We last visited at the start of 2020. Remember that? Masks were something worn by wrestlers, Prime Ministers were renowned for telling the truth and we were pretty sure we’d be seeing £350 million a week paid into the NHS.
Fast forward two years and we are living in the much-vaunted sunlit uplands. Hallelujah. These are the days that we dreamed of, when unicorns roam the region and there’s a pot of gold at the end of each rainbow.
Meanwhile, those with feet on terra firma have lived a different experience. Lockdown paralysed the pub trade with hospitality an industry that suffered more than most. The on-off-on nature of regulations meant beer was poured down the drain, food was given away to locals and staff were laid off or asked to hang on in there without being paid. It’s not been good.
In the case of The Cross Keys, at Kinnerley, it’s been worse than it has for most. It opened at the end of 2019 amid a battalion of good intentions. Serving a population of just 1,000 people, it intended to be the beating heart of the local community as its owners set about to save an under-threat rural pub. The Cross Keys had been in danger of being turned into homes before a local businessman and his wife stepped forward to ensure its future. A community group was jubilant and landlords Matt Tommey and Kay Phasey stepped up to the plate, taking over a venue that had an important place in the hearts of locals.
They started brilliantly, building on the considerable experience they’d amassed elsewhere. Tommey had formerly worked for Hobsons Brewery before moving into management and running the Charlton Arms and Church Inn for Claude and Cedric Bosi. He ran his own pub, Bennetts End, at Knowbury, in south Shropshire, before moving north to Oswestry.
His partner had enjoyed similar professional experiences and the two were looking to settle in the small-but-perfectly-formed village with their young family. What could go wrong? They were about to live the dream. Not only was the décor good and the support from the community exceptional, but they’d also agreed terms with head chef Warwick Kidd, another former Ludlovian who was among the county’s best.
Kidd had got a decent number two: Alex Lloyd, a popular sous chef who has worked in Oswestry’s better restaurants, including the Townhouse and Sebastians.
And so the Fab Four set sail in late 2019, enjoying a blistering start to their new life in a small village. And then Covid. Damn that flippin’ Covid.
The past two years might reasonably be described as having been choppy. Tommey and Phasey have endured sleepless nights and wondered when they’d next be able to execute their vision. Would there come a time when we’d take off our masks, open our wallets and pour their contents into The Cross Keys’ till?
The answer is a simple yes.
As with most pubs and restaurants in Shropshire, it endured a torrid December. As Omicron raised anxiety levels to a new peak, cancellations flooded in like it was spring 2020. One step forward, three steps back.
January and February, however, have been bliss. Pent-up demand has gradually been released as locals unable to meet friends for the best part of two years have finally booked tables and enjoyed the best that The Cross Keys has to offer.
The venue still looks great. Its imposing, corner-position in the village mean its highly visible to all-comers while the interior is simply styled with plenty of room between tables. There’s a bar for locals who fancy half a shandy, with a separate section given over to its capacious restaurant.
The menu is on point. There’s nothing too fussy or fancy, though it is elevated pub food that offers a little bit more than its rivals. That, most likely, is down to Matt Tommey’s apprenticeship under the Bosi brothers and the lessons learned when he ran his own, thoroughly enjoyable place, before moving to Oswestry.
The first rule of pubs is that if you’re going to serve fish and chips, make sure it’s the best fish and chips that your customers have ever eaten.
And Tommey does just that, in his case offering a generous portion of haddock battered in a deliciously crunchy coating made using Woods beer.
There’s plenty to enjoy on the menu though there’s a nod to modernity with passion fruit martinis and Ludlow Cold Brew Espresso martinis for those who want to start with something more exciting than half a pint of bitter.
My friend and I enjoyed the same starter: a twice baked cheese souffle with a grain mustard sauce. The sauce was intensely cheesey and had good texture from the grains, while the souffle had just the right wobble. Deliciously light and eggy, it was a marvellous dish in the deep of winter and got our evening off to a great start.
My friend enjoyed a vegetarian pie with gravy and mash. Was there ever a better comfort food than pie and mash? Probably not. This was a version with rich, short pastry and a well-seasoned filling while the mash was silky and smooth.
I opted for that venerable pub staple: the bacon cheese burger. I was not disappointed. Served in a towering bun, the bacon was magnificently crisp with the fat brilliantly rendered and cooked to a golden shade of brown. A slather of cheese had been placed on top and that had melted over the sides of a burger that was, frankly, brilliant. Turmeric pickles added colour and just the right hint of acidity, while crispy, crunchy skinny fries were served with a pot of aioli.
There was a nicely dressed salad, as though that was somehow going to magic away the calories I was consuming from my cheese and double bacon burger. It was faultless.
Two years ago, we concluded by saying The Cross Keys has the potential to become one of Shropshire’s go-to pubs. It still has. It has good owners, a quality team in the kitchen and a loyal and supportive community who have shown in recent years that they’ll back it all the way.
As it gradually beds in, it will start to attract more customers from Oswestry, Shrewsbury and the many villages and hamlets between.
Good luck to it.