Angelsea Arms, Ravenscourt Park, London

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Matthew Moggridge meets the proprietor of the Angelsea Arms gastro pub in London's Ravenscourt Park and finds someone who isn't afraid to defy...

Matthew Moggridge meets the proprietor of the Angelsea Arms gastro pub in London's Ravenscourt Park and finds someone who isn't afraid to defy convention.

There is something pleasingly bohemian about London gastro pubs, which never fails to amaze me and which probably has a lot to do with the fact that those running such establishments tend not to play by the rule book.

The chef/proprietor of the Angelsea Arms in London's Ravenscourt Park area would probably despise the term "new wave" - quite rightly in many respects as gastro pubs are not a new phenomenon. But his pub, like others of the genre, are new when compared to the pub food norm. New and, most importantly, refreshing.

The great thing about Dan Evans is that, despite his 40 years, he still retains a punkish appearance which goes well with the establishment he runs.

Gastro pubs, like the Eagle in Farringdon, which is widely regarded as the founder of the faith, are different. Like the punk movement of the late seventies, they dispense with the garb of conventional and try to offer something a little more interesting and, above all, more exciting.

There is some debate as to whether it was the Eagle in Farringdon or the Angelsea Arms in Ravenscourt Park which started the gastro pub movement. Dan plumbs for the Eagle, and he is probably right, but some of the guide books list both pubs as gastro pioneers and, who cares as long as the food is fresh and the end result a quality meal.

Dan used to share a flat with Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan in the days when Shane was a roadie with the Jam and Dan was an art history student. He knows Paul Cook of the Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer of the Clash, both of whom have enjoyed the culinary delights of the Angelsea Arms and, no doubt, will continue to do so.

Obsessed

Back at the flat, in days now long gone, Dan took it upon himself to do the cooking and eventually he became obsessed. As a student he had very little in the way of money and often haggled for food at the local market where he might pick up the ingredients for an entire meal for 30p. If Dan was busy cooking, however, his lectures would suffer - he wouldn't turn up - and eventually he packed in his studies, despite being mad about art history, and concentrated on what was to become his vocation: cooking.

Starting at the bottom is important, according to Dan, whose first job was as a bus boy in London's Peppermint Park, but when Dan expressed his views about an Israeli bombing of the Lebanon he found himself on the receiving end of somebody's fist and later took his revenge by donning a friend's SS uniform and goose-stepping around the restaurant.

It was time, perhaps, to buy an old Mercedes and drive it all the way to Nairobi with his girlfriend Fiona. He met her at 15 years old in boarding school and she is now his wife and co-proprietor of the Angelsea Arms. The Nairobi experience stiffened his resolve to make cooking a career, taught him a lot about farming and eventually prompted him to return to London and seek out a proper job in catering.

Apprenticeship

He wrote to 20 top chefs and, to cut a long story short, embarked upon a tough apprenticeship in some of London's top kitchens, including Brian Turner's Walton Street restaurant and Alistair Little's place which, at the time, was Bar Italia. Little had worked in Zanzibar so Dan felt there was some common ground and hassled him for a job. "They were the best years of my life," said Dan. "And the day he gave me the keys to the restaurant and let me cook without him being there was brilliant."

He went on to work for other big names in the business, including Albert Roux, who taught him all about French butchery, and eventually became head chef and partner at the Fire Station restaurant in Waterloo.

He stumbled across the Angelsea Arms at 2am in the morning - on his way home from the Fire Station - when the dulcet tones of Des O'Connor coming from the pub prompted him to investigate. Naturally, at such an unearthly hour, he was the only customer, so he asked the owner if he could buy the place.

It cost him £40,000 so he approached his bank manager for a loan - not to buy the pub but to do it up. His house was valued at £600,000 - he lives virtually next door to the pub - so he borrowed £300,000, closed down for six months and finally opened to the public on December 30 1996.

Transformed

The refurb cost him £240,000 and he used £60,000 as a working overdraft. He transformed the previous owner's bedroom into what is now an open-plan kitchen at the back of the pub. In fact, the entire area around the kitchen is completely new and is wrongly referred to by some of Dan's staff as the restaurant. Dan insists he runs a pub, not a restaurant.

Prices have not been raised in five years and there are no main courses more than £9. Everything is home-made, nothing is frozen and the pub is happily turning over around £20,000 per week. During Dan and Fiona's first three years, however, they only made £250 clear profit, because of the bank loan, and even now Dan doesn't take home more than £120 per week - and that's based on £80,000 clear profit over the last year and a half.

Blackboard

The food on offer is advertised to customers on a solitary blackboard adjacent to the kitchen and it changes twice a day. When I turned around to note down some of the Angelsea Arms' dishes, the board was wet and blank and awaiting the evening's food offering.

Where food is concerned Dan has strong views and beliefs. He won't buy farmed salmon and will never buy hares - because they mate for life.

The AA's Best Pubs and Inns guide describes the food on offer as simple and robust, and cites typical offerings of shellfish minestrone with tarragon pesto, oysters with shallot relish, John Dory with spinach and cep butter sauce and stuffed saddle of rabbit. The food, says the AA, is the main attraction.

The clientele is mixed and bookings are not accepted. "When there's six feet of snow outside, it's the man across the street that will pay us a visit," said Dan.

Recruiting chefs is Dan's biggest headache. "One or two of the best ones come to me and that's always flattering but it is a heart-wrenching problem," he said. "Catering is the only profession where if you fail your exams they ask - have you considered catering? It kills me."

Duplicate

The plan is to buy another pub, The Rocket in Acton, a former gay venue which fell into liquidation, and duplicate the success and culinary style of the Angelsea Arms.

The Rocket will probably offer eight starters, including one soup and a seasonal salad and then two meat, two fish and two vegetable offerings. A cold meat starter might include foie gras and a hot meat dish of snails and the two fish options could be cold scallops and clam gratin.

The aim will be to offer five, possibly six, main courses, which would include two fish dishes - total opposites like tuna and sole - one bird (duck or chicken), an offal dish (tongue, liver or sweetbreads) and one red meat dish (beef or lamb).

Like a lot of successful pub food operators, the Angelsea Arms relies more on word-of-mouth and its own reputation rather than advertising. But Dan is not interested in culinary fame; he is driven by peer respect.

He believes that cooking is a craft, not an art form - art is spiritual - and he is looking for people who break moulds.

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