The 150-year-old Wheelwright Arms, part of the Upham Brewery stable of 12 pubs including West Meon’s Thomas Lord, has changed since being taken over.
It is now, finally, a welcoming, smartly-designed one with fine sofas, leather chairs, plush tapestry-like curtains and blinds, painted tongue and groove walls and etched glass partitions.
Look up to catch the humour in wheels the size of a pram or a child’s bike fashioned into lampshades around a bulb. The music is loud.
The group has spent a supposed £500,000 and it shows. It’s a class act décor-wise but it needs the remaining two of three components – good service and good food – to make the place shine.
First up, the service. I’m told it’s a ‘bag a table and we’ll come to take your order’ place. Two of three staff members chose to deal with a wine order instead of customers, the third member now absent.
‘We had to deal with the order,’ was the lame excuse. No. Customers come first or learn how to multi-task. Two are not needed to check stock during a busy period, those wine boxes not going anywhere. Customers will. Oh dear, hospitality, running a business, isn’t understood in some parts.
I order at the bar instead. The menu is charming. There’s gin-cured salmon with sweetcorn pancakes; grilled goat’s cheese with Portobello mushrooms, plum chutney; a sharing charcuterie and fish platter; eggs Benedict, Florentine (spinach) or Royal (smoked salmon); battered hake; vegetable lasagne; Havant fried rabbit with coleslaw (turns out it’s really farmed, not Havant bunny); red snapper fillet with Swiss chard; pork sausages with mash and apple fritters; partridge with kale. It promises much.
Execution in the kitchen is missing a few beats. A cheap, poorly-sourced egg encased in crispy batter on an otherwise pleasant dish of venison hash, an overpuréed squash under a lovely gamey pigeon breast rendering it gluey. But the ribbons of vinaigrette around the breast were excellent, the hash a pleasing cake just needing some seasoning. Both are starters, light bites, the pricing over-ambitious at £7.50 and £6.95. Mains range from £10.50 to £18.95.
I ask for the dessert menu but no one comes back for my order. There’s a waffle with praline fondant; caramelised bananas with pecan bread and butter pudding; apple and almond tarte tatin or a rather dull cheeseboard. So I pay and leave.
What is a pub? Oddly difficult to describe. It’s not a bar, nor is it a restaurant. Nope, not a social club, not your house, not for gigs and football only, a psychiatrist’s office. It’s all of those things. We have a sense of belonging, a second home. You know instantly when you step into a pub if it’s the right one for you.
Nearly 30 pubs close every week and when they close, they mostly do forever and are made into shops, flats, betting shops.
If this expensively refurbished pub wants to keep/attract customers, staff training, with an injection of reality of running such a precarious business, wouldn’t come amiss.
My bill? £17.45 including a small glass of excellent tempranillo. No tip.
Wheelwright Arms, 27 Emsworth Road, Havant PO9 2SN (023) 9247 6502 Open 11am–11pm (Sun Noon to 10.30pm). Lovely outside space.
Disabled access: spot on in all aspects.
How to get there: Take the A27 to Havant following signs to the station then right on the mini roundabout on to the Emsworth road passing The Spring Arts and Heritage Centre, the pub further down on the left. Large car park.