A long, long time ago the Bear and Staff was the place to head to for a family meal. Its massive, maze-like interior, wealth of parking and good pub food saw to that.
But, time passes and the memory fades. Driving back from Runcorn recently we were racking our brains for something off the beaten track with somewhere to ditch the car – and the Bear and Staff sprung to mind.
First impressions are that little has changed in the ten or so years since we were last here. There’s a bit of a faux-old-worlde vibe to the place – but hints of chain pub break through the veneer here and there; the Chef and Brewer logo ubiquitous.
It’s quite massive inside though – and warm and comfortable. The staff behind the bar are friendly – even topping up a pint without being asked – and the overall atmosphere is relaxed. There’s Theakstons on and another couple of cask ales but generally it’s Carling and Guinness and Tetley all the way.
The menu has undergone a significant makeover since the last time we were here. There’s a specials menu – which certainly has designs on being gastro pubby – a bar snack menu and a main menu. All told there are about 40 main meals to choose from. And that’s not all.
There’s a vegetarian night. And a fish night. And there’s roasts on Sunday. The choice is dizzying. This is rarely a good sign for food quality – as anyone who’s ever seen Gordon Ramsey stride into a failing restaurant, tear up a ginormous menu and strip it back to six dishes will appreciate.
The dishes sound quite interesting. Sure there are lots of staples – burgers, pies, scampi, chicken in generic sauce – but in how many pubs can you order partridge, pheasant, sea bass, bream or beetroot risotto?
Veggies don’t seem particularly well-served however. Out of the vast tracts that comprise the menus there are only four vegetarian dishes and, barring the beetroot risotto that’s only available as a starter, none seem particularly novel.
With that in mind our partner goes for a spinach and feta cannelloni (£8.45), which ends up being pretty much what it says on the tin. But it’s a rather mean portion of pasta, counterbalanced by a decent number of chips that seem to be oven-born. They’re not very good but the pasta’s OK.
We eventually go for a venison and merlot suet pudding (£9.95), having wrangled with the big-menu angst of what to eat for some time. It looks good; a rich gravy in a separate pot and a good-looking suet pastry.
The suet is good and the gravy is hearty; the accompanying mash is smooth and lump-free too. The vegetables are all very overcooked, which is par for the course in these places. This is always perplexing. It’s the work of ten minutes to boil some vegetables. Sure, having a massive bin full of cold, limp carrots is probably a net time-saver, but if they’re all inedible then what’s the point?
That’s not the worst bit, though. The venison is virtually all fat and gristle – we barely eat any meat. Neither do we eat the veg, so we end up with a meal of suet pastry – not a bad thing in itself – mash and gravy.
For a tenner you can’t expect a lot in a pub. But two or three decent cubes of meat in a meal like this are easily affordable for ten pounds – and as much as you’d expect under the circumstances.
The waitress eventually asks how the meal was when collecting the plates – she hadn’t been back during the course of the meal – and says she’ll pass our views on to the chef.
She then adds that the meals are all bought-in, so it’s hard to imagine the chef taking an enormous interest in the views – to which he is powerless to react – of diners he will never meet.
When we come to pay there’s no acknowledgement of this, so the friendly girl behind the bar goes off to query it. The sullen waitress reappears to fiddle with the till, ignores us and dashes off back to the kitchen.
So, our bill is reduced from £25 – two mains and two pints – to £15. That’s very cheap considering we actually ate half of one of the meals but who goes to the pub hoping for rubbish food with the probability of a discount?
Arguably complaining about poor food in pubs like the Bear and Staff is a bit much, but there’s really no reason why inexpensive food has to be crap food. Go to Onion, the Moon and Pea, the Egg Cafe, the Kasbah Cafe or Selam Cafe and there’s generous portions of good food for very little cash.
What’s more it’s all cooked fresh. If you’re heading to the pub to eat some reheated ready meal you may as well bring your own from Iceland and ask them to stick it in the oven for you – you’d save a bundle.
Perhaps people want choice and volume these days – and want it cheap. With its family- and party-friendly capacity, attractive out-of-town location and globe-spanning cuisine, the Bear and Staff may have what today’s infrequent, cash-conscious diners are looking for.
But if our meal was anything to go by those past glories are gone. The Bear and Staff used to be a bit of a treat. These days it’s barely one step above a Harvester.
The Bear and Staff