“I’m excited about this, because I’ve not been in Mike’s blog yet”
So said one of my besties as we sat down in The Tavern – and to be honest, I wasn’t going to entertain his ambitions until he put forward the idea of ordering a 2lb cut of beef that would have destroyed worlds. So on that note, Mark, welcome to the Funky Truth.
The Tavern – like San Carlo, is another addition to what appears to be becoming the TFT World Tour* – it is set up in my wonderful home town of Cheltenham, near the bus station, which is great news if some Lononders fancy hopping on the National Express 444 for some serious gastro-pub action.
Oh bugger, not another Gastro Pub. Don’t be fooled by the typecasting though! Behind the prettied, exfoliated exterior lies some serious heart, headed up by Head Chef Andy Martin, who trained under previous head honcho Humphrey Fletcher, who – amongst many fine establishments – honed his skills at the River Café in London. Martin’s passion for the finer things of food amalgamates well with the vision of ex-Gloucester rugby player-turned restaurateur Sam Pearman. The Tavern is the brainchild of Pearman, who, being Cheltonian, should know what this sleepy little spa town likes. Which isn’t just horse-racing and Minotaurs with rather large ‘equipment’. Moving on… I was referring to decent food after all. Even the sharply-goateed Jay Rayner has been to the Tavern and loved it, writing that the restaurant was “Full on, but in a good way”. Sold.
We parked up in The Tavern and commenced the obligatory reminiscing, such as our underage drinking haunts of old – such as the now defunct Minnesota Fats in Gloucester, where we would drink Reef alcopops and hustle pool as late as half ten, or Liquid, across town – still going strong in its role as the tackiest nightclub in the history of ever – though my personal favourite was Crackers, where I once beered myself to the point of attempting to lean on beams of light around the dance floor…
“Oh, to be 17 again…”
Back at the decidedly classier Tavern, our home for the night was a charming wooden table and chairs on the first floor, next to the open kitchen with accompanying chef’s bar/table (downstairs is the same, though with an additional bar area and banquette seating). The whole restaurant is a hodge-podge of odd seats, bookshelves, British bric-a-brac and a general feeling of tasteful, amateurish austerity; a warmness that transcends from feeling to food.
The drinks are pretty special too. We bugged in for the evening on a mixture of classy and creative cocktails (a run-of-the-mill White Russian was incredibly well-made, whereas another of us took a whiskeyfied take on mulled wine called the ‘Winter Warmer’). I – being a completely converted wine fiend – spent the evening on silky-smooth glasses of Bordeaux, served in the finest glassware I have ever seen in a pub. The whole drinks list is apparently very ‘artisan’ and ‘craft’ in offering. To be honest, these are words that have been belted around so much that they have lost all resonance, but nevertheless, you’ll drink well here.
The menu – printed upon an A3 sheet of parcel paper – is brutish and honest in offering; there is little on offer that couldn’t be attempted at home. Sliders, steaks, burgers and pork rub shoulders with incredible comfort food (mac & cheese is a welcome addition, as is the exquisite burnt-end mash). Despite all its humbleness, there are smatterings of finesse as well, such as oysters – available for sale individually, fresh seafood (even the seldom-seen octopus was available once) and a cracking cheese board.
Alas, the burnt-end mash now seems to have vanished, so having lamented this, I settled on steak – as did my two buddies – but the agreement didn’t help decision-making all that much. The Tavern sells all kinds of steaks for all appetites. Our chirpy waitress (fair-play – I wouldn’t be that happy if I was working on 27th December) began the familiar routine of:
“Not ready? I’ll come back in a few minutes”
Now, Mark is a scientist and added a welcome slug of logic to the navigation of the menu. Three boys all want steak; Côte de Boeuf – serves three. A plan was clearly beginning to form.
“How do we want it cooked?”
“Medium to rare?”
You see, this is why we have all been friends for something like twenty years. Deal, done, the food arrived promptly. I did not think that was bad for a small kitchen serving a rather large, busy restaurant.
That night in December was my third visit to the Tavern, and the food was as good as ever. The first two times were spent at the business end of seriously plump burgers, preceded by either home-made pâté or – wait for it – the best chicken wings I have ever tried, bathed in an apple-y, cidery barbeque sauce that I frankly could have gone to bed in. The Côte de Boeuf was cooked perfectly and had even been rested, sadly, something seldom seen in restaurants these days. It was accompanied with grilled tomato – a cardinal sin in my opinion – but once discarded, the meat was spot on and served with all the fries we could manage. We were offered two sauces in the end, so we choose Roquefort as well as the peppercorn, but the quality of the meat was such that I believe we needed neither.
As plentiful as it was, the food did not last long. As it was quite late, we settled up and bailed; there was a bar uptown with our name on it. By the time we left, the bar in The Tavern was busy enough – you certainly do not have to eat here to have good time, though it is highly recommended.
As we made our way through town, we passed the local Pizza Hut – another haunt from our school days – and, in the days before we had more sense, the scene of many all-you-can-eat-buffet challenges (my record was 24 slices I think). Certainly, the level of cooking on offer in Cheltenham has come on a long way – or maybe it is just our tastes. The Tavern is a fantastic place to eat; an addictive mix of familiar-yet-tailored cookery, warm surroundings, and fantastic staff. Now, all they need to do is throw in some alcopops and a pool table and London will be history.
Decent meal for three with wine / cocktails: £ninety, but with burgers at £ten it’s not as pricey as you may be thinking.
The Tavern | 5 Royal Well Place, Cheltenham
01242 221 212 | @tavernchelt
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Originally posted 2nd January 2013.