A few weeks ago, in a feature on the Georgian Quarter’s real-ale scene, I promised to drop in on a pub ever couple of weeks and simply enjoy some beer and the environment. And I decided i’d call it Bitter Experience. It’s a pun, see?
I thought I’d focus on pubs that sell real ale – or pubs that make a point of selling a variety of beers and interesting lagers and might be of interest to people who go to a pub not necessarily for food, music or footy – but simply to goto the pub.
The Dovedale Towers is the closest pub to which I’ve ever lived. From my bedroom I could often make out whether my friends were in the pub or not. I never needed Sky in those days because I had a second front room a literal pint-of-Stones-throw away from my house. Did I like it? No.
I loved its handiness, but the Dovedale Towers always bemused me. Despite the obvious grandeur – it’s such a strange building, somewhere between Gothic and Georgian villa – the interior always seemed awkward; too big and impersonal and a strange use of space.
In its previous incarnation it did not sell beers of interest either, though it is noteworthy for the time that, suffering some sort of brainstorm, I asked a nonplussed barmaid for a ‘scotch on the rocks’.
The Dovedale slowly wound down over the last decade before a regeneration as one of Pax Leisure’s bizarre Alma stable. Where Alma de Cuba might work in its abandoned church idiom, Alma de Santiago just felt out of place, like a Lovecraftian hotel in suburban Merseyside.
Again, the pub did not seem popular and closed its doors again in 2010 and became a sorry sight. So we’re pleased that this South Liverpool outpost, which should by rights be a thriving business, has reopened its doors under Urban Gastro Pubs.
This now-sprawling empire currently includes Bier on Lark Lane and Newington, The Lodge (also on Lark Lane) and the intriguing Tavern On The Green in Chavasse Park. The pubs make a big thing of real ale, a wide choice of ales and lagers – including fruit beers and ciders – some good food and unusual surroundings. They also tend to be oddly protesting of their love of real ale, with slogans praising the hoppy juicings daubed all over the walls of pubs.
The Dovey follows this recipe – which, to be fair, seems to be working very well – to the letter. The interior has been reined in a bit since its haunted-house days as Alma de Santiago and speaks of visits to house clearance shops in search of kooky, antique items. But it’s not overpowering and is largely comfortable; the addition of white-tiled walls brightens things a bit and is a subtle but important makeover. The raised mezzanine-like level still seems awkward and rather pointless though – and the entrance and bar area so large that anything within it seems a bit overpowered.
Outside are wooden tables and chairs that should be brilliant on a sunny day or evening – not that we’ve had any chance to try them out recently. The car-park is a rather odd place though. It’s big, so big that it’s a little bleak and blustery. Attempts have been made to brighten the exterior, like painting the tables and chairs in primary colour. It’s a good idea, but the Dovey’s exterior only really works if it’s nice out.
The most successful part of The Dovey is a long room off to the left that’s the designated dining area. It’s neat, smart and feels a good size – and there’s a lovely little area at the end that looks out to the car-park that has an old-fashioned nursery feel. Inevitably there are massive flat-screen TVs everywhere; the kind that seem to be showing Sky Sports News 24-7 – and some music that seems just a little bit too loud and a little unsympathetic, something I’ve found to be the case in some of The Dovey’s sister pubs too.
On my trip there, on a Wednesday night with the students now a distant memory, The Dovey was not busy. There were perhaps a dozen people there over the two hours I was supping my beer. The choice of beer was disappointing. Just Deuchars IPA and Tim Taylor’s Landlord, both very drinkable session beers, were on handpump despite a menu that promised Hawkshead, Ringwood Boondoggle and Jennings Cumberland Ale.
My IPA was on the verge of turning, a fusty, slightly vinegary aspect to it. I sometimes wonder how often people drink the ale in these pubs, how long a pint of beer has been in the pipes. And, to be fair, there’s a question to be asked about whether bar workers always understand the peculiar demands of keeping real ales. I have returned a pint of beer in more than one of these gastro pubs; once explaining to a fascinated barman in The Tavern On The Green how you could tell if beer was off.
There are a good range of interesting draught lagers on at The Dovey, however, including a number of Czech and Belgian beers and the lesser-spotted Red Stripe on draught. The real ace up the sleeve is, however, the massive choice of bottled European and World beers.
There are dozens of fascinating beers and lagers to choose from here. Beers that are delicate; beers that will make your head spin; light beers and dark beers. Dangerous beers, even. Try a Chimay Blue at nine per cent – and then move onto something else. Sample a Kwak – you won’t have seen a beer served like it before.
Two of my favourite beers – the American Goose Island IPA and Brewdog Punk IPA – are on sale at the Dovey. This makes me happy, though at £4 a bottle the price does not. Thinking about it, you might not blanch at £4 for speciality beer in town on a Friday night – but drinking in town is expensive because rents tend to be higher.
Transport that 330ml beer to Penny Lane on a wet Wednesday and it doesn’t seem quite so reasonable. To put it in context, if I were to order a pint of this beer it would cost me over six pounds. I like my beers and I’m willing to pay more for exotic or high-ABV drinks, but that’s too expensive.
Luckily they don’t leave a sour taste in the mouth – both these beers are fairly light and hoppy with distinct citrus twangs – but I’m not sure that price policy is right. The barmaid didn’t even know that Punk IPA was hidden behind the metal doors of the fridges, and I doubt there are many people asking for it.
I cast an eye over the food menu too, which is imaginative and different. I’ve eaten before at The Lodge and the menu looks very similar. Courgette chips (I simply refuse to call it zucchini frites, OK?), padron peppers, game pies and a ‘carrots in a bag’ jostle for position of a menu seemingly written by Jamie Oliver’s more annoying brother. There are sunday roast and all-day breakfasts too.
And there is entertainment here beyond the tellies. There is, apparently, a quiz night; you can book a table to watch the footy and the Dovedale Social offers a genuinely innovative suburban music night. Big tick for that.
I hope I haven’t been too harsh. I applaud the wide range of beers and the attempts to reinvent the pub have been largely successful. South Liverpool deserves a popular pub, away from Lark Lane and Allerton Road, that offers good beer, food and music.
I think the beer, and the pricing, needs a little bit of thought – and the exterior could be wonderful in the Summer with a bit more work – but I’m very glad The Dovey is there and I trust the Urban Gastro Pubs team to make it work. Like a new real ale, most of the ingredients are there – they just need a bit of tweaking and a bit of attention.