…let’s raise a toast
Neil Thomas tours of some of the best restaurants, pubs and bars in the area to celebrate the welcome return of customers
The sun is shining, the pubs are open, restaurants are buzzing with the sound of customer chatter and things are looking up.
The need to socialise is at the core of humanity. Dinner or a few laughs over drinks with family and friends is important, entertainment and conviviality are life-enhancing. Restaurants, pubs and hotels are at the heart of that. And during the pandemic, that heart has been ripped out.
The hospitality industry has suffered hugely from months of lockdown and tough restrictions.
Now, as life gradually gets back to normal, we’re returning in droves to our favourite eateries and watering holes, reflecting that we shall never again take for granted simple pleasures like a pint at the local.
“There was a buzz as owners, staff and customers all looked forward with anticipation to the promised final unlocking on July 19.”
That was certainly the feeling out and about in Bridgnorth, Much Wenlock, Ironbridge and Broseley when I headed out on a fact-finding mission – all right, a glorified pub crawl – with photographer Russ Davies.
There was a buzz as owners, staff and customers all looked forward with anticipation to the promised final unlocking on July 19.
It is important to stress that everywhere we went, staff were all wearing masks. They kindly slipped them off briefly for our photographs, so that we could look forward properly to the return of the smiling faces of local hospitality that enrich our lives so much.
“We found plenty of occupied tables and happy diners”
If ever there was a place that captured that spirit, it is the award-winning Tandoori restaurant Eurasia, in Bridgnorth. From the smiling welcome to the slick service to the superb food, this is a delightful venue. We found plenty of occupied tables and happy diners when we dropped in early evening.
We sampled some delicious and imaginative dishes, including Mirpuri Malai (lightly spiced chicken tikka cooked with pickle and pineapple, then wrapped in potato fritters), Paneer Chilli (Indian cheese stir fried with chilli sauce, onions and peppers), Shaslick Balti (chicken tikka with red and green peppers and onions in a medium spicy sauce) and Ginger Chicken (Tandoori chicken cooked with chopped ginger, garlic, green chilli and garam masala).
Tandoori restaurant Eurasia in Bridgnorth
We also tasted a delightful lightly-spiced seabass dish and Jumbo King prawn cooked in bhuna style in a medium sauce.
It is easy to see why this restaurant, in the same ownership for 20 years, has won three Chef of the Year titles and has been voted Best Restaurant in the Midlands.
Brandon Parr, Oliver Humphries, Chloe Foulkes and Josh Curtis, ready with a warm welcome at The White Hart
Earlier we dropped into Ironbridge where The White Hart was busy with diners enjoying lunch while soaking up the sun and riverside views.
Alex Nicholls, who runs the popular bar and restaurant on The Wharfage, says trade is up 10 per cent. “We are seeing more customers and I would expect that trend to continue. I think the main reasons are pent-up excitement at the reopening of pubs and restaurants, and staycations.”
Alex Nicholls, who runs the popular bar and restaurant on The Wharfage, says trade is up 10 per cent
Eighteen-year-olds Amelia Porter and Hettie Wood were enjoying a drink in The White Hart’s attractive shaded courtyard.
“It’s great to be able to meet up for a drink and chat,” Amelia said.
“In fact, we’ve met up a few times since pubs re-opened,” Hettie added, as both girls laughed.
Diners were also enjoying lunch at The Raven Hotel in Much Wenlock, where business has been brisk since the lifting of restrictions on inside dining.
“The first week or so we were rushed off our feet,” said Head Chef Leigh Earing, who was busy on lunchtime covers with his team of Mike Ullah and Zac Woodhouse.
Bar manager Nuno added, “It’s good, with steady trade.”
Head Chef Leigh Earing, Zac Woodhouse and Mike Ullah at The Raven
Ann Griffiths and Tracy Griffiths being served by Courtney Turner at The Butcher’s Kitchen
In Broseley, The Butcher’s Kitchen has seen an upturn in trade, buoyed by excitement at the lifting of lockdown.
“The first week back was the best week’s trading we have had in our three years, including Christmases,” said owner Andy Dyke, who runs the bar and restaurant with wife Nicky. “It’s great to have customers back and see some familiar faces again.”
“The first week back was the best week’s trading we have had in our three years, including Christmases”
You can’t beat an old-fashioned market town pub for wonderful atmosphere – a warm welcome, plenty of banter plus good food and drink. There is a sense of community about them, which is why they’ve been so sorely missed during the long months of lockdown.
Amelia Porter and Hettie Wood enjoy a drink in The White Hart
We visited The George and Dragon in Much Wenlock along with three in Bridgnorth – The Black Boy Inn, The Bear and The Fosters. These are all traditional English pubs in the best possible sense.
The warm smile of bar manager Amy Downes welcomed us to The Black Boy
The George and Dragon was packed with the uplifting sight of people enjoying a lunchtime bite and brew. Bar staff Lily Porter and James Smith ensured a friendly welcome, with Lily remarking, “It’s nice to see people back enjoying themselves. We have a very strong clientele with lots of regulars.”
“You can’t beat an old-fashioned market town pub for wonderful atmosphere”
Bill and Joan Inkson and Ken Richardson were enjoying lunch with Ken observing, “This is one of the best pubs in the area.”
Murrel and Sue Morris
That was endorsed by Murrel and Sue Morris, who had travelled from Llanymynech, on the Shropshire/Wales border for a look around Much Wenlock and a spot of lunch.
The warm smile of bar manager Amy Downes welcomed us to The Black Boy Inn, and she echoed everyone’s thoughts when she said: “It’s good to be back open.”
Mike and Gill Tatman
Mike Tatman and his wife Gill are proper regulars. “We’ve been coming here for 40 years,” declared Gill. Mike added, “It’s got a real community spirit – there is friendly staff, jazz evenings and always great banter.”
And he observed, “Socialising is so important for your mental health. It is probably the most important aspect of going to the pub, the chance to have a chat and a laugh.”
It’s clearly done Mike and Gill no harm – both look younger than their 80 and 70 years respectively.
Tracie Brookes, landlady at The Bear, serves Mike Gennard and Rory McWilliams
The flags were out at The Bear – literally. The bar was festooned with colours of nations taking part in the delayed Euro 2020 football tournament. Big TV screens, inside and in the beer garden, were showing the matches. The place is a sports lover’s dream.
Landlady Tracie Brookes said, “I’ve been so busy outside during the past few weeks – one day I did 22,000 steps, just going from the bar to the garden! And it’s getting busier inside.”
“I’ve been so busy outside during the past few weeks – one day I did 22,000 steps, just going from the bar to the garden!”
The Fosters, in Low Town, is something of a Tardis. A period terraced frontage with cosy bars and intimate snugs leads to something quite unexpected to the first-time visitor – a huge beer garden.
“People get quite a surprise when they first see it,” said bar manager Andy Malin with a broad smile. “It certainly came into its own when pubs could only serve outside. It was very busy. It’s a nice contrast to the traditional pub inside.”
Bar manager Andy Malin with Nikki Weale and Laura Weale at The Fosters
Over the road is The Falcon Hotel, with its slick and stylish bar and restaurant and attractive, suntrap of a courtyard.
“We didn’t know what to expect when lockdown was eased but business has been great,” said consultant general manager John Hawkins, who has exciting plans for the venue which has 120 covers indoors and another 80 outside.
Gabriella Pickerell and Ashleigh Garbett outside Carrie England
Then there are those places offering something a little out of the ordinary. Carrie England is a chic café and cocktail bar in Bridgnorth High Street, serving British and Mediterranean dishes that make perfect light lunches or mouth-watering early evening meals. There’s a wide choice of drinks – and the coffee is superb. Plush sofas, soft lighting and candle scent make the stylish interior a great place to chill out while street tables let you soak up the rays while watching the world go by.
“We didn’t know what to expect when lockdown was eased but business has been great.”
Carrie’s daughter Mollie explained, “We are trying to be a bit different with the menu and interior design.”
Manager Jo Cole added, “People seem to like what we are doing. They come for lunch, afternoon tea or maybe just a glass or two of champagne at the start of a night out.”
At The Water Rat Inn, beside the river at Ironbridge, bifold doors lead onto outdoor decking where you can bask in the summer sunshine while enjoying a delicious lunch – tapas style dishes and rustic sandwiches washed down by a choice of real ales (if you want to sample them all, The Water Rat also has rooms so you can park up for the night). The bright, imaginatively designed interior is the perfect dining spot in the evening.
Unsurprisingly, The Water Rat has proved popular with punters since lockdown was lifted.
“We didn’t really know what to expect but we’ve been busy,” said manager Lee Howard. “We’ve been serving food from noon until 9pm and done record business on some days.”
The Water Rat manager, Lee Howard
Kristian Bate and Sam Dodds enjoying a drink at The Falcon Hotel
And then there is the success of Wenlock Pottery
– as a pub!
Set back from narrow Sheinton Street, in a former chapel, it has been a fixture in the heart of Much Wenlock for more than 40 years.
Owner Mike Fletcher crafts attractive earthenware which is sold in the ceramic shop, packed with his handiwork and that of other talented artisans. He runs pottery courses and operates a bed and breakfast. But he admits lockdown took a heavy toll.
Mike Fletcher, owner of Wenlock Pottery
“We had no money coming in and the future looked bleak,” Mike recalls.
Wenlock Pottery did, as it turned out, have an ace up its sleeve. It decided to use its drinks licence, which it has for one-off events and corporate gatherings, to operate an outdoor bar.
“We had no money coming in and the future looked bleak.”
“We became a pub,” said Mike, who runs the business with his partner Shelagh Bill. It was an inspired move, for Much Wenlock has a shortage of beer gardens – which became a factor when pubs could only serve outdoors.
“As virtually the only beer garden in town, we found ourselves really busy. It’s saved the day for us.”
There is, perhaps, no better example of the entrepreneurial ingenuity that characterises all of the hospitality businesses we visited and that will, after a horrendous 15 months, help to get this much valued industry back on its feet.