Published on April 11th, 2014 | by Alastair Gilmour0
What drives Dave Carr?
Taking over a new pub in an unfamiliar area is a risky business, so what do you do? More of what went before or rip up the script? Alastair Gilmour finds out
When publican Dave Carr took over The Tannery in Hexham, he found a menu from the previous owners that proudly featured “Sponge of the Day”. It was illustrated with photos of wrinkled peas and a “Classic Lasagne” seemingly set with rigor mortis.
Whatever culinary image is conjoured by that, it’s certainly a million miles from the young entrepreneur’s vision of serving the likes of Jaipur IPA-battered North Sea cod with home-made chips and mushy peas.
OK, elsewhere The Tannery offer may delight in burgers such as The Day Emily Bishop Went Insane (£11.50) but it’s a tiny example of how Dave Carr has been building a reputation over the past few years by turning around static pubs and breathing whole new lives into them.
The Brandling Villa in South Gosforth, Newcastle, is a case in point. When he assumed responsibilities there four years ago it was a pub going nowhere with a dull offering and little reason for anyone to darken its door. With a lot of thought, lashings of imagination, pulling together the ideas and experiences gleaned from running The Market Tavern in Durham and Tilleys in Newcastle – plus a refreshingly-sympathetic relationship with his pubco owners – the large corner pub is a bustling, thriving community attraction offering the best in beers, some amazing whiskies and well-planned, brilliantly-presented food with a touch of wackiness on the side.
The Tannery, in Hexham’s Gilesgate, was all-but given up by its owners Punch Taverns and was struggling to even get onto its “disposal” list. Formerly The Skinners Arms – named in deference to Hexham’s 19th Century leather and tanning trade (282,048 pairs of gloves were made in the town in 1823) – it had all the hallmarks of a sleeping beauty to the Dave Carr eye. He and his partner Lou Robinson (pictured on page 3) saw potential in its three distinct rooms, its mixed residential location and a desire among customers to be presented with the opportunity of having a “local” they could be proud of.
Out went the pool table and in came a cider room and fascinating island-style back bar, although the dart board survives to live another day. A range of well-proven national and local beers with a hint of rebellion about them animates the main bar (which also features a cheese counter) and, crucially, customers are loving the whole thing. Local publicans have also been popping in to admire what’s going on, to show support and to perhaps pick up a few pointers for themselves.
“The Tannery has given us the opportunity to do something a little bit different to The Brandling Villa,” says Dave. “We’re going to be trying lots of things here – like the cider bar and having a great gin selection, plus the best meats, cheeses and sausages. I didn’t want to be known just for inventing a burger with a sausage roll on top of it (The Dirty Thoughts of Cheryl Cole, £11.50) or for the dog beer at The Brandling Villa.
“We’ve been picking up ideas from going to pubs all over the place – even in Tallin in Estonia and a little one on Skopje in Macedonia where there were just two options on the menu – meat or fish – plus the Marble Arch in Manchester. Barcelona is great and New York is just brilliant.
“Places there are not meant to be cool, they’re just ordinary, but it’s New York so it’s cool anyway.”
It’s that not-trying-too-hard approach that Dave Carr wants to achieve at The Tannery and to a certain extent has done that at The Brandling Villa, where he and Lou continue to divide their time.
The Tannery is bright – two huge corner windows see to that – and though it’s worn around the edges it’s aged well since it was built in 1897. The new team have discovered DIY skills they never thought they possessed, while the neighbours are even eager for the two corner doors to be flung open – something that hasn’t happened in decades and regarded as a nod
“We can’t compete with Wetherspoons but we can offer a reflection of our own personalities – which a pub should be,” says Dave. “It’s not perfect but people love flaws in pubs; it’s what they’re about. The Market Tavern in Durham was a baptism of fire but I gave it a bit of a pulse and this place feels a lot like The Brandling Villa when I moved in – the ideas come first and the logistics come after. It’s still all a bit of a risk though.”
There’s no risk with A Night In With Susan Boyle (£11.95) mind. The 8oz hand-made beef burger is served with poached free range egg, crispy pancetta, Heinz baked beans, fresh leaves, mushrooms, gherkins, tomatoes and relish.
Dave Carr has a lot on his plate, but he’s loving it. And no Sponge of the Day, either.