Friday, April 29, 2011

No. 43 Oddfellows

Visited on 28/4/11. "You're lookin' for Mr. Goodbar ? Here he is ! I bet you're an Italian...  " Another relative newcomer to the Chester scene, this is no ordinary pub. Is it a hotel ? Is it a nightclub ? Is it a bar ? It's actually none and all of those things - a difficult to define quirky amalgam of all three. Housed in a Georgian building and decorated in a variety of styles from contemporary to gothic, it could well have been put together by Lawrence Llewellyn Bowen - after having his drink spiked with baby bio. There are a number of lavishly bedecked rooms, a moodily lit patio area and erm, tents - presumably for private dining. It's almost reminiscent of the party venue in Kubrick's 'Eyes Wide Shut' - without the group sex obviously. At least not while we were there. The only 'live entertainment' we witnessed was a singer and guitarist performing pop standards. Sounds rubbish. Definitely wasn't. I was even tapping my toe at one point. The place had a great atmosphere anyhow - and there's no clever way of saying this, but a big attraction is that it's full of laydees. Oh, the ale ? Well bollocks to real ale - I'm coming back here next week regardless.

No. 42 The Brewery Tap

Visited on 28/4/11. With so many pubs closing these days, it comes as a breath of fresh air when you hear of one opening up - particularly one as good as this. Local brewer Spitting Feathers opened the Brewery Tap in 2008 and it's been a huge success story. The main room in the pub is an original Jacobean great hall in a building which once played host to King Charles I in the days immediately prior to the battle of Rowton Moor. It really is a spectacular setting and equally impressive is the line-up of seven real ales on the bar. Spitting Feathers own brews are strongly featured naturally, but there is always a constantly changing selection of guest beers, with the emphasis placed firmly on ales from local micro-breweries. On this occasion however,  it was the Merlin Porter from Nottingham's Castle Rock brewery that most impressed. Are there any downsides ? Not really. This place is quite simply ale heaven.

No. 41 Ye Olde King's Head

Visited on 28/4/11. Just as we were beginning to think Lower Bridge St. had been transformed into some sort of real ale El Dorado, we arrived at this place. Again it's a 17th century half timbered building - older in fact than the Bear and Billet, but there the comparisons end. Inside the ancient structure, cheaply upholstered 70s style bench seating surrounds the central space which is covered by a minty 70s style floral carpet. The lot needs ripping out, the original floor needs restoring and the owner needs to buy some decent furniture. Real ale is served (Wychwood Hobgoblin & Timothy Taylor's Landlord), but in such poor condition as to be barely drinkable. In addition when the barmaid was politely requested to top the glasses up, she complied, but returned an expression which suggested she'd just been asked to eat a fried dog turd or summat. What a waste - the potential of this place is enormous, but it's woefully under-performing. No surprise it was practically empty.

No. 40 The Cross Keys

Visited on 28/4/11. Back in the day, the Cross Keys was the only Boddington's pub in Chester. That was when Boddington's was an independent brewery making its famous and distinctive pale Mancunian ale - as opposed to the tastless mass-marketed InBev keg Boddington's of today (sales of which have plummeted to a quarter of what they were ten years ago and are still heading south by the way). It's interesting then that the Cross Keys appears to be maintaining the tradition of selling distinctive ale. It's recently been bought by Joules of Market Drayton in Shropshire - a brewery which like many others closed its doors for the final time in the 1970s. However it's now reborn. A new brewery has been built, an exciting marketing plan has been put in place and if the ale on offer at the Cross Keys is anything to go by, the new Joules is destined to be a big success. Both the 'pale ale' and 'slumbering monk' sampled here were absolutely excellent. Great pub, great beer.

No. 39 The Bear and Billet

Visited on 28/4/11. The Bear and Billet is an original 17th century black and white half timbered building (as opposed to the Victorian copies so beloved by American tourists, which make up most of Chester's town centre). However, despite its provenance, for many years it had a deserved reputation as a den of iniquity frequented by criminals, drug dealers, sundry miscreants and worst of all, hippies. All this changed following a lengthy period of closure in the 1990s though, after which the current owners took charge. Despite severe planning restrictions, the interior of the building was sympathetically but radically altered and transformed into what is quite frankly a magnificent pub. Yes, it does a lot of food trade, but this is still primarily a drinking venue with an impressive selection of ales from Isle of Man brewer Okell's along with plenty of guest and European beers. The staff are knowledgeable and courteous and the atmosphere is lively. Can't really think of anything negative to say. This is a great place.

No. 38 The Ship Inn

Visited on 28/4/11. For the first CBP venture into the town centre, we decided to try Lower Bridge St. First up though was this place, just across the water in Handbridge. The Ship Inn has traded continuously since mid way through the eighteenth century, but in 2009 underwent a major refurbishment to emerge as a dreaded 'gastropub'. Two years on and it's still busy and still gets glowing reviews, having found a successful formula for combining average food, average service and average ale. Ok, maybe I'm a bit prejudiced against this type of establishment ! To be honest, we found the downstairs bar to be quite pleasant. The pub has been nicely renovated and the ale wasn't bad - Thwaites Original bitter and Nutty Black dark mild. It's also in a great location right next to the river. Reeks of vinegar though.

Friday, April 22, 2011

No. 37 The Union Vaults

Visited on 21/4/11. Has anyone got a clue what the pub closing times are these days ? Do they just make it up as they go along ? Apparently so. We trundled along the canal, then up over the bridge to this superb little Victorian street corner boozer, only to be told that they'd stopped serving. I'd already locked me bike. I unlocked it again just as the landlord wandered out and told us that we could have a pint after all. Hang on a minute... were we in ? were we out ? or were we in fact shaking it all about ? Rapid bicycle locking/unlocking isn't straightforward after 6 pints, I can tell you. So finally we were in anyhow and a round of Everard's Tiger was soon on the bar. I haven't a clue what time it was by the way - probably about half eleven. The ale was excellent. This is a really nice pub and had we been there a little earlier, we would definitely have made use of the superb bagatelle table. As it was, we were happy to drink the final pint of the night and head home.

No. 36 Old Harkers Arms

Visited on 21/4/11. From the ridiculous to the sublime. This is without doubt one of the best pubs in Chester and is an absolute haven for aficionados of real ale. At any one time there are in excess of a dozen hand-pumped ales available with plenty of local brews on offer as well as guest beers from further afield. The other key feature about this pub is that ALL of the ales are ALWAYS on top form. We've been here innumerable times and can't recall ever having had a bad pint. There are downsides though - for a start it's pricey. Don't be surprised if you get stung for £4 odd a pint for some of the stronger ales. Also, the staff are a bit, ahem, 'aloof'. Paul the boss seems a decent sort, but some of his minions will spend all night 'hob-nobbing' with the various Cheshire set  cliques that frequent this place rather than serving other customers. There's a fair bit of pouting and preening takes place behind that bar as well - and that's just the fellas. They're dead strict on drinking up time too, but on the plus side, this enabled us to squeeze another boozer into the evening's agenda. Read on...

No. 35 Bar 69

Visited on 21/4/11. Well, we'd been looking forward to this one all night ! Formerly a rough house called 'the City Tavern', it then became 'the Amsterdam bar' before assuming it's current identity four or five years ago. The name is derived from the fact that it is number 69 Boughton. Er, maybe. Anyhow, with bated breath we strode manfully past the bouncer as he recited his sexual orientation caveat, only to find the place completely empty apart from the bar staff. Apparently, it only begins to get 'lively' at around midnight and when we arrived it was still only a quarter past ten. Although the full range of 'Bacardi Breezers' were available, along with 'Wicked' in a number of shades I never knew existed, we managed to resist the lure of the alcopop and set up a round of bottled Guinness instead. Not bad to be fair. The barmaid was a good laugh as well, but was unable to answer the question, "Why don't gays like real ale ?" Apparently, they had it on once but they didn't sell enough and so gave up. Well, I tell you what - if that's their attitude, we won't be going back there again ! We downed the Guinness and the boys minced out of the door with me bidding the bouncer a fond farewell as I brought up the rear. Matron.

No. 34 The Cross Foxes

Visited on 21/4/11. This pub is famous for it's pool tables, of which there are five or six, including four in an upstairs room. Also, they have the world's best bagatelle table apparently. Unfortunately, it was undercover and they seemed reluctant to let us have a go on it. Not surprising really I suppose. The place is popular and is a great venue if you're interested in pool - which the majority of customers clearly were. It's not such a great venue if your primary interest is beer, as there's a simple choice between keg yellow, keg brown or keg black. Real ale isn't sold here. We drank something or other, had our eardrums assaulted by some heavy metal shite on the juke box and left pronto.

No. 33 The Little Oak

Visited on 21/4/11. This pub used to be the hostelry of choice for law college students and posh middle-class hangers on. Rugby and even hockey were always more popular than football and it wasn't unheard of for spontaneous outbreaks of the Eton wall game to occur in the beer garden. Within these very walls, I once even witnessed some toff plea for silence before proposing a toast to the queen ! How times have changed. The Nigels and Charlottes have moved on and nobody has followed in their wake. The place was almost empty. Even the tropical fish had gone. The choice of ale was between the increasingly ubiquitous Timothy Taylor's Landlord - here, served lifeless and insipid or Rudgate Viking - an ale with a quite spectacular lack of taste. Maybe we caught it on a bad night. Maybe.

No. 32 The Mount

Visited on 21/4/11. From the cricket club, we by-passed the Cherry Orchard (No. 15) and the gang of under-age drinkers loitering outside the off licence, before eventually arriving at the Mount. After initially attempting to walk through the wall, then realising the door had been moved (this after one pint !), we entered a very busy and recently modified bar. Whereas previously, the pub had been split into two main areas, now it's all been knocked into one. It's not as good. This is a small pub and I guess the reason for the change was to create more space. However, it seems to have lost some of it's atmosphere and charm. Fortunately, among the forest of shiny new chrome plated plastic keg beer dispensers, two hand pumps survive, providing a choice between Weetwood Eastgate ale and Brain's bitter. The former was ok, but the latter was a bit 'iffy' by all accounts. Anyhow, by the time we'd been served and fought our way through the massed ranks of 'Albert's quiz' devotees to enjoy the famous view from the Mount's terrace, it was dark. It's where all the smokers go now anyway, so that detracts from the experience to be honest, even when it's possible to see things.

No. 31 Chester Boughton Hall Cricket Club

Visited on 21/4/11. On a warm spring evening, what better place is there to start a Boughton pub crawl than here ? Ok, so it's not really a pub, but the bar at Chester Boughton Hall is open to the public and always has a couple of real ales on (Weetwood Cheshire Cat and Thwaites Original) - and they're kept in excellent condition by long standing bar manager Phil. It's too early in the year for evening cricket, but even so, the view from the balcony of the pitches where the likes of Winston Benjamin and Curtley Ambrose have plied their trade is very pleasant. Can't really understand why more people don't use this place when there isn't a game on. Anyhow, tally-ho...

Friday, April 8, 2011

No. 30 The Talbot

Visited on 7/4/11. Situated deep in the heart of Newtown, we weren't sure if this place still existed until we'd sent out a scouting mission by bicycle from 'the Stanley'. Formerly part of the Newtown 'triptych' that included 'the New Inn' (now flats) and er, one other, it's the only pub still open in this oft forgotten corner of town. And the timewarp experience as you walk through the door is quite palpable. It's like stepping back into the 1950s - a single flat screen TV aside, nothing appears to have moved on in the last half century - including the regulars. Again, there was no real ale but again there was bagatelle. Again salvation. This little time capsule of a Victorian pub would be well nigh perfect, if only they plumbed in a decent brew. Well worth the hop, skip & jump over the main road though.

No. 29 The Stanley Arms

Visited on 7/4/11. At the opposite end of Brook St. from 'the Egerton' lies 'the Stanley'. It's a Victorian pub which has recently had quite a bit of money spent on it to give the interior a more contemporary feel. The walls are blue. Odd. There were quite a few people in and the atmosphere and service were both good. Ale was Timothy Taylor's Landlord - the famous olde taste of cold tea - on good form as well. So much so that we considered having a second pint, but one further hostelry awaited as we remembered our mission...

No. 28 The Egerton Arms (Brook St.)

Visited on 7/4/11. After an abortive attempt to have a pint in 'the Railway' (it was shut - at 9:30 ! Obviously, we'll be back), we crossed the road to 'the Egerton'. To be perfectly frank, upon entry it looked a bit grim - sparsely furnished and sparsely populated. The atmosphere wasn't helped by the fact that although there was a hand-pump on the bar, it wasn't connected. We had to drink keg. Again. However, the landlady was very pleasant and her husband soon appeared and engaged us in a conversation about real ale - turns out he's a big fan and is in the process of improving the cellar so he can bring it back online. Maybe we'll call in again when we re-visit 'the Railway'. Apart from having real life tenants behind the bar rather than texting, clock-watching, nail polishing barmaids, the other big plus for this boozer is that it's got Bagatelle - the Chester game. Fantastic. So - no real ale, but good pub nevertheless. Strange but true.

No. 27 Carriages Café Bar

Visited on 7/4/11. Steam, Rachmaninov, cut-glass accents, the shame, the guilt, the fear. The old 'Pullman' first class waiting room at Chester station has been renovated and is now a bar/pub with access to the platforms and the street. We had a brief encounter with the barmaid who got quite emotional when she tried to explain why there was no real ale on offer: "This can't last. This misery can't last. I must remember that and try to control myself. Nothing lasts really. Neither happiness nor despair. Not even life lasts very long. There'll come a time in the future when I shan't mind about this anymore, when I can look back and say quite peacefully and cheerfully how silly I was..." We told her not to worry and ordered 3 pints of guinness instead. However, it was no ordinary guinness - it was a new beast - 'sub-keg' ! A special can (yes, CAN !) of flat guinness is poured into a glass and then 'fizzed up' on an ultrasonic plate. Nearly £4 a bleedin' pint as well. "Look's magic !" chirrupped Celia. No it's not dear. It's actually quite shit. The age of romance is most definitely dead. 

No. 26 The Town Crier

Visited on 7/4/11. First off tonight was this big old pub opposite the entrance to Chester station. In common with all pubs in similar locations, a large percentage of the clientele is transient - travellers catching a quick pint in between trains mainly. By definition then, it's character can't really be defined. It's just as likely to be full of brawling football hoolies as it is with Japanese tourists. Usually it's busy though, and it certainly was on this occasion. Also, a sort of timeless quality pervades - you feel as if you could be in any decade in the last 40 years. Plenty of cask was on offer but the quality was a bit variable: Cains bitter (good), Marston's Pedigree (good), Thwaite's Lancaster Bomber (a bit ropey). It's open at 8 am for the discerning drinker who enjoys a breakfast pint apparently. Never tried it like. All in all, a good atmosphere and not a bad boozer. A pleasant surprise.

Friday, April 1, 2011

No. 25 The Olde Cottage Inn

Visited on 31/3/11. To be honest, after the Beehive and the Flookersbrook, we needed a decent pint, so we legged it over Hoole bridge and by-passed a couple of minty looking pubs (more later obviously), because we knew we could get one here. We weren't disappointed. Standing proudly amongst Brook Street's second hand shops and cheapo take-aways is this traditional Victorian pub serving top notch ale - on this occasion Timothy Taylor's Golden Best - a pale mild. Lovely. The fire was roaring and the place was packed. This is obviously a well run boozer. Salvation. And home.

No. 24 The Flookersbrook

Visited on 31/3/11. After the Beehive experience, it surely couldn't get any worse. Could it ? Well, no - but it didn't get much better. Formerly called the Ermine (and nicknamed 'the Vermine'), this is a big pub, but just two people were in it when we arrived. They both left immediately. We didn't expect any cask and we weren't pleasantly surprised, but I can't believe we drank keg John Smiths - this is real dedication to the cause, readers ! What puzzles me is how a pub can make any money with no customers ? Again, the 'adornments' suggest this is now a music venue, probably providing one pay day per week as a gathering place for patchouli drenched boneheads.

No. 23 The Beehive

Visited on 31/3/11. This establishment is just a shell - a space inside an old building where there was once a pub. It looks and feels like a squat - only it's less salubrious. The two pool tables in the back were the main focus of attention and the plate of minty curled up sarnies indicated there was a league match on. Other than the pool players, the place was empty. A few spotlights fixed to the walls suggested it was a music venue - probably just at the weekends when no doubt it plays host to legions of shit heavy metal bands. Naturally, there was no cask. Keg Stones bitter was all that was on offer - a brand I thought had disappeared in the 1980s. This is an unpleasant place - possibly the worst pub in Chester (but hey, there's a long way to go !). Make sure you wipe your feet on the way out.

No. 22 The (Bawn) Lodge

Visited on 31/3/11. Tramps like this, baby they were bawn to run - de, der, der, derr. Lord knows why I'm labouring this Springsteen theme - don't even like the grizzled rockist. Anyhow what is a bawn ? Why would you use this word in naming any form of establishment ? It's horrible. Sounds a bit like brawn - the mashed cow's brain preparation known in France as 'fromage de tete' - that's 'head cheese' for all you non-sophisticados. Nice. Most of the B&Bs on the Hoole strip, faced with impossible competition from the explosion of Premier Inns and Travel lodges in and around town have 'diversified' into accomodating benefit claimants - much to the chagrin of the remaining 'up market' hang-outs like the Green Bough. The 'head cheese' Lodge however has installed a bar, knocked a wall out, thrown up a bit of stainless steel/glass architecture and laid a patio. Hey presto - B&B becomes poncey wine bar ! And you know what ? It works. There's a good atmosphere, the clientele comprises a wide range of ages and most importantly, the ale rocks - Thwaites Original and Lancaster Bomber. Patio-heater-tastic !

No. 21 The Oaklands

Visited on 31/3/11. Everybody's got a 'Hungry Horse'. This place was full of can I put this ? - fat blokes. Some fat birds an' all. Situated on the opposite side of Hoole rd. to the Olive tree restaurant in the Green Bough hotel and it's 'la-di-da' exorbitantly priced 'fine dining', the Oaklands serves up a diametrically opposite gastronomic experience. And that largely means fried stuff - with the emphasis on the 'largely'. The signature dish is the '20 ring stack' - a tower of deep fried battered rings looped around a pole with dipping sauces. Even a detailed examination of the menu doesn't reveal what the 'rings' are actually made of though. Could be onion, could be, er squid. Could be (probably is) just batter. Anyhow, on to the ale - a good range including Morland Speckled Hen and Northgate bitter was on offer - all served at cellar temperature - assuming the cellar also doubles as a sauna. The clientele seemed to consist mainly of travelling labourers, hence the popularity of the mega-calorific food. A half acre flat screen TV was showing live darts. This kind of place serves a purpose I suppose. It's certainly popular. Not with us, obviously.