When the reservation was confirmed via telephone a few days in advance, we were told to arrive on time, as there was no space to have a drink beforehand. I know we don’t have a written constitution in the UK, but surely a pub with no space for drinkers contravenes some ancient law or commandment. I would hate to think that a posh restaurant in the commuter belt has been falsely claiming itself as a member of the pub club in order to be the best in its field - that’s just not cricket.From the outside it looks the part - quaint and pretty, a proper pub sign to lure in passing trade. Inside, you are immediately met with a bar, stocked with draft beers and optics full of expensive spirits. Stools line the bar, a fireplace is visible amongst wooden chairs and cloth-free tables, a small garden at the back welcomes the sunshine and the coffee drinkers, and it all seems right. But don’t be fooled – nobody sits in the stools, nobody even orders drinks at the bar. All the tables are set for diners, wine glasses sat mockingly empty next to expensive silverware. Even on a warm Friday afternoon, no one pops in for a glass of wine of a cold beer to start the weekend early, this is strict reservations only territory.
There is a warm, casual atmosphere that is inviting and comfortable, the gin list is superb if pricey, and the cask beers were decent. Noble lager, from Greene King I was informed, was just the stuff to wash down a late lunch with. This general feel is somewhat at odds with the serious and seriously good food, and the Sunday best everyone is dressed in – people come here to eat and little more. And to be fair, it is very good. A parsley soup with bacon and eel was deeply satisfying and a pleasure to eat. Lamb breast with various accompaniments was classic meat and veg done with skill and accuracy. A mirabelle fool made something memorable from very few ingredients, and a soufflé was crafted with an expert hand. The famous chips here are worth coming for alone – crunchy and fluffy, seasoned to perfection. However a tomato soup was merely fine, and the sauce on the main course had been sat for too long, forming an unseemly skin - errors you should not find in a 2 star establishment. The £19.50 set lunch is an absolute steal, but away from this things get pricey quickly, with main courses starting at £25 and rising. Perhaps Michelin were feeling trendy last year, going for a bit of street cred with some starry pubs. But as much as I wanted to love it, the food here is not exciting, theatrical or technical enough to be put in the same group as Hibiscus, Le Gavroche, the Square etc. At no fault of its own, the Hand and Flowers is batting too high up the order.
I went to a pub and all I got was a lovely restaurant. To be a pub you don’t need shove Ha’penny, or the England match on TV, or pork pies, or a pool table, or even good beer. What you need is people to feel they can come in at any time and within reason, do what they please. Here you can do that, as long as you book in advance and have the duck.