stink,” laughs Andy) and changed the beer lines. “We’ll upgrade it more over the next six months, but it’s a Grade II listed building, so there was a limit to what we could achieve in a short time.” More grandiose proprietors would have waited until it was perfect and reopened with a bang, Dan wrote, “but we aren’t going to do that. I firmly believe pubs are the anchor of the community, facilitating great times rather than dictating them. Because of that, we want to share our vision with the community… to see it at its worst all the way through to its best.”

Worst? I look around, bemused. The pub is simple, sure, but beautiful. Tall creamy walls soar into deep navy cornices and ornate ceilings, and gleaming white tiles form the elegant, bottle-studded bar back. “But it’s comfortable,” I observe aloud. It’s homely. If they refine it further, as they are suggesting, won’t they risk losing the very essence that makes it a pub? “I wouldn’t call it a refurb, more of an upgrade,” says Dan. “The beautiful elements you can see will either stay or be more emphasised.”

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“You won’t come in and think, oh my god, they have thrown the baby out with the bath water,” adds Andy. “It’s just finishing touches: providing a few more seats for solo diners, putting a lip on the bar so more people can be there, and adding soft furnishings to help the noise.”

They’ll introduce an outside smoking area. “Since the smoking ban, the outside area has become the place where lots of pubgoers interact and get to know each other,” Andy points out. “One of the Meantime pubs we used to have, the Greenwich Union, had what they called ‘the regulars’: a group of random people, who didn’t know each other before coming to the pub. One’s a builder, one’s in IT, one’s a lawyer—they all met in the smoking area. I’d love to have ‘regs’ here too eventually.” A pub, Dan chips in, is “a private members club, without the waiting list or the monthly fee. It’s somewhere you feel comfortable. It’s yours.”

He recalls the day they opened, when punters flooded in, grabbed a drink, and sat down with their friends or family with barely a nod to the owners. “It was weird at first. When we opened, we realised it wasn’t actually our pub anymore.” He smiles, almost like a parent whose child has grown up. “The people coming in weren’t coming for us. They were coming for the pub.” They were coming with the lads, or on a date, or to while away an afternoon with the paper. They were coming for Sunday lunch with the in-laws. While it may be a far cry from the ceremony of Duck and Waffle, which looks out across the City from its lofty perch on Heron Tower, the pub’s understated role as facilitator of good times and community is exactly what Dan and Andy were aiming for.

Modern values
“One of the biggest things we wanted was to become a modern community pub: to have all the traditions you associate with pubs, which are at the cornerstone of our culture, but to incorporate modern values,” explains Andy. Values like great design, treating staff well, encouraging exceptional service and serving delicious food created from high quality, ethically sourced produce. There’s a reason that pubs around the country are closing, Andy argues, and it’s not just alcohol taxes and real estate prices: “Too many of them are backward looking. They haven’t kept up with the times.”

“There were gastropubs, and they were amazing at first, but then every pub serving food called itself a ‘gastropub’ and it was too easy,” Dan recalls animatedly. Microwaved shepherd’s pies and buffet roast dinners entered the equation, and the word gastropub was tarnished. “Now the gap in the market is a good pub serving good food.”

From the blackboard on the wall (another key ingredient of a good pub, a blackboard), Dan’s menu whispers enticingly. Fish pie with lobster cream, mash, buttery breadcrumbs and truffle; slow-cooked spiced lamb shoulder, aubergine stew and smoked yoghurt. It’s all very Dan Doherty, but it’s Dan in a pub, not atop the Heron Tower or on the television. “When you serve burrata in a restaurant, there’s an expectation that you will take it up a few more levels. We had a scotch egg at Duck and Waffle, but it was a scotch egg bhaji with a cauliflower pickle. Here it’s a simple scotch egg with mayo,” he explains.

What defines this food is the quality of the ingredients: the rare breed Berkshire pork, the 45-day-aged Galloway sirloin, the inimitable La Fromagerie cheese. “It all begins with the produce. Start with that as your benchmark, and the world is your oyster in terms of how good it can be.” Next year, the top floor dining room will open with a more refined menu, “but there’ll be no difference in standards between the floors.”

I ask Dan if bringing the likes of Cannon and Cannon charcuterie into a pub kitchen feels pioneering. “It wasn’t a conscious decision,” he shrugs. “I just don’t know any other way of doing it. I think if we start a dish with great beef, that makes my job a lot easier—and while maybe doing that in a pub is a bit different, I think that’s just how it should be.” Though they started out listing their sources on the menu—animal breeds, suppliers, places—they soon stopped when they realised there wasn’t enough space. “We’re immensely proud of the fact our smoked salmon is the best I’ve ever tasted in my life, and comes from Secret Smokehouse in Hackney, but where do you stop? Do you say the crème fraiche is from La Fromagerie? Do you name the farm the horseradish came from? Our suppliers are incredible, but if we list them all, each dish will run to four lines,” he laughs. If people are interested, they can ask the staff, but most pub diners are quite happy ordering a steak without knowing its name and postal address.

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Hard graft, little glamour
The following week I go for dinner, and order both the smoked salmon rye crostini and the burrata. “It’s just a bowl of cheese with some figs and nuts in it,” Dan had said modestly of the latter. It’s just heaven, I think, upon taking a generous mouthful. Smooth and velvety, with a subtle, sour tang to which the jammy figs act as a perfect counterpoint, it is everything I want from a starter—not least when the bread arrives, and I’m met with the same chewy, crusty sourdough rolls I’d smelt baking the week before. “We bake the bread every day,” Dan enthuses, as his flour-dusted apron proves, “and we make the butter three times a week.” Baking bread, churning butter, stuffing a suet crust pie, pickling beetroot—this is the rusticity Dan’s looking for. “That’s what turns me on, turns most chefs on, really.” It’s all hard graft and little glamour—Dan anticipates being in the kitchen as much as possible over the pub’s first six months—but he looks immensely happy.

Rebranding a pub without losing its pub-ness, “that’s the absolute goal—though it’s a hard juxtaposition.” For Andy, even more than for most students, pubs and bars were a formative part of university life. Having worked part time at the Atlantic Bar in the West End during his studies, he was offered a full time position upon graduating. There, he met Alastair Hook, future founder of Meantime Brewing Company, who spotted Andy’s potential. Fast forward 15 years or so and Andy was working as Meantime’s retail director, overseeing all its restaurants and pubs. It was at one of these—the Old Brewery in Greenwich—that he met Dan, and they seeded the dream of starting something together.

“I thought that ship had sailed when Duck and Waffle went so big,” Andy recalls, “but we kept the dialogue going.” They shared the same philosophy, they got on (“used to get on,” Dan clarifies, grinning) and what Dan knew about food, Andy knew about drinks.

“I don’t think pubs should be dictated by anything. There is no set model,” Andy is protesting. We’ve run into a heated debate—should pubs serve cocktails?—and while Andy is open-minded, Dan and I are firmly against. “But what about a bloody mary? What about Aperol spritz?” Andy exclaims, determined to persuade us. “They’re cocktails.”

“No they’re not—not in the mind. We’re taking cosmos, martinis, mojitos...” Dan says. We finally agree that a pub-unfriendly drink is one that slows service down (“though I do love espresso martinis…” Dan muses) and we move onto more important subjects: the beer, and the wine list.

No Foster’s
The Royal Oak’s wine list is extensive and growing. “Pubs I’ve worked in in southeast London, you’d have four on the list and only two would ever be opened. People in Marylebone though, they like wine,” Andy observes, not inaccurately. “We’re going to expand the list. We’ve a great range of small suppliers.” That said, he’s not skimped on the beer, with plenty of craft beers and real ales and absolutely no Foster’s. “It’s not a brand thing. They could be the biggest brand in the world and I’d sell it if the ethics were sound and the beer was brilliant, but Foster’s is bad beer,” he says, “and we’re about quality. I’m not going to preach to anyone—no one wants a lecture on aging and natural carbonation—but if someone does like Foster’s, I can bet we’ll have something they’ll drink.”

Of course, great food and drink don’t necessarily make a great pub. Dan’s slow-cooked spiced lamb shoulder and a good pinot noir can be powerful support acts, but it’s the pub’s community that plays the lead role. “You are nothing without community,” says Andy. “We want to engage the community. We want to work with local charities, retailers and businesses.”

What’s in a pub? A place where you can walk in, possibly bump into people you know, and enjoy anything from a three-course meal to a packet of crisps. A place you can be yourself, by yourself or with anyone from business to life partners—and are guaranteed a good time.