Tony Nay­lor sug­gests the best bars to seek sea­sonal sanc­tu­ary

BBC Good Food - - Contents - Tony Nay­lor writes for Restau­rant mag­a­zine and The Guardian. Tony Nay­lor @nay­lor_tony

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.

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