My Pub: the Marksman, Hackney

By Joe Lutrario

- Last updated on GMT

The Marksman: "We didn't need to add any character because it was already there," say owners
The Marksman: "We didn't need to add any character because it was already there," say owners

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Chefs Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram reopened archetypal East Endboozer the Marksman to rave reviews earlier this year. Joe Lutrario catches up with the pair to talk beef and barley buns and keeping the locals sweet.

How we got here

TH:​ Our background is in the restaurant business. I worked with Fergus Henderson at both St. John and its sister restaurant St. John Bread and Wine. I was also head chef at St. John Hotel in Chinatown, which won a Michelin star shortly after it opened in 2012.

JR:​ I also worked at St. John, which is where I met Tom. He hired me, in fact. Before opening The Marksman I was executive chef at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant (also in East London). We were going to buy the freehold off the landlord but he changed his mind while we were raising the money so we ended up leasing it off him instead. We’d been talking about opening a pub for years and were dead set on The Marksman. We love the building and location. It’s large too which gives us a lot of scope.

TH:​ The thing that really attracted us to the pub trade was the emphasis on drinking and generally having a laugh. When we worked in restaurants we always preferred eating in pubs because they tend to be less stiff. Eating and drinking is about pleasure and being able to kick back. One of the things I love about St. John is that it’s noisy. That’s because people are enjoying themselves. There’s nothing worse than eating in a hushed dining room.

JR:​ Drinkers also ensure a steady stream of revenue when the kitchen is quiet. Lots of restaurateurs are now putting in bars to net the extra business, in fact. But here it’s fallen into our lap because The Marksman is a well-established community pub.

(L-R) Tom Harris, Jon Rotherham

How we turned the business around

JR:​ We don’t want to close the Marksman off to people that have been drinking there for decades so the downstairs remains a proper boozer, albeit one that serves great food as befits our background. Lots of pubs in this part of town have been lost to gentrification. They’ve been stripped back to the point that there’s nothing left. We think that’s really sad. We didn’t want to lose all that culture so we haven’t changed much in the downstairs bar. We’ve tidied it up a bit and fixed stuff but we haven’t really added anything.

TH:​ We’ve actually spent a small fortune on keeping everything the same. We didn’t need to add any character because it was already there.

JR:​ Ripping up the business and starting again would have been stupid. Why would we want to lose that loyal customer base?. But the only way many pubs can survive now is by offering food. Our new menu has allowed us to pull in new local business as well as business from much further afield as we’ve been lucky enough to attract some good coverage and reviews from the national press. We want to do great food but we want to keep it as a community pub as well.

JR:​ Our upstairs dining room opened recently and is more like a restaurant. The space had been a flat so there wasn’t really anything to build on. We did briefly consider mimicking the style downstairs and creating a sort of faux Victorian dining room but decided it would feel a bit forced. Instead we’ve gone for something totally modern that contrasts with the downstairs area. We used Martino Gamper [a famous Italian designer based in London] because he hasn’t done restaurants or pubs before and we wanted to avoid modern pub and restaurant design clichés such as exposed brickwork and retro light bulbs.

How we grew the business

JR:​ The pub had a core of local drinkers and we’ve managed to retain them by keeping the feel the same and not ditching the mainstream larger that many of them like to drink. We’ve introduced locally produced beers, interesting spirits and a much more expansive and high quality wine list, though. We’ve been busy since we opened which I’d put down to mix of word and mouth and some great press coverage early on, particularly our review from Jay Rayner in The Observer​.

TH:​ The original plan was to run a simple bar menu downstairs and a more involved menu upstairs. But people have really taken to eating in the downstairs area and we don’t want to prevent them from doing that so for the moment we’re serving pretty much the same menu upstairs and downstairs.

JR:​ We’ll play around with it to find which model works best. To ensure the front bar remains a place to drink as well as eat we’ve decided not to take bookings there, but we take bookings throughout the rest of the pub. We don’t lay up any tables downstairs because we think that makes it less inviting and more like a restaurant. We wouldn’t be serving burger, either. We’ve got nothing against them but we’ll leave it to other people.

Big investments

TH:​ A lot of the investment went into the kitchen. We knew we’d be working in there all the time so we wanted to create a nice working environment. We can’t have any more than three chefs in the kitchen so we had to think very carefully about the design so we’re not tripping over each other.

JR:​ We ended up knocking down walls which was quite expensive but we love the space, which is just as well because we’re both there 80 hours a week. We’ve also created a chef’s table - of sorts - adjacent to the kitchen which we’ll use for special dinners and drinks tastings.

Couldn’t live without

TH:​ The charcoal grill. That was really important to us. The rest of the kit is fairly standard but it’s been carefully chosen because space is tight and we make everything in house including our sourdough.

Sample dishes

Salt hake and potato rissoles (£8); grilled clams, wild fennel and salt lemon (£8); lemon sole, cucumber, samphire and brown shrimp £16; fried potatoes with burnt onion mayonnaise (£4); brown butter and honey tart (£7).

Bestselling dishes

TH:​ We shift a lot of Jon’s beef and barley buns but our top seller is the curry. We make it with either kid goat or duck and it outsells every other dish two to one. We have to take it off the menu occasionally to give the other main courses a chance. The food here is English but there’s nothing more English than a curry in a pub. 

MM 2

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