The New Inn, 74 Vivian Road, Harborne, Birmingham, B17 ODJ. T: 0121 426 3373
The British boozer is not yet an endangered species but it is unquestionably in the grip of brutal economic upheaval.
Changing cultural habits, stifling taxation and fierce price-cutting promotions from supermarkets (“Buy One Hangover, Get One Free”) are taking their toll on this noble institution.
In this sense, the plight of the humble pub is no different to any other industrial sector.
The newspaper industry, in which I earn a crust, has faced unparalleled turmoil in the past decade, prompting the sad closure, or radical reorganisation, of once indomitable titles.
The newspaper on which I did my training, The Chatham News in Kent, has now gone to that great deadline in the sky.
Working men and working women used to read their local paper in their local pub and no doubt there is a correlation between the decline of both industries, boozers and newspapers. In some neighbourhoods, the notion of the working man has passed into myth, too.
A dozen pubs close each week in England, Wales and Scotland, according to research by the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA).
The rate of closure is said to have slowed but that is small consolation for communities that have been robbed of a place to meet, drink, discuss events of mutual interest and engage hitmen.
CAMRA’s most recent snapshot of the trade, highlighting boozers where last orders have been called, makes for sober reading in our own patch.
After Lancashire and London (68 and 43 pub closures respectively), the West Midlands experienced the third highest number of failures.
Some 37 pubs went to the wall in a six-month period – or more than one a week. It is glib to say that the good will always survive, be they pubs, newspapers or football teams.
For starters, much depends on your definition of “good.”
Does “good” mean cheap, or does it actually mean something else, something more nurturing and sustaining than the physical essence of the commodity? It’s more difficult to put a price on that.
Sentiment will only go so far, however. Some pubs, frankly, have had only themselves to blame for their demise.
If a pub fails to show entrepreneurial acumen, or at the very least keep the loos clean, then the writing is always going to be on the wall.
I don’t know the story behind the former incarnation of The New Inn in Harborne.
I gather this suburban pub, 200 yards from the High Street, had been offered for sale for a while, so one might reasonably conclude it had been struggling.
It was, and is, one of the few pubs in the city to retain a traditional bowling green but whenever I passed the building in recent years the exterior didn’t exactly suggest a warm welcome awaited.
When boarding appeared where windows had once been, I feared the worst: a ye olde wacky eater.
Well played, then, to Matt Scriven, of the bijoux Birmingham-based Bitters ’n’ Twisted group, for stepping in to save the day.
Scriven, who has five other bars and restaurants in the city, has turned The New Inn into that must-have 2012 eatery: a steakhouse.
After several decades of whoring themselves around to pale imitations of continental cuisines, a large number of pub-owners and restaurateurs have come to the conclusion that what customers really wanted all-along was informal dining with steak and chips, not chicken satay skewers in a raspberry and kumquat jus.
Scriven has gone down the rare breed path, sourcing Longhorn beef from Leicestershire.
I’m familiar with the breed, and the supplier, having eaten it for years. There’s no need to preach to me; I’m already converted.
But this is still a pub. So before the beef, the drinks.
Scriven has gone for an elaborate cocktail list of classic and inventive “favourites,” such as The New Inn Cooler (Finlandia lime vodka, blueberry syrup, lemonade and Angostura bitters).
The cocktails start at £5.50 but pub purists should not despair: there are five real ales on tap, including a house beer, Wye Valley’s Butty Batch and a local tipple from Brum’s new Beer Geek Brewery.
The pub, thankfully, still retains a large bar area for drinking, which leads into the dining room.
I have read a couple of comments from people complaining about the noise from the bar interrupting meals. The solution here is easy: if you don’t like boozer ambiance, go a to sterile city-centre branded pub for plastic chicken and a Now That’s What I Call Music 1989 soundtrack.
Scriven and his design team have done a great job on The New Inns’ interior, with retro flashes like flying duck wallpaper, wooden benches, buffy stools and framed dust-jackets of childhood books.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar seemed particularly apt. The kitsch colour reproductions of a woodland nymph and a goddess en route to the gents merit a special mention.
There were even two retro drunks in the bar, their carrier bags teaming with packet food, pint glasses swilling with lager.
That’s what I call atmosphere. Stirring stuff.
The menu is mercifully uncluttered. There are three fish dishes on the starters (others include steak tartare, a duck Scotch egg and something with bread for vegetarians).
I went for the entire 1970s revisited experience, opting for prawns, blackened and born of tiger, with garlic.
Totally fine, the garlic butter without a whiff of the rancidity that I’ve come across in places that should know better.
Steak listings are simple and to the point – fillet, sirloin, ribeye and bavette. There are whoppers of chateaubriand and porterhouse for those with an inclination to share.
Now, I’ve also heard complaints that the steaks at The New Inn are expensive, mainly from people who still think we’re on the ration.
I don’t think £18 for an 8oz ribeye with chips for is a rip-off, not for an organically-reared rare breed beast that has clicked its heels and swung its tail on open, green pastures. If you want to eat pile-it-high arse leather, I can suggest any number of restaurant chains and purveyors of nasty frozen flesh.
Get this: cheap food isn’t cheap because the benevolent restaurant/cafe owner has your best wishes at heart and likes to operate as a charity.
Cheap food is cheap because it’s not good, not good at all. This observation is not snobbish; it’s a fact. The farmer supplying The New Inn needs paying, the butcher needs paying, the staff need paying, the rents, rates and utilities need paying.
Do you want to know why some pubs have closed? Because they sold bad food last seen eaten at the cast Christmas party for On The Buses.
The New Inn ribeye was good, properly rested. In fact, it was almost over-rested because another minute and it would have passed the point of being warm.
Sally’s sirloin was also good but again could have been fetched out of the kitchen a bit quicker.
The garlic butter barely melted when it was placed on top. But these are simple things to put right, unlike sourcing and cooking which, if they are bad, tend to stay bad.
There are “triple” cooked chips but the beef dripping variety are the ones to go for.
There wasn’t an oblong finger of undercooked Jenga brick in sight and for that, Mr Scriven, I salute you.
Steaks come with a good knob of corn on the cob and a fat tomato, but the tom was of that watery, non-sweet, On The Buses variety. Find a good supplier of vine tomatoes. There are plenty down the road in Evesham.
We ordered a side of creamed spinach and decent onion rings but frankly the meat and chips would have sufficed.
From the desserts board I had the sticky toffee pudding and ice cream, which was like sticky toffee pudding and ice cream – okay, which is okay if you are okay with okay.
The total bill, including drinks and service – which was helpful and war-natured – was £80. So no, it’s not cheap, but I enjoyed the experience and I’d go back.
The New Inn may just have been thrown a new, welcome lease of life.