Remember when the ‘gastropub’ was a novel idea? This new breed of boozers, knocking out up-market food, gave us the best of both worlds when eating out: we got the buzzy atmosphere and casual attitude as well as great food and service. It took a while to negotiate this new genre, though (well, newish – it wasn’t like most pubs weren’t already doing food in some form), and I remember some chefs and landlords rejecting the label and scoffing a bit at the term.
Obviously, gastropubs still are ‘a thing’, but they’ve blended so effortlessly into our dining scene that, comparatively, we don’t seem to use the word so much anymore. It’s certainly less divisive.
The Chequers has been a watering hole since 1766 and wasn’t always of the ‘gastro’ variety. In fact, my dinner date and long-time Bath local described what it was like here in the ’90s over our meal: “A bit rough but a friendly kind of pub, where you could get a roast for a fiver,” were the words he used.
These days, it’s under the reign of The Bath Pub Company, which has four pubs around the city, of which this is perhaps their most up-market. It’s elegant in its rustic but classy design (think parquet floors, decorative wall panelling and chalky hues), as well as its food offering, which gracefully dances on the line between fine dining and pub grub.
Choreographing said dance is Ross Harper, who – with experience as executive chef at the OHH Pub Company as well as at swanky London joints like St Pancras Brasserie and Champagne Bar by Searcys – sure has a CV to suit a gaff like this one, where locals have become accustomed to great-quality food.
There are two sides to the menu – both are concise. First, the restaurant-style offerings, complete with aperitifs and nibbles, and then the pub classics.
To start, the mackerel (£8) comes as two soft, shimmering-skinned fillets, almost pastel pink at the centre, in a pool of light and silky mussel sauce. On the side is a disc of soda bread topped with potted shrimp and dollops of creamy cucumber mayo.
Across the table, the ham hock and belly pork terrine (£8.50) sits in a pretty arrangement: a good-sized slab of speckled pink terrine with a half-slice of toast, accompanied by a pork and black pudding bonbon with a smear of parsnip purée. There are assorted leaves and sauces dotted about, including a rather fine caper and raisin purée. Lots of different textures and tastes to enjoy, but all telling aspects of the same story.
To follow, the chicken ballotine (£19) sees the meat wrapped around a core of sage and onion stuffing and finished with crisp pancetta on its outer. The pomme Anna is deliciously buttery, the thin, carefully arranged layers of potato fanning out satisfyingly under my fork, and a dollop of bread sauce is pimped up with truffle. A heap of pickled mushroom and tarragon, all very finely chopped, provides tangy, punchy relief from the rich flavours.
The chunky slices of onglet (£22) arrive as beefy and tasty as the cut’s rep suggests, again accompanied by several different elements (a horseradish potato croquette, some crusted bone marrow, a dumpling and a creamy béarnaise sauce). Best of all is a small casserole of slow-braised beef with red wine.
Steamed sponge pudding was always a treat as a kid – the difference between Mrs C’s and The Chequers’ (£8) being that that latter doesn’t involve a microwave. The soft sponge is just as comforting and moist as you’d hope for this retro pud – I want more of the fennel pollen custard it sits in, thought.
Warm treacle tart (£8) features a little lime in its mix – rather than the usual lemon – to cut through the sweetness. My treacle-tart aficionado of a pal declares it the most successful one he’s had in ages, but still wants it even stickier and more syrupy. (There’s no pleasing some.)
This is well-pitched food, the dishes of restaurant quality but all with the bones of pub grub. The many intricate elements of each plate show the skill and effort of the kitchen and make each mouthful different. Sure, you could see this style as being a bit fussy, but it sure ain’t samey, and the casual, cosy atmosphere keeps meals down to earth.
The Chequers, 50 Rivers Street, Bath BA1 2QA; 01225 360017