The former schoolhouse in Malpas, Cheshire, also took home the ‘Best Country/Rural’ winner at a ceremony in Manchester’s Victoria Warehouse on Tuesday 19 September.
It’s run by Mary McLaughlin and Tim Bird, who own six pubs under Cheshire Cat Pubs & Bars. Speaking of the win, he said: “All of us were so delighted with [winning] the rural one, that we just didn’t think about winning anything else.”
And then the Cholmondeley Arms was announced as the overall winner and the whole cast took to the stage. He previously told The Morning Advertiser that he had a tear in his eye as the award was announced and didn’t think he’d be able to get rid of the lump in his throat as he walked to collect it.
“It’s wonderful to win things,” said Bird. While he’s a bit of a veteran at these kinds of events, he never stops getting excited.
He added: “Anyone that says, ‘you just take it in your stride’, is either weird or lying, because you’re so elated for the team and the customers.
“The show was very good, the venue was brilliant. The winning was the icing on the cake to a really great night out.
“We're so delighted, it really hasn't sunk in still.”
The news travelled quickly. The next day, Bird woke up with a congratulatory message from an old mentor who lived in Miami.
And the overall response has been “so positive.” Suppliers celebrated with them – Lucky Saint sent personalised bottles, and Diageo rewarded every member of the team with a chosen bottle of spirits, and Lord Cholmondeley himself gifted a bottle of champagne, as the pub sits on his estate.
“Everyone said ‘you so deserve it’”, said Bird, who believed the pub could shine brightly as a beacon for rural pubs.
The venue was performing well before the awards, but Bird said there’s been more interest from customers, which has rippled into the operator’s other pubs.
“I do think you see the uplift, not just instantly, but over a period of time,” he said, talking of trade.
What, in Bird’s opinion, makes the pub a step above the rest? He said: “It’s got an atmosphere that people love. There’s lots of history about the school. It’s not, in any way, tweaked or contrived – it’s natural.”
There’s also an “amazing” gin collection, as well as local ales and local brews.
On the food side, there’s freshly produced seasonal dishes created by a “great team” in the kitchen. There’s also a “great team” out front.
He added: “It’s got a bit of everything. It’s got six car clubs, it’s got cycling and walking appeal, and people stay in the six bedrooms.” There’re also mates traveling from Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester to meet for a meal.
“The team are atmosphere creators. They come together and make it special. It’s a great place.”
A lesson he learnt early on in his career was that the guest will always be the most important person. He believes great hospitality starts with “warmth and friendliness”.
Coming into winter, the Cholmondeley Arms has an exciting catalogue of events up its sleeve. It hosted one of its biggest car meets on Sunday, and Bonfire night will bring guests to a free fireworks display on the estate, so they can enjoy glasses of mulled cider or wine.
Following this will be a week celebrating ‘gaming season’, where dishes will be paired with wine. In December, the pub will host its annual gin competition, and then Christmas will bring traditional festivities such as carol singing.
Bird believes a great British pub is one that reflects the history of itself. It’s got to have curb appeal, great food and great drinks, he added. “It has to hug you on the way in and grab your leg on the way out.”
He thinks the Cholmondeley Arms succeeds in creating an atmosphere that people don’t want to leave. The attention is in the detail: log fires in winter, the smell of mulled wine before Christmas, the ale been drawn, and the chatter of people.
“It’s a mixture of suits and barbers and a smattering of farmers,” Bird added. “That’s a lovely description of any great pub – you’ve got a mixture of people and they’re all enjoying each other’s company over a pint of something they can’t get at home.”
Where does one go from being named Britain’s best gastropub? There’s capacity for more rooms, said Bird, and also potential for more events, like weddings, to take place. “A pub can always be busier,” he added, “we’ve just got to make sure we stick to the key ingredients that got us the award in the first place.”
When you win an award, the expectation rises. “We have to meet the new expectation and continue to do so,” Bird said. “At the moment, it’s making sure we can do all the right things by our guests and represent the award that’s been bestowed on us as well as we can.”