A roaring fire on a winter’s day, several real ales on tap, a friendly smiling barmaid, a delicious smell wafting from the kitchen – walking into a good country pub is like walking into a great big hug from the countryside.
One of the great things about living in Portsmouth, a thriving bustling densely-packed city, is that by taking just a 20-minute drive you can escape city life and slip into the South Downs National Park.
There you will find green fields, beautiful wooded walks, quaint villages, farmland, tractors, everything your imagination can summon about the countryside – including some exceptional country pubs.
The Shoe in Exton, The Thomas Lord in West Meon, The Hampshire Bowman in Dundridge, the Chairmakers in Worlds End – just four of the country pubs doing exactly what country pubs should be doing. All four are wonderful examples of places serving great food, great beer and providing great company.
It closed in February 2020 and its future was hanging in the balance until it was taken over and reopened. Despite the pandemic it seemed to be doing OK, then it closed again until its latest management took over last September.
It’s been on the Dish Detective’s radar for the past couple of years – we even reviewed its takeaway service under the previous occupants – so we were excited to see what changes the new guys have brought in. Our heads full of the idealised view of a country pub, we visited on prime country pub day – Sunday lunchtime.
However, we were left mightily disappointed. There were no rural pub hugs here.
We were seated in the draughty bay window near the bar, near where one local was propping up the bar, working his way merrily and quite loudly through the liquid refreshments.
There is a cold feel to the place, not helped by the fire that kept going out and the slow response of staff to put another log on, the sparse table layout brought in by social distancing, and the fish tank on the bar, which gives a Chinese takeaway atmosphere.
To be fair, the young girl working on the bar, who seemed to be doing a lot of the graft, was smiley and greeted us, but she was clearly flat-out serving. Thirty minutes into our visit, she disappeared, presumably on a well-deserved break after holding the entire place together for so long.
There were several tables seated, and some groups walked in while we were there. A few were flatly turned away.
Another waitress appeared to be waiting on tables – although no one actually bothered to come to us (aside from to bring our plates) or to check if we were ok.
We ordered drinks at the bar, with just the one option of real ale, then went back to the bar to order our food – a choice of beef, chicken or pork roast at £12.95.
The food arrives promptly and it’s hot and edible. The beef is really well cooked, the cabbage well stewed and the swede well mashed. The roasts are crispy, almost to the point of hard, and the Yorkshire is large.
The horseradish sauce comes served in a thimble.
Our dining companion, who is in the later stages of life, thinks it’s great. If the Roebuck is going for the elderly customer, then they are dishing up the perfect roast.
For us, it’s too much like the food at the care homes we worked in a teenager. Saying that, it’s edible and we’ve been looking forward to a roast all day. It’s nearly all eaten – aside from the soft cauliflower which was a step too far.
After filling our faces, we are then left to look at our dirty plates while the staff – young girl still missing – chat at the bar to the local drinker.
We’d loved to have ordered two desserts – The News is paying after all – but after staring at our plates for what seems like an eternity, Dish Detective calls it quits, pays at the bar and we head home.
A Sunday roast at a country pub should be a joy. It should take away all the stress of making it at home.
Sadly, we found not much joy at the Roebuck. If you are serving up roast dinners, charging £12.95 a plate, and expecting customers to drive out to see you, quite frankly we expect more. Let’s hope they can put another log on the fire and turn the place round.
A message from the editor, Mark Waldron.
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