Hand & Flowers Booked? Head to a New Gastropub Down Road

Tom Kerridge has the kind of problem any chef would like: His restaurant is too busy.

In Kerridge’s case, it’s not really even a restaurant. The Hand & Flowers is a pub in rural Marlow, about an hour’s drive west of London. But it’s the only pub that’s won two Michelin stars and thus draws destination diners from overseas.

That ranking means Michelin reckons this gastropub -- the British name for a pub with good food -- is the best in the world.

“If you want a table on a Friday or Saturday evening, you have to book a year ahead,” Kerridge says in an interview. “It’s amazing, and it’s incredible, but it’s embarrassing.”

Kerridge, 41, has a solution. This month, he plans to open a second venue, just down the road. The Coach has been operating as a Chinese takeaway for 16 years, and Kerridge is turning it back into a pub, with good food and no reservations.

“The fact we’re opening the Coach is a reflection on modern pub life,” says Kerridge. “There are 26 pubs closing a week according to Camra (the Campaign for Real Ale), which is terrifying and horrible, but so much of it is to do with people’s drinking habits: They’ve changed.

‘‘You’re as likely to go out in the evening and go to a high-street pizza chain. That is seen as a social thing to do as much now as just going to the pub. The problem with the pub industry is some of it is quite old school. A landlord will open at 11 a.m., sit behind the bar and moan that nobody’s coming in.

‘‘Well, that’s not how to run a business. You have to be pro-active, go out there and find the business.”

Secret to Success

The success of the Hand & Flowers is relatively recent. When the pub opened in March 2005, there were only two or three bookings a day. Kerridge or his wife Beth would pick up the phone if it rang. Now, a whole team handles reservations.

The second Michelin star was awarded in 2011, and Kerridge built an extension onto the pub, such was the demand. He now serves posh dishes such as Fillet of Scottish Halibut with Mushroom Puree, Crispy Beef and Sesame Braised Parsnip, which costs 35 pounds ($56).

But he is keen to keep the pub spirit and offers a three-course lunch menu for 19.50 pounds. You would go a long way to find a two-Michelin-star establishment with such an inexpensive menu. The house white wine is 25 pounds a bottle.

“The big problem is dealing with customer expectation,” he says. “You book so far in advance but still on the menu we have steak and chips. We’re not setting the world alight. We’re just doing things properly. I constantly worry that people will feel let down after they’ve waited so long to get to us.”

Sport, Silenced

He says that at the Coach he wants to bring new life into a venue that previously didn’t work as a pub. It will be open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While there will be sports screens around the walls, the sound will be off.

“Sport is a huge part of pub life, but it doesn’t have to mean 200 blokes drinking beer, shouting and screaming,” he says.

Kerridge is unlikely to be among the drinkers. He gave up booze almost two years ago when his weight had ballooned to almost 30 stone (190 kilos. or 419 pounds). He is six feet three inches (1.9 meters) tall and says he is now down to about 19 stone.

He is enjoying his new-found celebrity.

“I love working in television,” he says. “It’s a chance to showcase what I do. I love the people who work in TV. The weird part of television is people know who you are and I find that quite bizarre. I am recognized every day. It’s very cool. They recognize you for something that you have done.”

(Kerridge was in central London to mark the 25th anniversary of BBC Good Food Magazine.)

(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines)