Located in the West Country, this gastropub has been awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand and was shortlisted for ‘best newcomer’ at the Estrella Damm Top 100 Gastropubs 2023.
Both Kalaji and chef Tabi Martin were nominated in the Best Pub Chef and Best Young Pub Chef categories of the Great British Pub Awards in summer 2023.
Here, Kalaji tells The Morning Advertiser all about the Queen of Cups.
The Queen of Cups Restaurant & Freehouse opened in Glastonbury in the summer of 2021, with two best friends behind the operation, Mary-Elizabeth O’Neill and Ayesha Kalaji (pictured below).
It’s situated right in the centre of Glastonbury, a beautiful Somerset town known as much for its mysticism and mystery as the music festival.
Within five minutes’ walk of Queen of Cups there are the beautiful Mendips, as well as the stunning ruins of the Glastonbury Abbey and the Glastonbury Tor, and the healing springs that attract visitors year-round.
The Queen of Cups is a 17th century coaching inn, turned modern Middle Eastern restaurant with skilful and uniquely curated dishes.
The name ‘Queen of Cups’ originates from the art of tarot card reading – in homage to the mystical history of Glastonbury. The character symbolises feminine energy, emotional connection and compassion, all of which make up the ethos and heart of the restaurant.
Facts ’n’ stats
Pub name: Queen of Cups
Address: 10-12 Northload Street, Glastonbury, BA6 9JJ
Owners: chef-patron Ayesha Kalaji and co-owner Mary-Elizabeth O’Neill
When the opportunity arose to take on this quirky and ancient space, the previous owner who had retired was excited to hand the keys over to somebody with an exciting concept who would appeal to their much-loved locals and regulars as well as new faces.
The Queen of Cups can seat up to 70 people indoors with more seating in the summer outside. There’s a lovely courtyard and while the place has been modernised and retaining the beamed ceilings for a lighter, more airy, feel, you can see some of the original stonework of the building – it’s said stones from when the abbey was demolished were used in its construction and there’s a stone with an angel carved into it above kitchen door that dates back to that time.
Originally, the site was three buildings but it was knocked into one, which is why there are so many different floor levels.
Primarily operating as a restaurant, people coming in for a drink can sit at the bar area, which has recently been refreshed, with an expanded premium range of drinks.
There’s a private dining room that seats 12 people comfortably with a mural by established local artist Kim von Coels.
The atmosphere is busy and buzzy, and the pass opens into the kitchen, which adds to the dynamic – guests sitting at the tables by the pass can chat to the chefs which they enjoy.
My first professional training took place at Leith’s where I was awarded a merit. With passion and a dedication to food, I trained as a butcher at the highly acclaimed Parson’s Nose, in west London, before beginning my first kitchen job at The Palomar and Bubala before working at Michelin-starred Sosban, the Old Butchers in Wales and then The Good Egg.
The Queen of Cups is my first restaurant and freehouse, which I opened with my best friend Mary-Elizabeth O’Neill.
I was named winner of the Middle Eastern Food of the Year category at the BIH Spotlight Awards in 2022.
The Queen of Cups is definitely food-led, and our reputation is spreading across the region. This may have been enhanced by my recent appearance on MasterChef: The Professionals during which the website crashed because of the level of traffic during the broadcasts.
This is a dining destination, particularly later in the week with its bookings-only policy, with a commitment to staying at the heart of the local community running regular music nights that are more drinks-led.
Glastonbury is big on spiritual tourism, with seasonal events like the Carnival and Frost Fayre, which bring in people from all across the south-west of England.
As well as being patron of the Queen of Cups, I’m also executive chef and we have a senior sous chef, and three other chefs and four KPs (two of whom have worked on the site for more than 10 years when they were with the previous operator).
Front of house is led by general manager Ceartain Duggan, with a trainee assistant manager and five others covering the restaurant and the bar.
It’s a diverse drinks list. There’s a big emphasis on local producers across the board.
Cocktails are popular, including the signature ‘Queen of Cups’, based on the Queen Mother’s favourite of gin and Dubonnet but this version has a preserved lemon syrup for a unique touch.
Queen of Cups is known for its weekly rotating real ales from local suppliers, recently working with New Bristol Brewery – its Joy of Sesh IPA is really well received and I’m working with them to create an exclusive beer, including designing of the label.
Other local ale producers include Exmoor, Hop Union, Parkway and Teignworth. Because Glastonbury is so close to the countryside, ales are really popular and, previously, the site was listed in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide.
We’ve just has also just signed on with Asahi who worked with me on the bar refurbishment, as well as other national breweries including Thatchers.
Spirits are also locally focused, including Glastonbury Gin, and Somerset Cider Brandy with the exception of Arak, which I source from Jordan to bring a Middle Eastern touch to the drinks, as well as the food.
The wine list is short and really interesting, with English and European quality wines, which are sourced through Dorset-based Sovereign Wines, and long-term suppliers London-based The Modest Merchant, plus wines from Lebanon, and shortly Queen of Cups will be listing Jordanian wines, provided by Wines of Jordan.
I’m particularly impressed with the sparkling wine from Mowbarton Estate, produced five miles away from Glastonbury, using the method champenoise, which stands up to some of the best Champagnes.
We also work closely with Pilton Cider, another local producer, which creates ciders using the traditional keeved method of low intervention while using interesting fruit varieties including quince, greengages and currants. Sharing bottles of these ciders is very popular with diners, particularly as the balance is perfect to be enjoyed with food.
Taking influence from my Jordanian roots, I have a distinctive style of cooking. Showcasing the best local food and drink, we use great British ingredients for my own take on Middle-Eastern inspired dishes.
What's on the menu?
Watercress labneh, roasted beetroot, pomegranate, za’atar pangrattato - £7.50
Somerset Fattoush. UBB tomatoes and cucumber, red onion and pomegranate, Za’atar croutons labneh/tahini - £12.50
Seven spice Jerusalem artichokes, pickled foraged mushrooms, whipped Westcombe ricotta, smoked almonds - £12.95
Red miso and cardamom glazed hispi cabbage, veduja and butterbean puree, kalamata tapenade, yeasted buckwheat - £16.50
Brixham salt cod fish cake with harissa yoghurt, pickled za’atar, smoked tomato, chard and fine beans - £19.50
Crispy hogget, kamouneh spiced heart skewer, celeriac puree, green shatta, bitter leaves - £21.50
Tonka and fig leaf crème mousseline, hazelnut brittle, fig, quince, seasonal berries - £9.25
Dark chocolate and Persian lime cremeaux, lime posset, cardamom marshmallow, lime sorbet, cardamom crumble, fingerlime caviar - £9.75
Preserved lemon, bayleaf and ginger with honeycomb - £7.95
I would say it is the main reason the Queen of Cups is as popular as it is with regulars and destination diners.
Although my dishes are not authentically Middle Eastern – they are my own interpretation; it is food seen through my lens, using local produce and ingredients to create food that feels true to herself.
Diners can expect gloriously colourful and delicious dishes such as lavender braised lamb, sorrel yoghurt, grilled plums, giant cous cous, kataif and red shatta and Laverbread falafel, sumac, lime fennel, tahini.
I try to take traditional dishes and put my spin on it, such as the seasonal special Shish Barak – dumplings served in yoghurt, made with pork, wild garlic and chanterelles.
The menu offers sharing dishes a la carte, or diners can opt for the Queens Feast, which at £33.50 per head is a range of tapas style savoury dishes that just keep on coming.
Events at Queen of Cups are a growing side of the business. We’re collaborating with other top pubs on ‘four hands’ dinners on their sites around the UK next year, with the chefs coming to Queen of Cups for return ‘guest chef’ dinners. The restaurant & freehouse was chosen by Pilton Cider to launch a new product, alongside a pairing dinner that was very successful.
The events focus tends to be around bringing new experiences for regular guests, rather than booking out the whole site. Weddings have been considered but I don’t want them to be a large source of work because I don’t want to close the site to locals on a regular basis.
Music events are very popular, every four weeks there’s a queer cabaret act called Lavender Vespers – the Queen of Cups was the first to provide this in Glastonbury with its mix of drag queens and drag kings. It’s a lovely inclusive and safe space for everyone to enjoy and local queer artisanal producers, such as a new fudge company, can use these events to sell their wares.
Every fortnight, there’s an open mic night and anyone can perform whether its poetry, spoken word, singing – they’re all encouraged to give it a shot.
Every Sunday, its Blues Jam, inherited from the previous operator they consider it an important community element (they sell more mead and ale than on any other night). Its raucous fun, with packed crowds and attracts the local regulars week in, week out.
It’s important the Queen of Cups creates a sense of belonging for a lot of different people, being a real part of the community, more than any other pub in the area.
We want to renovate the site in time and that includes potentially redoing the garden but, as a very old building, maintaining its integrity is a constant job.
I’d like to upgrade the kitchen as well to allow her chefs to cook to the best they can and elevate the menu.
We are also actively working on expanding the drinks list, particularly on the cocktails side, which are very popular with our diners.