Gill Sutherland finds the pull of the recently renovated Townhouse irresistible when she pops by to meet the team. Photos Mark Williamson
The Townhouse is what you might call a magnet destination… Set in a 400-year-old Grade II-listed building on Stratford’s Church Street, there is something about it that pulls you in.
Perhaps it’s the unusual exterior architecture, or maybe the easy ambiance, boutique chic of the décor, or fast-growing reputation for good food and proper service… Whatever it is, when I step over the threshold on a summer’s morning to meet the newish team behind the Townhouse’s recent reincarnation, I immediately yearn to slide into one of the comfy chairs, order a large gin and forget about all woes, cares and the rain drizzling down outside.
Luckily super-welcoming general manager Neil Hanson pulls me back to sobriety with a proper cappuccino as we chat about the business, family (he’s Dad to two little ones) and which gin cocktail I would have ordered from the menu – were I not on duty and it still being before midday.
Neil has been at The Townhouse for just over a year, having joined from Bistrot Pierre, located opposite Avon Boating on the river, which he had made a huge success during his seven years there.
He was tempted into taking over managing the Townhouse by Brakspear, who bought the business in autumn 2015 and carried out extensive renovations to the restaurant and 12 bedrooms.
“Brakspear approached me because of my experience in Stratford,” says Neil. “Obviously everyone has heard of The Townhouse and it’s had such great success in the past. But it had been under-loved by a succession of average owners, people who thought they could just do what they did before, but I could see Brakspear were going to invest in it.”
Brakspear are a famous brewing family, starting off making beer in 1711 – at a brewery in Henley-on-Thames. Amazingly they are still in the business 300 years on, and while tenanted and leased pubs have been the mainstay of Brakspear, under chief executive and fifth generation descendant, Tom Davies, the company now also manages 12 pubs in south England – including The George in Shipston – all with unique charm and high standards.
“Tom is creating a hugely successful legacy for the next generation,” says Neil. “Brakspear are using their expertise to open up a new avenue of managing their own pubs and restaurants. They are not in a rush to make money, they want it to be right.”
Talking about how he got into the business, Neil explains that it was his own wider family that inspired him to pursue hotel and catering after a few ‘false starts’ in his career.
“I’d done a four-year apprenticeship as a plumber to keep Mum and Dad happy but I didn’t get on with it,” says Neil. “Then I got a job at Rover – that’s where everybody goes in Droitwich if they can’t get a job elsewhere, and I hated that but did it for four years.”
He continues: “I got to the age of 24 and thought I need to find a career. My aunt and uncle ran a pub and seemed to have the best lives, so I joined Whitbreads. Their training programme was fantastic, very ahead of its time.”
Since then Neil has had a wealth of experience including managing an independent boutique hotel, running restaurants, recruiting catering staff and even supervising the bar at Worcester Warriors.
Reflecting on the work to be done at The Townhouse, Neil says they are keen to attract locals. “We want local trade, it’s their restaurant and bar,” says Neil emphatically. “We have 12 bedrooms so of course we embrace any visitors to the town but we are trying to build the business on locals, that’s our driving force.”
The chic new design of The Townhouse’s interior rooms – classic and cool in shades of green and black – certainly adds allure, and Neil has introduced a sophisticated drinks menu, including the aforementioned cocktail menu and special offers on increasingly trendy prosecco; there’s also more live music – including pianists playing in the bar and local musicians playing on the late Sunday Session – meaning you can have a long lazy lunch which morphs into a relaxing late afternoon listening to great sounds.
“It’s a slow burn,” says Neil of building The Townhouse’s reputation and offering. “I have a lot of things to sort out but one thing I don’t is food quality. We have head chef Ben Draper in the kitchen, assisted by Andy Thomson. They are a real driving force, as strong a team as I’ve ever worked with – they’re both the same age, both ambitious. They are pillars of the business, and reliable. It’s easier to grow the business when you have faith in the food.”
With that enthusiastic endorsement of his kitchen team ringing in my ears (and making me keen to sample the food pronto!) head chef Ben steps out of the kitchen to have a word while the restaurant is still quiet.
A local lad, Ben studied catering at Stratford College for three years – and like many great chefs who have trained there cites head of catering at the college Alan Deegan as being hugely inspiring. Since graduating he has worked and travelled extensively; including working at fine dining restaurants as far flung as Jersey, Cornwall, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia.
Talking with Ben about his culinary experiences and his love of cooking is a joy. Asked about a defining foodie moment, he tells me about travelling around the world with his wife Kathy – and a particularly memorable moment going to a Japanese tuna auction at a fish market in the middle of the night. “It was an amazing experience,” says Ben. “One guy stands on a crate, rings a bell and everybody starts screaming, shouting, and waving their hands wildly… then suddenly it stops, silence – someone had obviously won the fish. Afterwards we had a big bowl of fresh sushi at five in the morning, it was the best experience.”
What brought Ben to The Townhouse?
“I wanted to get away from fine dining,” says Ben. “I believe in fresh flavours and not playing around with it too much – letting the produce speak for itself. The Townhouse appealed to me because although we are a pub company – which has that stigma of microwave food – here everything is fresh and as locally sourced as possible. I don’t want to chase accolades – going after rosettes or stars – we recently launched a new menu and pretty much all the feedback we’ve had from customers is exceptional. That’s the best praise you can get.”
Speaking of summer menus, what’s going on in the kitchen at the moment?
“Going into summer you have a lot of fresh and vibrant fruit and veg. While winter is earthy summer is lighter, so we have things like salads and fishcakes. A lot of our meat comes from Todenham Manor Farm, just outside Shipston, and so we are getting a lot of great steak and pork from them. For me and the boys in the kitchen it’s about using great fresh ingredients, communicating with our suppliers, and looking at the provenance of the food we offer.”
Asked what he would order for lunch, Ben says: “We have a lovely chicken dish on at the moment with chickpeas and chorizo and some chargrilled courgettes – it’s healthy, filling and really tasty. Since travelling in New Zealand, I’d probably go for a New World white wine.”
Lastly, what is Ben’s vision for the future…
“The best plaudit that you can get is a full restaurant of happy customers. The whole company is passionate about fresh, local food. Going forward we want to maintain our standard and build our reputation. We just want to be successful with a full restaurant of happy customers.”
I wonder if it’s gin o’clock yet so I can say cheers to that!
Contact The Townhouse on 01789 262222 or visit www.stratfordtownhouse.co.uk