Sometimes you just sort of drop on things, unexpected things, hidden gems. I’m not sure why I thought it was a discovery because it’s dead easy to find, you can’t really miss it, it’s a medium to large sized hotel on The High Street. There’s another even larger hotel a bit further along, The Swan, but at the time of my visit it was closed for a refurbishment. Both, obviously, being in Southwold, belong to Adnam’s.
Don’t bother with the large main bar on the right of the entrance with most of it’s tables laid for dining, it is a hotel after all. No, walk straight on towards the hidden gem at the back, which in no nonsense, plain speech, is simply called, the Back Bar.
Oak bar, oak panelling, red carpet, matching upholstery on the banquette seating and proper chairs, and an atmosphere which is commensurate. A stunning curved Georgian style, glazed window forms the rear wall of the bar, so you can peer between the bottles as you walk down the gentle ramp, over the chequered tiling, towards the battered wooden door. The gleaming brass binnacle in the corner catches your eye, but it quickly returns to the pretty collection of local naive maritime paintings and a few words documenting the gallantry of the chap who painted one of them.
I’m guessing it’s not changed for years, barring routine maintenance. It might be called ‘The Cocktail Bar’ or ‘The Cabin Bar’ if it were somewhere else. If it wasn’t for the shiny keg fonts on the bar, you might be in post war, privileged Britain, in a hotel bar out of an early Ladybird book. Watch someone tell me it was a full refurb in two thousand and something! If it is then keep doing it Adnam’s, it’s excellent.
It’s the first venue in Southwold where there’s some proper pub talk. At half five on a weekday afternoon a bloke walks in and asks where everyone is? The barman bemoans the closure of the flagship Swan Hotel, and the growth in day visitors.
Two guys walk up to the bar and bing the brass bell. A barmaid saunters down the ramp from the adjoining main bar and asks what they would like?
‘Have you got Earl Grey?’
‘No. Earl Grey Lager?’
‘Sorry, we haven’t.’
‘Clementine Pale and a Tally Ho?’
You’d expect them to know about, and have everything, it’s Adnam’s own venue and that close to the brewery you could piss into it from the back yard. The blokes had an Adnam’s own brand Gin and a Whisky in the end.
If you want to have a laugh, and possibly piss a few people off at the same time, then have a bell binging contest. Some folk are able to obtain a clear and resonating ringing tone from the brass service bell on the bar top, every time. Me? Despite much encouragement and advice from the engaging staff, and repeated attempts over several days, I could only ever manage a sort of dull thwack.
It’s now 6.15pm, on another day, and there’s eleven folk in. It’s not a big space neither, but no one’s diving in for your seat as soon as you get up to go for a lag (the toilets, by the way, are 5★). I suddenly make a realisation. I know what’s different, what makes it so good. THEY DON”T DO FOOD! Okay, you can have as much snap as you want in the poxy main bar or restaurant BUT not in here. Barring a couple of very well behaved kids munching crisps in the corner, it’s a perfect oasis of foodlessness in a Brakes desert.
Just for the record, the main bar isn’t poxy, it’s quite nice actually, but it’s not a pub and is frequented by those in sunglasses who clamour for the tables on the High Street in order to let passers by see what a fantastic time people better off than them are having.
An observation I frequently make is that if you put kids (and adults) in an environment like this then they will tend to behave, because it’s expected, and they can’t get away with misbehaving under the constant gaze of adult supervision. The various children I saw in this little bar were impeccably behaved at all times, which was heartening to see, and only reinforces the fact it’s never the children who are at fault, it’s the parents.
Downside? No cask Adnam’s Mosaic, only on keg, and it is old fashioned past your eyes keg beer. Instead I had to have the Bitter, £3.75 a pint. Over several visits I rated it as consistently Good, or 3 on NBSS, which is perfectly acceptable. The glasses were the Adnam’s branded inverted lighthouse, which seemed to be the only available glassware in the Adnam’s managed houses. My tip would be to drop into the Back Bar for an enjoyable early doors pint or two before dropping into The Nelson or The Sole Bay on the way home, after the diners have vacated. Purely on glassware options alone, The Nelson is the best option.
An interesting touch was the idiots guide to ‘How We Do It … Opening the Bar’ pinned up in the staff corridor behind the bar. If you’re wondering? No I didn’t sneak behind the bar. Yes! I am a nosey twat who doesn’t miss much.
Sadly, leaning over the bar and contorting myself sideways, I was unable to get a clear photo. All good advice, especially in a place that will naturally turn over staff, right down to, ‘make sure you have enough beers racked and tapped ready for service.’ Now, I’m not being funny, but if they’re not racked and tapped when you’re opening the bar then your batting on a sticky wicket. I’m hoping this bit meant pull some ale through the lines first – It did, didn’t it?
Verdict – Not the best Adnam’s beer in Southwold, but it’s of a more than acceptable quality, and the best drinkers bar, by far. Almost in a time warp of it’s own making, and pubitechturally, it’s a stunner.
If anyone from Adnam’s ever reads this, please don’t change it. Seriously, it would not make a good Gin bar, or an eco wooden fired pizza joint or anything else your marketing people can dream up! Remember, once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.
And if you really are reading, and taking notice, then get rid of the Adnam’s branded inverted lighthouse glasses. You could even nick Wadworth’s slogan, or at least adopt it, ‘Old cool is the new cool!’ Or whatever it is. On second thoughts, No! Just brew good beer and serve it in the traditional way.