Special Dispatch: The Ship Inn, The Barbican, Plymouth.

The Barbican is foodie’s wet dream. Crammed on to a relatively small portion of land, lies a gastronomic plenty with so much choice your head is likely to pop just thinking about it. Pubs, seafood, Mexican, Chinese, Greek.  And it was here we found ourself in the pouring rain, looking for a dry and reasonably priced establishment after a kiddy filled day at the National Marine Aquarium.

So with all that choice, why end up in a chain pub? Because damn it, I wanted fish and chips and ale. And more importantly I wanted my instant gratification.

St Austell Brewery produce some killer ales. Tribute, Yellow Cloud and Proper Job are three that you might have heard of. So by that logic, the food must be good?

My gut instinct about The Ship Inn was a good one, and happily I was right as the award winning fish and chips they serve is well deserved.

Good of fish and chips is hard to come by which always surprises me as its so popular. Ask any fryer and they’ll tell you that its in the batter, some will say its the quality if the fish. But good battered fish is dependent on a number of things.  If you do want to know how to cook perfect battered cod, then have a look at this Guardian article, as quite frankly I am hardly the expert.  I just like eating the stuff.

The thing that drew me to this pub was the outside area.  It was raining, it was frankly foul weather yet it still enticed me to want to sit under the large pagoda like roof that they have set up next to the restaurants.  The slightly unnatural collection of food eating establishments in this part of Plymouth does make me wonder if there are other restaurants in the rest of the city?

The interior is light and done in neutral pastels with lots of wooden furniture.  A large bar spans one wall and there is lots of oddments and general pub paraphernalia related to local history and regional interest.  It is a gastro pub, but its not carpeted which gives it a bit of a ‘spit and sawdust’ feel to it.  But not so much that it is uninviting.   If Sir Norman Foster designed the interior of a pub, and in the brief it said ‘it has to be a spit and sawdust pub’ I can imagine it would look something like the interior of The Ship Inn.

Service was brilliant, very attentive (if not a little over attentive as we had at least three separate people come and ask if our meal was alright?), and the ale was perfect.


Special Dispatch: Waterloo Cross Inn, Uffculme, Devon

The greatest test of any place that serves food is how they deal with complaints.  Our visit to The Waterloo Cross near Uffculme was a perfect example of the balance between great service versus terrible food. Throughout the whole experience the front of house staff were polite and attentive, so much so that despite the food we felt compelled to tip them.

When I write a review I tend to try and introduce the place that I visited and I like to give some context to why we were there.  Well, the reason was that we were going to celebrate our 2nd anniversary as a married couple and it was a) cheap and b) nearby to Tiverton without being in Tiverton.  Not that I don’t like Tiverton, but the general expectation with ‘destination’ pubs is that the standard of the food is going to be much higher.  But I am quite eager to get in early and say that the food was a disaster but our complaint was expertly handled. There I have said it.

Marston Inns (who run such pubs as Chaucers, Pitcher and Piano in Exeter and the Fisherman’s Cot in Bickleigh) run the joint.  The whole place is nicely laid out with vintage signs dotted about, cosy little chairs and lots of friendly staff on the floor.  I had rang and asked for a window seat for four, and we got exactly that. First impressions when we came in was ‘where do we wait to be seated or do we just go to the bar?’ which was a little strange as there was no sign by the entrance as there often is.  So we decided to go to the bar and announce our presence, as we had booked a table.  There are a number of factors to consider firstly.  It is middle of high season, its a Tuesday night and the place is packed with tourists and travellers who have nipped off the M5 for some nice food and a pint.  I had a sneaking suspicion that our food wouldn’t be exactly speedy, but it was OK as we had free drink coupons from the website so we had enough to keep us lubricated.

One friendly waitress came and seated us and gave us a couple of minutes to decide on drinks.  We hadn’t decided what we wanted so we had to ask her to come back.  Then another waitress came back and took our drink orders, they came relatively quickly and we were asked about ordering food.  We hadn’t decided still, so we asked her to come back.  Eventually after a bit of eye contact and polite beckoning, we managed to get yet another member of staff to come and take our order.  Wait on food? 30 minutes which was a while, but they were busy so this was to be expected as mentioned.

So 35 minutes passed and we were presented with our food.  My wife had an 8oz steak which was tough, inedible and tasteless, I had a ‘Gourmet Burger’ which was dry and disappointing, my mother-in-law had a 5oz Gammon steak which was mostly made up of fat and my father-in-law had something which contained chicken, which was dry.  One thing that struck us, was that there seemed to be nothing exceptional about the food, even if it had been a fantastically well cooked steak it would have still tasted of meaty misery.

The Gourmet Burger, a Boar and Chorizo Burger to be precise, came with two anaemic, undercooked, onion rings that had been thrown at the plate (I wondered if there had been more but they had just missed), a small pot of Heinz Cajun dipping sauce and a small pot of standard supermarket coleslaw all for a bargain £9.25  Oh, and a bucket of chips which was not really, well, a bucket moreso a metal container that you plant things in…  Compared to a Wetherspoon’s Gourmet burger (which is at least two quid cheaper and includes a drink!) it was no competition.  The bun was nice,  the taste of the burger itself wasn’t too bad, but the most tastiest thing on my plate was made by Heinz.

When you receive food like this the first thing you ask yourself is ‘shall I say something?’.  Brits are rubbish at complaining generally, but I have had years of experience grumbling and writing this blog, so the only right thing to do is complain.  So when the waitress came over and asked ‘is everything alright?’, she handled our complaint exceptionally.  Bravo.
Our resolution was simple.  Half price on all meals and the cost of the steak refunded and a replacement meal provided.  The meal ended up, along with the free drinks offer which is available on their website, coming to just over £12.

We sat and waited another 15 minutes for my wife’s replacement meal to arrive.  At this point, I had drank two pints of Hobgoblin relatively quickly and loudly dictated exactly how things should be done to my mother-in-law and told everyone terrible jokes about computer keyboards and puppet sex. We nursed our damaged expectations as we decided that despite the lovely waiting staff, we would not be going back to a Marston Inn in the near future, well definitely not for food.  But for pints of Hobgoblin maybe.

So now this leads on to the debate about chain pubs and the pros and cons thereof.  There are a lot of readers who will read this and say ‘you knew what you were getting’.  The fact that we had to wait half an hour for substandard, overpriced food (had we paid full price!) wasn’t excusable in anyway but then how well do chain pubs cope when at their busiest?

In my experience, chain pubs don’t tend to cope that well when they have a large demand for food.  Everything (really everything?) is supposedly cooked to order, but the food suffers when they start trying to cut corners.  I wasn’t in the kitchen when the food was cooked, I can’t hardly comment about the way that things were cooked and where they source their ingredients from as the transparency that exists in such places like Ruby Modern Diner, doesn’t exist when it comes to chain pubs.  But going by the standard that came out tonight, what I can say is that something went wrong somewhere.

Although the food was a disappointment, the service came out on top form.  Polite, attentive and professional, the people skills were also on top form.  And although the experience was pretty dire, the resolution and the way that our complaint was handled could not have been better.  At no time were we made to feel we were ‘making a fuss’ or ‘being a nuisance’ or unreasonable which in a few places I have been made to feel.  So to conclude, bad food, great staff. Hobgoblin on draught.

Special Dispatch: Fish On The Harbour, Lynmouth, Devon.

Lynton and Lynmouth sits on the North Devon coast. It has a rugged windswept beauty that most little towns in that part of the world posses. Tucked under the gigantic cliffs that is created as Exmoor collides with the Bristol Channel, it is only accessible via a network of windy roads which during the summer months are full of buses, cars and camper-vans all heading for the one tiny car park.

It is loved by tourists. They come and shuffle very slowly around the collection of gift shops and drink tea in the myriad of cafes and restaurants that inevitably spring up near scenic parts of the world.  We were one of those groups of tourists, walking slowly and wandering aimlessly whilst eating ice cream and reading fridge magnets.

On the outside, Fish On The Harbour does not jump out at you as being special. It sits behind black hand written boards, a white pebble dash exterior with a the obligatory blue signage outside. There is a large outdoor dining area and an indoor dining area where the magic happens. We ummed and arred about whether we wanted to eat-in and examined the menu closely before we decided on anything. The menu itself was a nice blend of restaurant and traditional cafe things, it wasn’t overly pricey for the location and given the reams of commendations in the windows, you would expect to pay more for the Cod n Chips which at £6.45 was very good value.

Let us talk interiors. Fish On The Harbour won’t win any awards for interior decorating. Yellow walls, and hard varnished furniture straight out of an episode of Home and Away, and of course lots of obligatory references to fish and the constant reminder that you are in a place that is a) near the sea and b) serves fish.

Neither will the Fish On The Harbour win awards for customer service. The Till Boy who took the order looked enthralled to be there and he failed to tell me that they charged for packets of sauce. He was equally nonplussed when he informed us that Mushy Peas were £1.20 extra and we proceeded to have quite a loud conversation across the restaurant about how expensive they were. Not one of my most dignified moments. Diners are so rude sometimes.
Also, the waiter/KP who took our plates did not wait for my wife to finish her food.  The number one rule for any waiting service is to wait until the entire party have finished, instead my wife found herself blocked from her food by an unwanted arm.  Nil points I am afraid.

I opted for a Large Haddock and Chips with a pot of tea. £7.95 was the upper limit of what I would normally pay for a dish of this type, and in no time at all, cooked to order, arrived a piece of fish with a good thickness and an expertly cooked batter. The Wetherspoon sized portion of chips albeit tasty were not freshly cooked and by the time I was half way through the meal they had become cold. When listed as ‘Large Haddock and Chips’ thats JUST the fish.

If I had known that the fish I was about to eat was the best piece of battered fish I am likely to have for under a tenner ever, I might have savored it a bit more. The flesh looked like soft white pillows and cut like butter, the batter was golden and crispy as cooking textbooks say it should be. All misgivings were mostly forgiven. The table were all in agreement, this fish was good fish.

Fish On The Harbour is deserving of its awards, although from our brief visit it feels like its trying hard to be much more than just a chippy. Charging for 20p for sauces is understandable for take-aways, but not for a restaurant. Sauces on the table please. Please smile more, and less hand written signs. But most importantly don’t stop producing such awesomely delicious battered fish.

Special Dispatch: The Staple Hill Servery, Trago Mills, Liverton, Newton Abbot

My earliest memories of Trago Mills (Devon’s Original Discount Store) does not revolve around food or eating in Trago Mills.  But of railways, large shops and myriads of ducks.  Water canon side shows, a miniature railway and plenty of things to climb on.  As an adult, my memories of Trago Mills has become more sparse as I have tried my best to avoid it at all costs.    But the snobbiness of youth breaks when you realise you have no money and that actually, they have some impressive deals which are worth having a look at.

It is also one of those places where you find yourself with lots of things that you MIGHT need. We visited yesterday and I ended up with three paperbacks that I am unlikely to read this side of Christmas, but they were only 49p… which justifies it. Right? As it was we were heading over with purpose, and to have a look at their new-ish garden centre, a grand lavish affair that was vaguely reminiscent of The Crystal Palace with the faux-Bavarian castle architecture adorning it, so it didn’t look too much like a garden centre.  It was a good opportunity to wonder around, complain bitterly about everything and come home with some great bargains, because ultimately that is what one does when one goes to Trago Mills.

One of the endearing qualities of the place is that everything has a slightly hap-hazard feel to it, lots of bits have been added on to the site which means the layout of the site is a bit odd.  Over the last few years they’ve invested in expanding the leisure side of things and also the Garden Park which has to be (imho) one of the most elaborate and well constructed garden centres in the region. We wandered around a new ‘Animal Park‘ which consisted of mostly rabbits, guinea pigs, donkeys, ducks, pigeons and a couple of pigs.  Not to mention the scruffy looking parrots.  Never quite understood the obsession with ducks, anyhow.


I insisted on visiting the model railway which is a vast expanse of wonderful wonderful OO gauge.  It hasn’t changed at all since I was there last 10 years ago.  And after such excitement we needed to eat something. As I mentioned, the thing that doesn’t spring to mind about Trago is the food.  In my head, if I go to Waitrose or even Sainsburys, I know there is a cafe there that I can have a cup of tea in, or even get some lunch should the moment take us.  Bernaville Nursuries on the Crediton Road has a lovely little restaurant where you can have a cuppa and some cake.

Up to yesterday if I thought ‘Eating at Trago Mills’, I thought of take-away chips and burgers from the stands outside the main shopping area. Now, thanks to the Staple Hill Servery I can think about Trago and their £4.65 All Day Breakfast.

I was amazed and delighted that the Restaurant Complex, as they’ve snappily called it, has been built.  It encompasses another take-away, a tea room and a main restaurant that is reminiscent of the restaurant in the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital.  It has been much needed, given that Trago has been trying to market itself as a ‘destination’ for years

The Staple Hill Servery is a large restaurant with airy windows and lots of light.  The amount of daylight that was coming through in to the dining space was brilliant, and even as just somewhere to sit and have a cup of tea, it was a really nice space. Before you walk in you’re confronted with the menus.  One on the outside and one inside.  Its not a complicated menu and is almost reminiscent of a Cafe menu rather than a ‘restaurant’ as such. The second thing you notice is the prices.  Being technically an ‘in-store’ restaurant they can afford to subsidise and keep prices low.  Cups of tea were all under £1, coffee wasn’t much more.

I went for the All Day Breakfast which included a cup of tea as well.  In this you get 2 sausages, 2 bacon, 2 eggs, 2 hash browns, Plum tomatoes, beans and a slice of toast.  All for under a fiver.  The feeling about this was that it was going to be terrible, and it wasn’t.  Bad side of things being that it was all kept in hot cabinets, but the eggs were cooked to order.

The food area layout wasn’t particularly easy to work out at first but it didn’t take too long to work out where things were and where you needed to be.  Obvious things like hot food was served from a counter with an open kitchen behind it.  The service seemed a little frantic at this counter as they were busy, but I wanted a breakfast which was at a different counter.  The girl behind the counter was kind and quick with her service, not rude or abrupt.
So, I have my breakfast now where?  Hot drinks had the tea bag already in the pot (type of tea? most probably best not to ask).  Then off to the till to pay.  Service at the till was functional, not polite, not rude, when asked where Ketchup and that sort of thing was he pointed to the other till which meant we had to queue up twice, as there were no sachets of sauce at his till.  Cos that’s logical isn’t it? He did not offer to get one for us, or even give us a chance to grab one to add to the bill.  Small things like this do matter sometimes.

Given Trago Mills has a slightly 1950’s approach to Debit and Credit cards, don’t walk in here with one, I didn’t ask whether they were accepted or not (which I should have in my journalistic naivety), but you’d be best to take cash.  Trago Mills on the whole won’t accept card purchases under £10, which as a policy in this day and age is quite, well, 1950’s.  But then who am I to comment? I write about food.

The food was lovely and tasted like something that I would have paid at least double for.  The eggs were a bit greasy, but the rest of it was good hole-filling food which tasted of good quality ingredients.  The whole experience apart from the complete lack of empathy from the till staff was one I would repeat again.  The toilets were immaculately clean, although the stairs down to them are a challenge if you’re not mobile (couldn’t see the disabled toilet?).  The place felt clean, there were no dirty tables when I sat down and the staff were going through cleaning the tables.  There also seemed to be at least two members of staff on table duty when i was there which is a good amount, but there are a LOT of tables.  But I know that Trago can get very busy, so come back at peak hours and it might be a different experience as it would be with any restaurant under pressure.

The Staple Hill Servery is recommended if you’re after something to fill a hole for little money.  Trago Mills as a place to visit on a day-out is pretty much the best place to come if you’re on a budget as you pay for what you use.  If you buy anything great, if not you could essentially visit the Animal Park for free if you wanted, although it wouldn’t be much fun as they were all asleep when we visited.

Best times to visit: Weekdays (Not in holiday season).

Good: Food, layout of dining area.

Bad: Pay for sauces, till staff manner, stairs to toilets.

Contact: http://www.trago.co.uk/ Twitter @tragomillsuk