More than ever we need pub owners with the vision and determination to do something that will persuade people to venture out on a wet Tuesday when Holby City might seem the better option. We have plenty of them around the North East and the better ones are doing very well, thank you very much.
Entrepreneurial publican Dave Carr is one such chap. His ideas for how a pub should look, how it should welcome guests, and how it should function might appear offbeat to some, but it’s safe to say brewing giant Heineken wouldn’t be investing the thick end of a million in the transformation of The Punch Bowl Hotel in Jesmond, Newcastle, if they had any doubts about his approach. He also operates the Brandling Villa in South Gosforth, Newcastle, with what some might term an out-of kilter approach.
“The Punch Bowl is like those Spanish and Italian bars where young and old gather happily,” says Dave. “The Brandling Villa grew organically and we’ve learnt from that.”
Dave calls The Punch Bowl “a Saturday afternoon bar” and without analysing the phrase, we kind of get it. It’s busy yet relaxing with Friday’s weekend buzz still in our veins and Sunday still to come before Monday and work.
Commanding what old-timers would call the bar is assistant manager Roy Varty – brown coated and ready for service, whether it’s one of seven cask ales, a glass of vermouth, or something from the charcuterie beside him.
He shares the Carr vision of customer service then takes it further.
“The brown coat is a symbol of the northern boozer; it’s a glass-collector’s coat,” says Roy. “People think it’s a Ronnie Barker Open All Hours coat but it’s more of a Monty Python Dead Parrot one. I was going to wear a white jacket like those Italian waiters, but sometimes they can look wrong and cheap. This works.”
Roy has worked in cocktail bars in Newcastle city centre such as Bierex and DatBar for the past 15 years and though will occasionally continue to show off that skill, he is much more impressed with the keeping and serving of beer. Anyway he reckons he doesn’t want to serve any drink that takes longer than two pulls of a pint.
It’s what the customer deserves, fast and friendly service with a dash of knowhow. The vermouth bar is also his domain (Vermouth & Patter, says the sign) and there’s very little anybody can tell him about the continental aromatic fortified wine.
He says: “You need to appeal to every age group. I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything by not doing cocktails and this is a proper boozer, not a craft beer bar one with really good cask ale.
“The place has gone mental since we opened in late July. We sold 150 litres of vermouth on the first weekend which was incredible – any other bar I’ve worked in you’d sell about two bottles a week.
“Pubs are so important to people; it’s where memories are made. I’ve got friends who met, got married and had kids from pubs. You never know who you’re going to serve, so if you’re friendly towards them they’re going to come back. It’s memories you’re making for people. Having two drinks can mean an hour’s wage to someone, so it’s very important that we serve them properly.
“We had a brother and sister come in and they said ‘we were born here’. We’ve got photographs of them on the stairs with their family. They were almost in tears. Then there was a group who sat at a table they used to sit at 15 years ago.
“People say they’ve never seen me happier. When I’m away from here I only drink in the Mean Eyed Cat or The Town Mouse in Newcastle. Those and the Crown Posada are the heart of what everyone wants in pubs.”
Magazine space doesn’t allow for detailing what makes The Punch Bowl that little bit different. A small train set loops above head height in the lounge area, the 60-seater cinema and live performance room upstairs is called Bobicks – named after a Russian dog being trained for space flight that ran away instead.
Two record players play vinyl LPs that people of certain musical tastes prefer to digital recordings. At any time it could be Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, Van Morrison, Etta James or Blind Willie McTell. Rows of books that range through Love Your Leftovers, Lonely Planet travel guides, novels, and well-thumbed copies of Soviet Bus Stops Volumes 1 and 2. One end of a bookshelf is supported by a small white bust. Dymo-taped to it is the quote: “I love owt like that me. Franz Kafka.”
It’s the sort of pub where little things are going on all the time to keep the interest. The beer is great, the food as terrific, and Roy Varty will make you feel important.