Chef-proprietor John Calton, who runs the pub with his wife, Kimberley, and their friend, James Laffan, launched the pub in 2014, making huge strides since.
It has been three years since Calton was last interviewed by The Morning Advertiser, when he described how the pub took just £500 in its first week.
The site is now a celebrated award-winning venue and one of the greatest places to eat in the northeast. Calton has also pushed his pub steadily up the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list since entering at number 31 in 2016, the same year he was crowned Gastropub Chef of the Year.
Now, in an admirable position at number 24 on the list, Calton is attracting foodies to the venue from all over the country, as well as other celebrated chefs from the region, who travelled to the gastropub this month to dine on an exclusive six-course meal prepared by Calton and his team.
“The food that we serve is quite fish heavy as you would expect on a working fish quay,” says Calton in the middle of preparation for the evening’s celebratory meal.
“We’re only a few hundred yards away from where the fish is landed on the quay. We always cook with the seasons and there’s refinement in our dishes, but they are proper pub portions.”
As with the customer base at the Staith House, Calton’s food offer has grown. To do this, over the years, the chef has spent time in other gastropub kitchens, such as Stephen Harris’s Sportsman in Whitstable, Kent, to gain inspiration and boost his skills.
‘Didn’t even have a kitchen porter’
“I believe the food has evolved in the past five years. When I first opened, it was just myself in the kitchen with Jimmy (James) and we didn’t even have a kitchen porter, so there were a lot of late nights washing the dishes.
But, since then, we have worked on our sauces, worked on the prep of the meat and the fish and I’ve worked in a few different places with well-known chefs to get inspiration. We’ve worked hard to improve and refine the food.”
Now the food offer is at a level Calton and his partners are proud of – though there is a sense the chef is always striving to achieve more – a second venue is a focus for the trio.
Route is a wine bar and English tapas venue, purposefully very different from the Staith House, which is based en-route to Newcastle’s quayside.
“After five years at the Staith House, we thought the time was right to go into another venture. We wanted to keep the Staith House as a pub and it certainly is,” explains Calton. “We didn’t want the second venture to be detrimental to the Staith House.
“The ethos up there is again on seasonal food with a heavy focus on wine and sharing plates. It’s almost like British tapas. It’s called Route and it’s on the quayside in Newcastle. It’s been open for two months now and on the 10th day we had the Michelin Guide in.
“We came up with the name Route because it’s on the main route between the quayside, Newcastle’s castle and the keep,” Calton explains.
‘The New Dolphin’
“It’s like when we came up with the name for the Staith House, we looked through history books and found that was the original name of the pub in 1807, it then became the New Dolphin in 1853 and we took it back in time to become the Staith House.”
Although becoming a multiple operator has long been an ambition of Calton’s, which he first mentioned in 2015, he admits there are added challenges.
“It’s a huge challenge managing two sites but, fortunately, Route in Newcastle is closed a few days during the week. To be honest though, it’s given the kitchen staff a new lease of life because we’re all taking turns to work at Route. We do a little bit up there and a little bit down here and it keeps everyone fresh and motivated, especially with it being a different style to down here,” he says.
“It does have a smaller kitchen, but the menu is designed around that. We know our limitations. It’s not an ideal kitchen, but is there a perfect kitchen out there? Everyone has a gripe, but you just have to adapt to your situation and push on.”
Though running two sites is testing, it is nothing compared to launching a second venue, Calton says. Route has been open around two months now, but trouble with workmen, unforeseen building issues and worrying about his wife being pregnant with their second child, all added to pressure during the process.
“The journey to opening it was hard work, it was stressful,” he explains. “We’ve got another baby on the way so I had to keep one eye on my wife, Kimberley, and the other on the tradesmen who seemed to take ages. It wasn’t a smooth path, unexpected things were uncovered along the way and we opened later than we wanted to.”
But what about the future of the Staith House? Calton has another four years left on the Star Pubs & Bars lease. He seems settled in the venue, and many patrons would undoubtedly hope to see the trio heading the pub for more years to come.
“We want to knuckle down and continue to be part of things like the Top 50 Gastropubs. That’s what we work hard for – to get the pats on the back,” says Calton. “We think it’s a badge of quality and we certainly want to remain at the forefront of that and at cooking in food.”