Pub of the Year: Great Food Club Awards 2023/4
Chosen by our judges:
The Red Lion, West Deeping, Lincolnshire
The top public vote-winners:
The winner is The Red Lion in West Deeping – a village pub where the food is local, seasonal and perfectly suited to a rural hostelry – we call it ‘elevated pub dining’.
“Well, I thought things couldn’t really get any worse,” said chef patron Frazer King. His comment explains why he and his partner Emma took the brave decision to open a pub in the unpromising economic environment of 2021. We should be grateful, for The Red Lion is now a lovely dining pub and a welcoming community hub for the people of West Deeping.
Frazer learnt his trade working for the likes of Mark Hix in London, before returning home to Lincolnshire and working at local favourites such as The Olive Branch in Clipsham. After taking on The Red Lion, they got rid of the sticky carpet and revealed some of the bones of the handsome old building to create an elegant but cosy pub that is a fine showcase for what they bill as “elevated pub dining”.
It’s a good descriptor for Frazer’s skilful cooking. On our judging visit, we very much enjoyed starters of crayfish with heritage tomatoes and tender pork belly matched with highly seasonal, plump, pickled gooseberries with wild garlic buds and finely crumbled crackling. Beef cheek was cooked long and slow and with a pleasing smoke that was echoed in the charring of accompanying gem lettuce. A fillet of sea bass was among the best we’ve encountered – delightfully crispy skin with oriental-themed additions of fermented carrots, broccoli and sea arrowgrass dressed in soy and chilli.
An excellent cheeseboard featured Midlands cheeses including the peccorino-inspired Berkswell and the rich and creamy Rutland Red.
On the night of our visit, the pub was busy with a quiz night, with many patrons taking advantage of a good value pie and pint offer. Another area of comfy armchairs was booked out for a village meeting. There was still space to relax on a sofa in front of a large inglenook with an impeccable pint of Hopshackle, a fruity ale brewed specially for them in neighbouring Market Deeping, and the equally refreshing Blonde from Nene Valley Brewery in Oundle.
The other finalists
The Royal Oak, Great Dalby, Leicestershire
Village pubs often have the difficult task of having to meet the varying needs of a wide variety of visitors. Our visit to the characterful, low-beamed Royal Oak showed that this is something they are managing to pull off brilliantly. On a busy Saturday evening, the village cricket team were quaffing post-match beers in the garden. Staff from nearby GFC-favourite Vine Farm Dairy were winding down too. Then there were young families with small children eating pub classics, larger family groups clearly having a reunion, groups of friends having a Saturday night out with food, couples having a date night… it was all going on.
Co-owner Patrick Anderson was everywhere, setting a friendly and efficient tone – changing barrels when necessary, meeting and greeting regulars often by name and with a handshake and taking a lead on table service. This is a pub with a clear understanding of hospitality.
The beer offering was clearly valued by locals and featured local beers Wranglers and Steeplechase from Melton’s Round Corner Brewing, and award-winners such as Wherry from Woodforde’s in Norfolk and Landlord and Boltmaker from Timothy Taylor’s in Yorkshire.
The food menu is quite extensive – again responding to a wide range of customer needs. A range of basket meals with fries may suit the casual sharers and grazers, then there’s a good range of pies, burgers and steaks but also specials that allow the kitchen to show a bit more ambition.
We started with nicely cooked scallops with crushed peas and pancetta and a duck liver parfait with fig chutney. From the specials board, a whole sole was a treat with lemon and capers and some delicious crushed new potatoes, while a “collection of pork” featured belly, shoulder and a lightly-battered, herby sausage along with plenty of smooth mash, fresh veg and gravy. Good hearty pub food.
The Stag & Hounds, Burrough on the Hill, Leicestershire
Dom Clarke arrived to take over what was then Grant’s Free House in 2019, bringing with him a track record lauded with AA rosettes and a Bib Gourmand. He quickly immersed himself in Leicester’s food scene, securing excellent produce from local suppliers and doing them justice with very fine cooking. But the pub has remained a pub. Sure, people travel a distance to eat here, but at 5pm you’ll get folk in work clothes arriving for a beer, and walkers with their dogs claiming their reward from a trek on the Leicestershire Round or a tour of the amazing Iron Age hill fort on the edge of the village. There are great local beers on offer here too – on our visit there was Market Pale and Drover’s from Melton’s Round Corner and JHB from Oakham Ales in Peterborough.
Dom’s menus are short and change weekly, with each dish getting full attention. Typically that means two or three choices on a lunch and early evening menu fixe, and the same on an evening main menu. From the main, we had a starter of duck livers that would have won over most hardcore offal sceptics – soft and melting, delicately flavoured and beautifully served with crispy black pudding. A thick-cut pork chop was superbly cooked, can’t be easy to keep a hunk of meat that moist, and accompanying char-gilled hispi cabbage was a revelation with a rich, umami character.
From the menu fixe, there was a pretty little bonbon made from featherblade of beef with smooth, lightly smoked mash and watercress, and an immaculate plaice fillet with asparagus. A cheeseboard was well-selected and beautifully presented, and a salted caramel tart displayed first-rate pastry work.
The service was warm and friendly, too. Overall, The Stag & Hounds does a tremendous job at combining first-rate food with a genuine pub environment.
The Radcliffe, Radcliffe on Trent, Nottinghamshire
Radcliffe-on-Trent is a pleasant commuter village just to the east of Nottingham. Pubs here have to work hard to keep customers from the nearby big city or more picturesque villages further out. In The Radcliffe, villagers have a lovely pub to drop in to for lunch, to meet up after work or to book for special occasions.
Set outside the village centre, it nestles comfortably among the local housing. There’s plenty of well-tended outdoor space and there is play equipment for the children. Inside, it’s a smart, modern environment with soft seating and tables for drinkers and a dining area next to the kitchen with its open pass.
There are four hand-pumps on the bar, with Harvest Pale from Nottingham’s Castle Rock a regular along with well-chosen guests – the excellent Gem from Bath Ales was there on our visit. The wine list offers plenty of choice with some 30 bottles, all of them available by the glass.
The staff team here are young and enthusiastic, and the greeting and service on our lunchtime visit was exceptionally warm and friendly. They really made us feel welcome and cared for. Substantial doorstep sandwiches are available but we ordered from the main menu, starting with “monkfish scampi” – three generous strips of fish in crunchy breadcrumbs rocking the 70s vibe delightfully. Also, some Black Pudding from Lincolnshire’s excellent Fruit Pig, served with a burnt apple puree, pickled apple and bitter notes from crunchy chicory leaves. Our mains included a perfectly moist and tender chicken breast with an earthy broth of wild mushrooms and plenty of crispy sage leaves, and a filo feta parcel with baba ghanoush and a salad of sweet red peppers. We also treated ourselves to a side of truffle and parmesan fries – a proper decadent treat.
Part of the Secret Pub Company, which has three other local pubs, this is a well-run local and a big asset to the local community.