Emsworth’s delightful, small Coal Exchange, close to the harbour, was once a Gales’s pub. Fullers took over the brewery and its 100 pubs a decade ago and that figure has risen to a whopping 400, plus inns and hotels.
But the Coal Exchange retains its soul, the L-shaped place with beer garden mercifully corporate-free. There’s no Fullers’s menu holding sway over the kitchen.
The distinctive tiled exterior gives way inside to a no-frills, simple décor with three fireplaces, all blazing away on a cold end-of-winter’s day. Heavy rustic tables flank both narrow L-shapes. A few ancient mirrors, worn tongue and groove boards and battle-scarred lamps point to a welcome laissez-faire attitude over the usual overworked Fullers’s style with its Anywheresville look.
This is a locals’ pub. Everyone seems to know each other. Builders, boatmakers, families, men sitting by the bar with crossword puzzles quizzing friends (‘how do you spell reassess, three or four ss’s?’). But you’ll get a warm welcome, as I did. The young staff are pleasant and efficient.
The menu includes crayfish, prawn, ham, crab salad; sardines; baby ribs; Welsh or Buck rarebit (with egg); beer-battered fish and chips; local sausages and mash; steak and ale pie. Prices are very reasonable, from £7.50 to £10.95 for a main course, from £3.85 for a sandwich.
My tip is to go for a brisk seaside walk before and after your main course. Portions here are less than forgiving. My choice, steak and ale pie, brimmed over with a rather rusty-coloured gravy, a mountain of mash, carrots and shreds of cabbage. When the menu says home-made, believe it in this case.
The moreish pie was as far removed as possible from the dire offerings in many chains. The meat juicy and tender, the pastry and mash excellent. The kitchen also understands the art of under-cooking vegetables. Equally well-sourced, tasty French beans also found a niche on the crowded plate. If I were a local, I’d treat myself to one of these on a regular basis.
Move on to a rib-sticking apple crumble or chocolate dessert if you’re made of stern stuff. I was unable to attempt one more bite, but a neighbouring table’s desserts looked a large treat. No synthetic offerings.
Fullers is not alone in trying to find skilled kitchen staff for their many new pubs. The Coal Exchange is unusual in that this kitchen and its licensees – Dawn and Peter McIntyre – know what to put on the menu, how to cook well-sourced food, identifying with skill what succeeds with their clientele: simple, well-filled plates with familiar, no-nonsense grub.
My bill came to just more than £12 including a pleasing HSB half-pint at the right temperature. Beers are overwhelmingly Fullers’s, bar a few guest beers (Butcombe).
The Coal Exchange, 21 South Street, Emsworth PO10 7EG 01243 375866
Open 10.30am–3pm and 5.30pm–11 pm (10.30-midnight Sat, midday to 11 pm Sun).
Disabled access: tight entrances but wheelchair space inside towards back more likely.
How to get there: exit at Emsworth, following the old A27 to Anchor roundabout, take third exit then second on right to South Street. Nearby large public car park.