May 17th: Harpenden's White Horse boasts record bookings since lockdown lifted
- Credit: The White Horse
Boasting one of the biggest outdoor eating areas in the district, The White Horse in Harpenden has been thriving since the relaxation of lockdown restrictions.
With a huge canopied seating area and perspex screens dividing tables, plus an uncovered "Secret Garden" to the rear and more seats in the front, the capacity for diners is in the hundreds.
General manager Fred Foey said al fresco dining had been very busy over the past few weeks: "Guests love the big tent we have outside and have given us great feedback on the food and the service they have enjoyed.
"The weather, and especially the wind, have been an issue, but we have blankets, heaters and hot water bottles to keep people warm.
"We also give all booked guests a courtesy call if it's cold and windy so they can dress up warm!"
Like many other similar hospitality venues, getting back into the swing of things after lockdown was difficult: "The first week was a bit of a shock to the system, especially after being in furlough for so long.
"The outside system has been different for us operationally, as we need more people taking food and drink to tables and more people on shift generally. You can't hear the service bell when you're outside or respond as quickly, so we need the extra team to ensure we maintain the standards on what we offer.
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"Our first week back was a record week sales-wise for the pub, which was fantastic. After that, we have settled back really well. Things are very similar to what we were doing before the last lockdown due to the size of our outside space which was already set up for al fresco eating and drinking, so we haven't had to make any major changes.
But he said the unseasonably cold weather undoubtedly had an impact on business: "The cold makes it difficult for guests and given we want to give them the best experience we can when they visit, we have to work extra hard to keep them warm.
"The strong winds have also played havoc with the food once or twice, with salad blowing off the plate and cappuccino turning into flat white quite quickly! Everyone has seen the funny side of it. People are so excited to be back in the pub again and we're all smiling, which makes our lives a lot easier!"
They have been overwhelmed by the level of support from customers.
"Guests are saying how nice it is to be back at the pub and to have a little piece of normality after being locked up for so long. We've worked on getting the balance right too, with measures in place to keep our guests and our team safe whilst still making it enjoyable.
"We've been crazily busy in the first three weeks, and in our second week, we were busier than we usually are at Christmas , which was amazing. It's great to have regulars back as well as new people enjoying the pub. I'd say there is definitely an appetite to move back inside though, so roll on the 17th May!
"We've already got everything in place to return to inside opening, in line with the regulations. Eventually we plan to move the tent to the garden so people can sit in the sunshine (hopefully the weather will oblige!), where it will be a great space for events, gatherings and to watch the Euros.
"We will have lots of exciting new things going on when we can re-open fully, so please watch this space!"
Review - Sunday lunch at The White Horse
With the remarkable new measures introduced to allow for outdoor dining in the wake of lockdown easing, it would have been rude not to visit and find out first hand how the pub has transformed.
We booked for Sunday lunch in the canopy area, and were shown to a spacious table which came with its own heater if required, kept Covid-safe with a backdrop of perspex screens. The service was impeccable throughout, despite the challenges faced by the staff under the new guidelines, and our server managed to exude friendliness and charm despite the restrictions of her facemask.
Unlike some venues, no compromises had been made to the menu, which offered an extensive selection of three different courses.
I opted for the soup of the day - tomato and chilli - a creamy delight packing a satisfying punch - while my partner chose pan-fried native scallops, served with watercress and tartare Hollandaise. She said they melted in the mouth, and the sauce was to die for.
For my main I went for the roast, Aubrey's dry-aged rump of beef served with roast potatoes, seasonal vegetables and roots, Yorkshire pudding and a jug of gravy. It's been an age since I've enjoyed a roast as good as this one, with the thinly-sliced meat perfectly pink and full of flavour. A triumph by anyone's standards.
My partner continued her fishy theme with miso-glazed cod, black rice, choy sum, lime, chilli and coriander, and was bowled away by the quality of the dish, raving about it for hours afterwards.
Our desserts were of a similarly high standard: banoffee cheesecake with rum-soaked raisins, bananas and pecans, and apple tarte tatin served with vegan vanilla ice cream. The perfect coda to an exceptional meal.
Although we'll soon be able to eat inside pubs again, the lively atmosphere and fresh air of The White Horse's tent is definitely worth experiencing, but it's the food which will have you coming back time and time again.