By Hattie Ellis

The best dining pubs are like your most-loved friends: deeply familiar but never stale, and the times you spend together accumulate like gold in the soul bank.  

My favourite was Great Queen Street in Covent Garden, cherished for 12 years by those who like delicious food served without pretension until it closed unexpectedly last year. Gnashing of teeth and social media wailing.   And then – O miracle! – this quiet gastro-star has transmogrified, Dr Who-style, into The Royal opposite St Leonards Warrior Square railway station.

The trio who took over this old Victorian boozer last September includes Sam Coxhead, chef for more than a decade at Great Queen Street, and two local ‘old lags’ of the Modern British Food world (the ground-breaking St John as well as GQS), James Hickson, front of house, and chef Jamie Waddell, who have both come back to restaurants after spells away doing other jobs. 

Suckling pig shoulder, a dish to share
PICTURE: James Hickson

The Royal has quickly gained a reputation and is deservedly packed for Sunday lunch, but I wanted to try an evening meal; they currently serve lunch at weekends only, though there are plans for more weekday lunch bar-meals and snacks. 

Old pubs get new life

Big Victorian pubs were built at a time when daily entertainment centred on a pint on the way home from work. People stood shoulder to shoulder in the public bar or – more politely – drank in the upmarket saloon or the private bar, as when the Royal opened in 1876 as a hotel opposite The Railway pub. Now knocked through, it would be cavernous in today’s more sparsely populated drinking world, but the space is perfect for dining tables, with a proper drinking area at the front, just as there should be – the modern form of the different spaces within a pub. 

The menu is focused, with two vegetarian/vegan, two fish and two meat options for the starters and the same for the mains, plus a game option – Coxhead was much involved in the exceptional Game cookbook that came from GQS’s founders. 

The Chip Test

Let’s start with the chips. Any good gastropub must ace these, and The Royal’s were up there with the most crisply chippiest-chips on my personal chipometer – and that includes the original triple-cooked ones in Heston Blumenthal’s pub in Bray. They came with an onglet steak, a connoisseur’s cut that is sometimes called a hanger steak because it hangs near the fillet close to the animal’s kidneys, giving it a rich and special flavour.  Peppercorn sauce and watercress too: a big tick for the steak-and-chips (£17). (The chips weren’t quite as good on a second visit; but good enough.)

Buttermilk quail with Jerusalem artichokes, hazelnuts and truffle oil (£15)  was finger-lickin’ good, which is just as well as these little birds are best of all picked off the bone hand to mouth. Of the starters, a borlotti bean, kale and Parmesan soup, a bread-less version of the classic Tuscan soup ribollita, was plate-lickin’ good (though I was far too polite in company), and smoked haddock croquettes with lemon and aioli were as popular as the wild duck with roast butternut squash and walnuts. 

For afters, a Yorkshire rhubarb crème brûlée was described as “to die for” and the tarte tatinwith Armagnac milk ice cream was meant to be shared by two but threatened a fork-and-spoon Battle Royale at our table of six.  

Well sourced and sauced

The meat at The Royal comes from Jamie Wickens at The Ship and the fish from Sonny at Rock-a-Nore Fisheries. Great Queen Street used to get half and whole animals delivered from Farmer Tom, who taught the chefs how to butcher. Whilst the current facilities at the Royal don’t allow this approach, you can tell that it’s a place with proper knowledge and careful and effective budgeting. You can have three courses and a side for about £30, which is good value for food as well sourced and sauced as this.  

Sharing food has an easy conviviality that suits a party

The canny pricing extends to the wine. Three or four of both red and white are served by the glass from 20-litre kegs; an eco- and cost-effective way of importing wine that means you get better quality wine for your money. 

One interesting feature, popular in Great Queen Street, is the three-course Feasting Menus, priced at £27/28 per person, to be ordered by the whole table for eight or more. Sharing food has an easy conviviality that suits a party and the menus look carefully balanced.

There are a few adjustments to be made – they opened just a month and a lick-of-paint after arrival – but essentially this is a place that has landed right.  London’s loss is St Leonards and Hastings’ gain – and for anyone else who hops off a train and wants a good meal or a delicious glassful.

The Royal St Leonards, 1 St Johns Road, St Leonards
For bookings call 01424 547797 

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