Great once more
PUBLISHED: 14:20 05 August 2015 | UPDATED: 14:20 05 August 2015
It's good to find a pub at the centre of the long-overdue revival of London Road. The Great Northern, a few steps from the re-opened Odyssey cinema, is bringing good food and drink back to the area. It's also restoring the good name of a pub that people of a nervous disposition kept well clear of for years.
Dan Gibney points to all the improvements. The sticky carpet went into a skip and the floor is now polished wood. The pool room off the main bar is set aside for diners, with wooden tables and chairs.
The bar that once faced the entrance has been moved to the left of the door, cleverly opening up more space for customers. Outside, the large but once tacky garden has been lovingly redesigned and sculpted, and invites large numbers of drinkers on warm days.
Dan and his partners took over the pub last November but it was closed until April. It means, he says, that the old regulars – the types who sat at the bar nursing glasses of lager and glaring belligerently at any newcomer who dared to enter -- have moved on.
Dan, 35, is a former student at Verulam School who went on to work in corporate finance in the City of London. But he’d always wanted to run his own business and loved pubs. With two partners, Liam Collete and Josephine Persson, he took over the Great Northern from John McGowan, who specialises in Irish pubs in London.
The timing is perfect with the Odyssey opening next door. Dan says the food trick is to offer meals served quickly in order that people can eat and not miss the start of the film they’ve chosen to see. Meals can still be served when the cinema has closed for the evening.
But Dan’s not catering solely for the cinema trade. The streets running off London Road are dense with housing and the people living there will welome a good pub on their doorsteps – especially those further down London Road who lost the Mile House some years ago.
At first Dan and his partners concentrated on getting the drinks offer right. Once a haunt of Foster’s drinkers, that brand is no longer available. The lagers now on sale, such as San Miguel, are of better repute but it’s the bank of handpumps that catch the eye as you enter.
There’s Kite Bluestone Bitter from Wales, Dark Star Pale Ale from Sussex, Black Sheep Best Bitter from Yorkshire and, closer to home, Tring Moongazing. Dan regularly has Red Squirrel beers from Potten End near Berkhamsted and he’s keen to have more beers brewed in the locality.
One criticism of the revamped Great Northern on social media -- which is a wonderful outlet for people who used to write letters in green ink -- is that beer prices are high.
Dan says the Tring beer costs £3.90 a pint and he aims for prices around £4: not unreasonable for St Albans. Dark Star costs £4.40 but that reflects the price the pub has to pay the brewery.
Dan says his wine prices are equally sharp: the range is extensive and, he says, are well below prices you would pay in restaurants. He also plans to bring in some “craft beers”, the buzz word for trendy modern keg beers that annoys drinkers, including me, who consider real ale to be craft beer, thank you very much.
The partners have recruited a top chef, Martin St Marie, to oversee the food offer. Martin has worked in top restaurants in Islington, North London, and in the Great Northern he prepares menus that include some light bites for those moving on to the Odyssey. They include polenta croquettes, baked chorizo, braised roasted pork ribs, croque monsieur, and calamari.
For those with time to spare, starters include pulled pork belly, crayfish mac & cheese, and heritage beetroot salad. Main courses offer butternut squash, blue cheese and red onion marmalade tart, herb-crusted salmon, GN’s classic burger, roasted spring chicken, and rib-eye steak. There’s a Sunday roast, with a veggie option. Children are welcome in the dining areas.
Future plans include possibly opening upstairs rooms as additional dining space. The facade will be “given a lick of paint,” Dan says, but the Victorian-era style will not be changed. The pub will remain true to its roots as a 19th-century railway pub that marked the line that linked Watford and St Albans to Hatfield.
There are no trains chuffing by now but the Great Northern is alive and well, with the signals on “full steam ahead”.
Date for the diary: CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival, London Olympia August 11-15. Hundreds of real ales, ciders and perries, American beers in cask. See www.gbbf.org.uk.