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Seeing stars: how pubs have grown to rival restaurants

By Emma Eversham

- Last updated on GMT

A star is born: pubs that have a Michelin star are seen as a stamp of approval by guests before eating there
A star is born: pubs that have a Michelin star are seen as a stamp of approval by guests before eating there
How did pubs come to compete with restaurants in the food stakes, and what makes one deserving of an accolade so often associated with ‘fine-dining’ restaurants?

Pubs with Michelin Stars

The Hand & Flowers (two stars), Marlow, Buckinghamshire

The Harwood Arms, Fulham, south-west London

The Nut Tree Inn, Murcott, Oxfordshire

The Blackbird, Newbury, Berkshire

The Coach, Marlow, Buckinghamshire

The Cross, Kenilworth, Warwickshire

The Crown, Maidenhead, Berkshire

The Fordwich Arms, Canterbury, Kent

The Masons Arms, Knowstone, Devon

The Pipe & Glass Inn, South Dalton, East Yorkshire

The Pony & Trap, Chew Magna, Somerset

The Red Lion Freehouse, East Chisenbury, Wiltshire

The Sportsman, Seasalter, Kent

The Star Inn, Harome, North Yorkshire

The Walnut Tree Inn, Abergavenny, Wales

Tim Allen’s Flitch of Bacon, Little Dunmow, Essex

The White Swan at Fence, Lancashire

Less than two decades ago, a Michelin star – that ultimate seal of approval sought by many chefs – was an accolade those running pub kitchens simply didn’t believe was achievable.

Then in 2001, the Stagg Inn, a country pub nestled away in the Herefordshire village of Titley, made culinary history by becoming the first pub to be awarded a Michelin star.

“It came as a total shock,” declares chef-patron Steve Reynolds, who, together with his wife Nicola, has run the dining pub with rooms since 1998.

“When we took over, we intended to just serve restaurant-quality food in a casual, relaxed environment and create somewhere that everyone – from the rich farmer to the farm labourer – would be happy to go to eat,” he adds.

“Our emphasis was on using local produce and local suppliers as much as we could. We also stated on the menu where certain ingredients, like the beef, came from. At the time this caused some amusement, but it has pretty much become the blueprint for pubs and restaurants now.

“The quality of food was important to us but, as far as we were concerned, we were just a local pub. We certainly weren’t setting out to get a star. Besides, it was totally and utterly unexpected because pubs didn’t get stars back then.” As Reynolds suggests, until 2001, it was assumed that Michelin was only interested in awarding stars to a certain style of restaurant where chefs created intricate dishes in the kitchen, while a brigade of smart waiting staff gave impeccable service to guests seated at tables draped in white linen.

The Coach, Marlow

Inconceivable notion

The fact a cosy inn with scrubbed-down tables, established simply to provide good-quality food to the locals, was now considered in the same league as a fine-dining restaurant was inconceivable to many – Reynolds included.

“It was a total departure for Michelin, a real change of direction,” says the chef, who found the attention that accompanied the award tough to manage when he just wanted to return to his beloved kitchen and cook.

“It was a hard time because peoples’ perception of a Michelin star at that point was totally different to what it is now. We had people coming in and expecting white tablecloths and a suited sommelier but we had none of that. Some people loved it, but others would come in and say ‘where’s the dining room?’ It was a really bizarre time.”

Same ethos

The Michelin star given to the Cross in Kenilworth, Warwickshire, in the 2015 Michelin Guide was also unexpected, but for a different reason. The pub had reopened under new ownership less than a year before the 2015 Michelin Guide was released (in October 2014) and chef director Adam Bennett knew inspectors rarely visited – or awarded stars – so quickly.

Bennett, who moved to the Midlands pub from the nearby Michelin-starred restaurant Simpsons, already had several years’ knowledge of cooking food that Michelin found favour with, but wasn’t aiming for a star when he took over the pub.

“As a chef you only know one way to cook really. It’s difficult to reinvent yourself,” he says. “I carried on cooking the way I’d always cooked, but the blend on the menu was slightly different. We put steak and chips on alongside some sophisticated dishes, but we made sure it would be the best steak and chips you’d ever had.

“We apply the same ethos to everything we do – whether it’s pork scratchings or something more sophisticated, it all has to be the best.”

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Michelin momentum

Of course, the landscape for pubs and food had already changed in the 14 years between the Stagg and the Cross receiving their respective stars.

During that time, pubs such as the Hand & Flowers in Marlow (2005), the Sportsman in Kent (2008), the Pipe & Glass Inn in Yorkshire (2010) and the Pony & Trap near Bristol (2011) were not only impressing Michelin inspectors, they were also wowing judges for awards such as the Top 50 Gastropubs and the National Restaurant Awards while seeing a steady stream of diners coming through their doors.

So how has the pub sector maintained and increased its Michelin momentum? There are two schools of thought. One is that the quality of food served in pubs has continually evolved and improved, the other is that Michelin has embraced a more casual-dining trend, where the emphasis is on recognising fine food, not fine dining.

“Michelin maintains that what it is looking for within any style of cuisine is an excellent example of it, so whether it’s Italian, classic French, or British food, they’re looking for excellence and that’s what we try to do,” explains Bennett, who also emphasises he cooks for his customers, not the guides.

Relaxed dining

Tom De Keyser

Reynolds, who was at the forefront of the shift in attitudes towards pub dining, believes Michelin itself helped catapult pubs into the consciousness of the food-loving public by awarding them stars, while Tom De Keyser, head chef at Tom Kerridge’s second Marlow pub, the Coach, simply states: “Relaxed dining has become more popular, and where is more relaxing than a pub?”

With its aim of offering a flexible, relaxed and accessible environment, the Coach, led by De Keyser and Nick Beardshaw, is arguably one of the truest examples of a traditional pub holding a Michelin star. The homely space has a no-booking policy and serves reasonably priced, fuss-free dishes. Its burger with pulled pork and dill pickle is currently £11, while diners can tuck into a steaming bowl of mussels Marinière with warm stout and brown bread for less than a tenner.

So when the Coach was awarded a Michelin star in the 2018 guide, no one was more surprised than De Keyser. “Nick, myself and the team were focused on getting the food and service aspect right, as it is so different with a no-booking policy, and smaller dishes served as and when,” he explains. “Never in our wildest dreams would we have imagined our dream pub showing Sky Sports and serving great food would achieve this accolade.”

The Coach’s star perhaps shouldn’t have come as too much of a shock. Owned by the only chef running a pub with two Michelin stars, it had the right pedigree. De Keyser says similar cooking techniques to those used at the Hand & Flowers and the same standards regarding ‘speak for themselves’ were adopted at the Coach, therefore getting them off on the right foot.

So are these the factors that make a pub deserving of a Michelin star? Serving quality produce in a fuss free way? If not, what’s the secret to gaining one?

“I don’t think there is a secret, the important thing is to be happy, confident and consistent in what you’re doing in a busy environment,” says De Keyser.

Bennet agrees: “We don’t get out of bed every day thinking ‘how do we get a star?’ We think about what’s going to be great for a dish, great for the produce and great for the customers. That has to be your first thought, rather than ‘what do the guides want?’

“Who knows how they judge it?” remarks Reynolds, whose pub lost its Michelin star in 2016. “I would say the food we make now is a lot better and has developed since we got the star, but Michelin obviously doesn’t agree.”

The right formula

Whether a pub has a star or not, chefs agree the accolade isn’t what drives them. And while the culinary badge of honour can help get you and your business noticed, it won’t drive that all-important return trade if customers don’t like it.

“Having a Michelin star is almost like having a stamp of approval. It shows that you have the right formula,” says Bennett. “The team was buzzing when we got the star, but afterwards we carried on as normal with the same menu and pricing, and that’s what you have to do if you want to stay in business.

“Since we’ve lost the star, we have still been very busy,” says Reynolds, whose pub still picks up numerous awards, including Michelin’s own Dining Pub of the Year 2018.

“You can get some fantastic food in so many pubs now, not just those with a Michelin star. [A star] is not the be all and end all. You just have to do what you always do and cook for your customers.”

Related topics: Food trends

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