My Pub: the Red Lion & Sun, Highgate, north London

By Ed Bedington

- Last updated on GMT

Ultimate makeover: Heath Ball has turned a gloomy basic boozer into the best pub in Britain
Ultimate makeover: Heath Ball has turned a gloomy basic boozer into the best pub in Britain
Heath Ball has had a busy year, not least because his Red Lion & Sun pub won the John Smith’s Great British Pub of the Year award. Here he explains the secrets of his success

Facts 'n' stats

Name:​ The Red Lion & Sun

Address:​ 25 North Road, Highgate, north London, N6 4BE

Licensee:​ Heath Ball

Pub company:​ Greene King

Tenure: ​Ball has just negotiated a new 10-year lease, after agreeing a 15-year lease agreement back in 2007

Wet:dry split:​ 45:55

Covers:​ 65 inside, 70 front garden, 30 back garden

The pub

It reminds me of a Hamptons boat lodge – the wood panelling, the greys. I remember at the time, when we did grey, it was quite ahead of its time. We changed an old man’s pub, dark panelled wood, and we painted it all duck egg grey, and at the time it was like ‘oh my god, what have you done? It’s so stark’ and now, it’s suddenly a traditional old boozer.

It’s light and airy, and we try to play on natural light. It’s very 1930s on the outside, with tiny little windows at the front – it’s quite twee. In winter, the problem is we’ve only got 14 tables, so it fills up pretty quick and it can have a great atmosphere, while in the summer, we’ve got the advantage of having two big beer gardens, front and back.

When I first started it, I wanted to do a proper pub, a pub that did everything. I wanted it to have good food, but didn’t want it to be expensive and poncey.

I wanted something that people could go to all the time, a real local, but I don’t mean a local where everyone turns around and stares at you when you walk in.

I guess at the time, I wanted the best boozer in Highgate, I didn’t realise I’d end up with the best boozer in the country, so I probably aimed a little low. But it has taken years to get here.

Pubs are very organic, they grow, and as I’ve got older and got more mature, which is hard to believe, I’ve understood it better, and understood the demographic better and understand my customer base better. It’s a place I’d like to be – a place I’d like to drink.

I’d say it’s cute. There’s things I would change, but you can sometimes spend a load of money on a place and make it soulless. Sometimes you want it to be a bit rough around the edges and quirky.

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The licensee

I left New Zealand in 1993 and worked across Australia, Europe and the US. My first job in London was working for Hugh Corbett, an industry legend who founded the Slug & Lettuce chain.

Prior to the Red Lion & Sun, I started my first business, the Drunken Monkey, in Shoreditch, back when nobody was opening in Shoreditch, and ran that from 2003 to 2006. I’ve worked across a wide range of high-profile clubs and bars throughout London, before bringing that experience to bear on the Red Lion & Sun, which I opened in 2007, just before the recession.

The trade

When I got here, it was the old boys sat at the bar, sinking 15 pints a day, but now it’s changed. We’re now very family-led, and have a lot of professionals. They come in at 9pm and want to eat and to forget. We don’t tend to have heavy drinkers here, but they drink well, they drink good stuff, and they’ve got the disposable income to do that.

Sunday is our busiest day of the week, back to back, but it’s mainly families, and there’s a real community, we’ve got customer of all ages in, a good spread and a really eclectic mix.

It’s funny because in the beginning, the customers hated me. No one came in. I remember the first couple of years I was making huge losses, I was ducking and diving to stay afloat. But now it’s evolved, and the people who hated me in the beginning are now really good customers and friends. They’ve realised now that I’m not the evil yuppy moron they thought I would be. Now we’ve got a really nice local regular trade and we’ve watched their kids grow up over the past 10 to 12 years, we’ve got kids who came in when they were six and seven and now they work here.

The team

We’ve got about 25 staff, mostly full time with some part-timers. Everybody is really lovely and helps create a nice atmosphere. I’m lucky, I have really low staff turnover – some have been with me for years. Part of that might be down to the fact the team eat well. They all eat off the menu within reason (they would not be sitting there eating côte de boeuf and smashing back bottles of Chardonnay!) and the thing I find with giving staff decent food is that they know the menu really well, and they turn up to work early. So if they start at 5pm, they’re in at 4.30pm to eat. 

We’re also always doing menu tastings, getting dishes down and getting the staff to try it, they’re heavily involved and get to give us feedback on things. We’re lucky with suppliers, the wine company we work with is putting them through courses and lots of in-house training. We’ve also put people through WSET level one and two courses.

Another key to that retention is money – the reality is, they make really good money, and although I’m hard work sometimes and a bit neurotic, I’m really fair and they know that I’m going to look after them. My head chef has been with me nine years, he started as a commis chef and he’s now heading the team.

On the menu

The staples always sell really well, burgers and fish & chips, and we focus on quality there. For the fish and chips, we batter to order and only use fresh fish. 

One of our most popular dishes is our jerk chicken. The chef came to me said: ‘I’ve got this great jerk chicken recipe’, and I said ‘Man, I don’t think it’s going to suit our menu’ but he insisted and just... wow!

He makes the sauce himself and it’s become a huge hit. If I take it off the menu, people go nuts!

The food

Without having a massive menu, there’s a little something that everybody wants to eat. But we’re always changing it and keeping it fresh. There are some staples, we always have oysters on – it shows intent – and we always have a burger and fish and chips. You can be really gastro and really posh, you can have things with foam and that, but we’re not about that, it’s comfort food, it’s honest food, but it’s also really good quality – we don’t buy anything frozen except our ice cream. When I speak to suppliers, I don’t first ask how much, the conversation always starts for me with what’s the best you’ve got.

I use three or four fishmongers, a local butcher and have lots of conversations – it’s about quality, and it’s quality at a really good price for my customers. I don’t work on the same margins as other operators do on food, so my food GP is not great at all.

Along with the staples we bring other things in. We don’t have a Chinese restaurant in Highgate, so I’ve done duck and pancakes, and it’s our version, and it’s very traditional Chinese with a twist. We’ve got a chicken katsu curry on there now, and it’s 100 times better than what you’d get at Wagamama.

We do a rocking Sunday roast, we don’t mess around with the roast, we’re not using cheap cuts, we’re using rolled rib eye and it’s beautiful, it’s like butter. We cook our potatoes in beef fat. I’ve always wanted to do a really good roast so we do proper gravy, from scratch, making that all week. It shows, when you have food that’s decent, we’re not clever, it’s just honest, without being poncey.

Price-wise, we sit in the middle. I don’t think we’re expensive at all, most of our dishes are under £20. I’ve always wanted it so you can come in and have a burger at the bar, and come in the next night and have something else. That’s why the menu is always changing. 

The drink

We run four ales all the time; guest ales are always changing. We’re tied on beer, which makes it more difficult as we don’t get a great range. We have a hell of a lot of whisky – I used to drink a lot of whisky, but I don’t so much anymore, it used to send me a bit crazy – but we have a massive collection, which is nice. It shows intent as well. We have a lot of rums, sherries. I try and cover all bases. I like surprising people, so when they go ‘do you have... ’, I go ‘actually, yes, we do’. I like to exceed expectations and delight and confuse people – have them saying ‘what’s going on in this pub?’.

We also have a ridiculously good wine list, working on really good margins without being clever, and we’re not ripping people off. I’ve got wines by the glass and I make about 50% margin on it, we sell a lot of it and support the grower. Again, my margins aren’t great, but you can’t bank a GP, I bank cash. We sell a lot of wine. I love wine, though, so it’s easy for me. It’s easy for me to have a conversation about wine, I could be there all day.

But I don’t like poncey, pretentious wine talk, there’s nothing worse. ‘I’m getting elderflower Edward, are you getting that?” I hate that because everyone has a different palate. I prefer stories about wine, and talk about things like the winemaker: ‘This guy’s nuts, man, he picks it at two in the morning naked, because he savours the freshness and makes naked wines, etc”, so I prefer stories, and people relate to stories better.

How do I avoid the pretentious route? I’m from New Zealand, it’s not hard. I sound like a farmer, I can’t sound pretentious, I can’t use big words, they’re not in my lexicon.

Wine should be fun, the minute you sit down and it becomes boring and someone’s boring you to death, it’s so painful you want to shoot yourself. Make it fun, and don’t make people feel stupid.

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The events

We do a lot of dinners with the winemakers. That’s a big focus – we try to keep those really accessible as well, so don’t make them involve silly margins. We don’t put huge prices on them, and sometimes I’m probably running a loss on some of them. But they’re fun. And it’s getting people in front of the winemakers. We do a lot of them, maybe 10 a year.

They involve a lot of production, but work really well. We did a Champagne one recently that was absolutely cracking – the response was great. The next day everybody was asking when the next one was. But we make them enjoyable – they’re not about a guy standing there talking about PH levels in the wine. 

We keep it accessible, and keep filling the glasses up and make it a bit decadent, but definitely fun.

The future

I would love to get an extension done over the back garden – to extend out there, for the winter. But I need to do my research – always do your research. One company gave me a quote for the work, but wanted us to close for three months while they did it!

We’ll also be doing some work in the kitchen, putting a new floor in, and I’d like to move the ladies toilets downstairs and extend the kitchen out through the office.

We’ll probably close in January for a bit, do the kitchen work and repaint the pub – give it a lick of love, make it look a bit cleaner, but don’t want to radically change the feel of the pub – it works because of what it is.

Winning the Great British Pub of the Year award

I still can’t believe it, I’m just waiting for somebody to shout: ‘Jokes! Gotcha! Did you honestly think you’d won?’ I’m so cynical about everything I do, so I didn’t expect it. There’s some amazing pubs out there that I aspire to and I love, I was like oh... 

What’s been really good is just the support from friends and family. It’s weird, somebody saying they’re proud of you and it’s been really lovely. I’ve had customers coming in and crying. They’re so proud! It really means a lot. It’s nice when other people see the effort you put in, I’m still a bit in awe that we won.    

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