Hardly the best of British

This Is Wiltshire: Hardly the best of British Hardly the best of British

MICHELLE TOMPKINS was less than impressed at the Red Lion

EAT AT:

THE RED LION,

Avebury High Street

Avebury

SN8 1RF

Telephone: 01672 539266

Restaurant opening times: Lunch 11am-5pm; dinner 5pm- 11pm. Bar: 11am-11pm

THERE are pros and cons to being the only pub in the village, and while The Red Lion at Avebury has the benefit of a steady stream of hungry tourists piling through its doors, it seems to have adopted a certain complacency when it comes to feeding them.

On a sunny Friday lunchtime, the pub, which overlooks the ancient stone circle, was doing a roaring trade. A busload of American sight-seers were queueing to order some Olde Englishe Fayre, and walkers in shorts and hiking boots beat a continuous trail to the bar in search of sustenance.

What a shame then that what they were dished up wasn’t a better example of Great British food at its best.

I had gone there with only one dish on my mind... that old classic, fish and chips. Earlier this year, the chain which owns the Red Lion – Greene King – picked up the Best Foodservice Outlet gong at the 2012 National Fish and Chips Awards, so I had to see what the fuss was about.

Indeed, the pub makes quite a deal of its accolade. A sign outside proudly boasts the fact, and the menu has ‘Award-winning hand-battered haddock and chips’ at the top of its classics menu, at a very reasonable £7.89.

The hype has definitely worked. All around us people were ordering the dish – the Americans in their droves. I knew there would be a wait, but I looked forward to a thick, white fillet in crunchy batter and some proper chips – the kind only we Brits can do well; hand cut and chunky and fried to a golden brown.

What I eventually got I could have served up from my own freezer at home. A reasonable-sized piece of fish, crisp(ish) on top but soggy underneath, and pale chips straight from a packet. The mushy peas were okay, but nothing special, and the tartare sauce was undoubtedly from a jar. It was edible, but not what I’d call award-winning. I was disappointed and embarrassed that this was being passed off as traditional British cuisine.

My vegetarian friend was pleased with the choices she found on the menu – three veggie main courses and two more on the specials board. She briefly considered the sweet potato, broccoli and red onion tatin (£8.29) before opting for the spinach and feta cannelloni (£8.49), which came with salad and garlic ciabatta.

It looked appetising enough, but once she’d broken through the bubbling cheese on top, it too was disappointing. The water from the spinach had turned the dish into a sloppy mess, and it had clearly been microwaved, probably from frozen, hence all the excess liquid.

As we picked through our food, we took in the surroundings. There was a roped-off area at the front of the pub which looked bright and recently decorated, but it was closed to lunchtime visitors. The front bar had a cosy and quaint feel to it, but it was busy and there was no room left for us.

The corner where we eventually settled was in dire need of a lick of paint. The walls were scuffed with mud from all the hiking boots that have passed through, and the carpet was tired and worn. It’s a good job my friend and I had plenty to say, because there wasn’t much to look at.

If I’m sounding very negative, I apologise – I always like to give our local pubs credit where it’s due, but in reality there was very little here to praise.

The one saving grace was the staff, who were upbeat and very pleasant, even under pressure. When she caught us considering the desserts menu, our waitress recommended the sharing platter (£8.69) – a chocolate brownie, some Eton Mess and a sticky toffee cheesecake, served with clotted cream ice cream and double cream – which sounded heavenly.

It was good – and enormous – but not as good as it could have been had the puddings been homemade, and we were slightly disappointed once more.

I’m a firm believer in you get what you pay for, and to be fair the prices at The Red Lion are not huge. Our entire meal, with two soft drinks and two coffees, came to just over £30, and there’s an even cheaper menu of two courses for just £9.95.

But the Red Lion appears to be resting on its laurels and taking the easy option when it comes to food, and that’s a real shame.

I, and I suspect all those tourists, would happily pay a little more for better quality, freshly-cooked fare befitting of a pleasant, country pub in a charming English village.

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