ALL IS CALM
Tony Naylor suggests the best bars to seek seasonal sanctuary
Winter is coming. Which means Britain will soon be terrorised by a tribe even more frightening than Game of Thrones’ White Walkers. I talk, of course, of the office Christmas party gang, the novelty jumper crew, the hordes of cacophonously drunk part-timers who, from mid-november until early January (silly season gets longer each year), will invade your beloved bars and restaurants and – in a riot of glittery reindeer horns, lairy banter and arguments about taxis – ruin them.
It’s time for civilised Britain to retreat. To find sanctuary in those hideaways that avoid this chaos. Tip: stay calm. In this search for a safe space, you may find yourself panic-booking expensive chefs’ tables, private dining rooms or seats at a supper club. Peak December, around Black-eye Friday, making tortuous small talk with strangers in a blogger’s flat may, momentarily, seem preferable to the barfing and brawling outside.
But you don’t have to go to such extremes. Instead, think laterally. On the concrete savannah that is the British high street, Yuletide revellers are a confused herd, drawn to bright lights and loud noises. To avoid them, simply head to bars which are either well-hidden (they’ll never find Covino, a tiny, hip wine bar in Chester’s Rufus Court) or so small that large, noisy groups are barred (York’s Edwardian-era The Blue Bell pub, for example). This is the time to search out those new venues that, as city-centre bars become ever more barn-like, embody a countermovement to smaller, quieter spaces aimed at those who like to savour their grape and grain. I raise a sceptical eyebrow at bars described as ‘speakeasies’ (prohibition-era bars didn’t have alcohol licences, nor reviews on Tripadvisor), but god bless those discreet spots – like Birmingham’s 40 St Paul’s, Bristol’s Hyde & Co and Cardiff’s The Dead Canary – which, because of their restrained marketing, diminutive size or the fact they book out tables in advance, are able to serve drinks in relative calm. The rise of the ‘micropub’ (where the emphasis is on good beer and conversation, rather than bangin’ music and Day-glo shooters) is a boon for those who want to read, think and drink in peace. The first-ever micropub, the Butcher’s Arms, opened near Herne Bay in 2005, but there are now hundreds nationally. Try the Prairie Schooner Taphouse in Urmston or The Beer House in Sheffield. Likewise, the phenomenon of beer and wine shops offering limited seating (yet to be given a handy portmanteau – ‘bops’, anyone?) has, in the likes of London’s Hop Burns & Black, Manchester’s Hangingditch or Cambridge’s Thirsty, created a national network of stress-free hide-outs.
Swerving the crowds in good restaurants is difficult, but boltholes do exist. On the Wirral, Marc Wilkinson’s Michelinstarred Fraiche, with its video screens of wintry scenes and overhead night sky projections, is a remarkable sensory cocoon. It seats just 14 and is a hot ticket, as is Nuno Mendes’ Shoreditch 16-seater, Mãos. If you prefer to wing it, make a beeline for Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In and its inner-sanctum (by day, the staff room) for natural wines and terrific snacks. Failing that, go rural. Relocate to a postcode as remote as the chance of meeting a rowdy work do. This winter, I’ll be nursing a pint by an open fire at Ripponden’s The Old Bridge Inn, watching party season unfold from a safe distance.