Food review: The Woodberry Inn, Bridgnorth
Andy Richardson visits a pub where the landlords have discovered the recipe for success and are sailing through calm waters.
Running a pub is a mug’s game. There are the unruly customers who don’t think they’re getting a sufficiently good deal. There’s the ever-increasing competition from supermarkets – why buy a pint for £3 or £4 when you can get one for less than half that price. Then there’s the staff: finding decent workers is harder than finding a World Cup winning English football team – and the ones that are good are even harder to retain.
And then, finally, there’s the small measure of making a profit. In this era of economic uncertainty, unstable supply chains and more, margins are being squeezed like never before. Pubs are closing at an alarmingly quick rate. Only the foolish – or foolhardy – would be daft enough to take on a boozer.
But there’s another category of owner: those that are born to it. And that description accurately applies to two local families: Chris and Wendy Yates and Keith and Jenny Alderson.
In 2015, they sank more than they ought to have done on bringing the run down building back to its former glory. They’d taken 18 months to renovate premises that had fallen on hard times by remodelling the venue with oak flooring and leather seating. The original features had been retained and they set about making The Woodberry an asset to the community.
Keith Alderson was at the heart of that. He’s long been one of the town’s most popular and best butchers and his Farm to Fork Menu was heavy on decent quality protein. Beef, for instance, was reared at his Morville farm and supplied through his butchery business to the restaurant.
As well as great beef, Alderson had also got decades experience in customer service and running a local business. He knew that the team at The Woodberry would stand and fall on the warmth and quality of their interactions with locals. Get them on side, earn their trust and respect and everything would be gravy. Be a disappointment or let poor standards seep in and it would be all downhill.
Four years on and The Woodberry is in remarkably good shape. Service is great, the food is the acme of good pub grub and the venue is sailing through calm seas. While numerous pubs are facing hard times and struggling to keep afloat, the Woodberry is set fair.
When I called for an unbooked Friday lunch, the place was more than half full. A function filled a large area to the rear of the pub, with guests feasting on a huge spread of buffet food. At the front of the restaurant, guests were enjoying generous and tasty lunches while staff were providing service with a smile.
The Woodberry menu will never win any awards for innovation. It has, rather sensibly, created an unchallenging menu featuring dishes that people are familiar with. So there are hearty honey baked ham Sandwiches of posh fish finger sarnies, featuring Hobsons’ beer battered fish goujons and tartare sauce with salad and root vegetable crisps. Pies are always available, as are sharing platters for those who like to graze with friends. And then there are the stone-dead classics: seasonal soups, pate, scotch eggs, ham with egg and chips and such mains as slow braised Shropshire lamb, fish and chips and steak and chips.
I thought I might be run out of town for being an ersatz sophisticate when I choose a starter of pan fried halloumi served with a marjoram and oregano marinade, soft herb orzo and sun blushed tomato. The halloumi had been expertly seared so that it was deliciously bronze and crisp, while melting in the middle like a young lover’s heart. The marinade was a little over-powering: in truth, the flavours were too strong and powerful for it to be called a classic. Less is more, sometimes, especially when you’re playing with salt and strong Italian-esque herbs. The orzo balanced things out while the sweet sun blushed tomato was a sensible pairing
My main upped the ante. An 8oz Morville beef burger with deliciously sweet/salty streaky bacon, powerful Black Bomber Cheddar, a wonderfully buttery brioche bun and shoestring fries was exceptional. The burger was big on flavour and big on taste. With excellent texture, neat cooking – it oozed decadent flavour when I cut into it – and having been nicely charred on the outside, there was nothing not to like. The sledgehammer cheese was equally good – that allied to the burger was like meeting Fury and Wilder in the ring. The bacon was good; nicely cooked so that there were no uncooked slithers of fat, while the bun was exceptional. The fries were decent, nothing exceptional, and the platter made for pleasant lunchtime eating.
It meant there was no chance of pud, either. Unless you’re on a food challenge or eating for two, a couple of courses of Woodberry food are more than enough to sate the biggest of appetites.
Service had been great throughout. An experienced restaurant manager marshalled the tables and remained on top of the afternoon’s proceedings while a younger waiter was enthusiastic and diligent in his work. Both were good ambassadors for their employer. I’m sure any number of venues across the region would be happy to have front of house staff of their quality.
The marks are easy to allocate this week. The Woodberry doesn’t present itself as being a destination restaurant. It’s a brilliant pub that does great fish and chips, good real ales and is beautifully styled – rather than a venue looking to disrupt the nation’s guide books. The food is honest and reliable – it’s been good every time I’ve visited – rather than extraordinary. But that alone puts it in a small minority in an age where standards across the board might be considerably higher. You get the sense that the owners and their staff genuinely care: that providing a good experience with decent nosh, fair prices and pleasant service is important to them. Such measures also mean customers can look forward to a happy experience, time-in and time-out.