The pub was opened in 2021 by former head chef at the Crown at Bray, Matt Larcombe and Igniting Hospitality’s Simon King.
It was awarded the One to Watch accolade at this year’s Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs with experts being impressed by its exceptional food and drink offer.
The Morning Advertiser chatted with Simon King at the Victoria what’s going on at the pub and how it’s dealing with the ongoing challenges.
Tell us about your experience in the sector and how this has influenced the Victoria
With our background, I was lucky enough to have worked with Heston [Blumenthal], not just for the Fat Duck but for the Hind’s Head and the Crown.
Matt, our chef business partner, he managed the Crown for a long period of time so we got to experience a gastropub.
Berkshire is an amazing county with some amazing eateries. We saw an opportunity in a brilliant and a beautiful Victorian building to do a great British pub, which is gastronomic-led.
Food, wine and drinks, and service is essential for us. Our strapline was a destination pub that locals are proud of and attracts guests far and wide.
We've already started now, actually the Top 50 Gastropubs award has really expanded our exposure from being named One to Watch.
We have people coming as far as the Cotswolds, as far as Yorkshire and coming out from London.
What is so flattering is that people have all the options in London and jump on a train, we are only half an hour away from Waterloo, and come to see what the fuss about here.
[We wanted to combine] the levels of [quality and service] you get in London and replicate it outside of the capital. Especially now, people don't commute to work as much as they used to and there’s obviously more demand as well.
We saw an opportunity to get a food and beverage-led pub of a certain level that hasn’t got much around it in Surrey.
How do you ensure the pub remains a pub and not a restaurant?
I didn’t want to have an identity crisis and we didn’t get it right in the beginning. We didn’t do enough in the bar and inclusivity. It was very food focused in the beginning and so, for us, it’s the community.
Creating a relationship and respect with the locals and the opportunity to really have a two-way conversation. We have to be open minded and not too proud.
We can’t go with every suggestion but we really listen to [suggestions] and aren’t afraid to try them. We’re a pub and that means so much to us.
I love the energy you get from a pub and the inclusive nature. I love the fact dogs can come in, that the whole family can come, that you can come here and have a drink at the bar, a pint and a little fish and chips at a really modest price and still feel satisfied.
You can come here and have a big bottle of red wine and a tomahawk steak, for a roast with your family or on a date and have a couple of cocktails in the bar.
It’s the same guests, in the same location but four or five different reasons to be here. That’s what pubs offer, you can be something for everyone.
We are proud to be a pub. We are also proud to have the heritage of this building. It has been a pub for a long, long time so why would you want to change now? It’s very important.
With so many challenges facing the sector currently, which one is the biggest issue for you right now?
I still feel Brexit has done more damage than Covid. We took over this business mid-Covid so some of the things we inherited, we can negotiate the terms favourable for us to navigate what we knew was going to be a challenging couple of years.
We made a big decision to have a long-term [utility] contract and we’ve been quite lucky with that.
Number one resource for me in our industry is people. We want to expand our offering. We were initially a five-days-a-week operation, now we are a six-days-a-week operation and people don’t understand why we aren’t open all the time.
Purely because if are to look after the staff we have, we can’t expect them to work seven days a week and the number of staff required to open for that time period is too high.
Finding chefs and staff alongside our location [is tough]. Even though we love being in the countryside and we are quite close to London so that means when searching for employees, this starts in the capital.
Staffing is without question the hardest thing. We have looked at apprenticeships, we are looking at training and mentorships.
We’ve got a pastry competition where they can go and work with a trainer.
Tracy (pastry chef) is all about training. She’s at a level very few can get to. We thought we’d make the most of her amazing talents.
She wants to teach, she wants to mentor and nurture, and we want to grow so we need people at every level.
I believe in promoting from within. If you’ve got the right people, look after them, nurture them in the [right] environment.
[However] we’ve also made some tough decisions where if there isn’t the right fit, but you’re short staffed, how long do you hold on?
Now, probably upon reflection, we’d rather suffer in the short term and maintain the culture. Without question, that continues to be the biggest challenge – staffing – and it isn’t going away.
On to your food offer, tell us about the influences behind the pub’s menu
We write the menu on a daily basis. Matt and the team have great connections with the suppliers.
A lot of the cooking techniques are Heston’s ethos, Matt has studied his work for a decade and that comes through in the flavours and the way dishes are put together. [The menu] is seasonally driven.
It is still a British pub but we often put a little twist on things. [For example], we’ve done Jaffa Cakes, Marathon bars, we’ve done our interpretation of the British dessert with a twist.
Looking to the future, what do the coming months hold for you and the Victoria?
We came in on a bit of a shoestring budget that probably wouldn’t have stretched enough any other time.
Obviously that shoestring budget affects our timeline so we’re only halfway where we want to be.
In the short to mid-term, and for the rest of this year, we are focusing on making the most of the garden at the back.
[Further in the future] we want to have bedrooms. It would give us a really exciting dynamic.
We are very lucky with the feedback we’ve received but I’m a perfectionist and we work at a level that takes time to get to so we are continuing with marginal gains.
We wouldn’t be averse to having another interest elsewhere but this is our flagship and where we really want to demonstrate what we can do.
I’m wary if we do too much too soon, it might be too challenging, so I’d like to conquer the world but, in reality, conquering the village is where we want to be.