Sponsored by Booker
The plan was simple. This year's Pub and Bar Operator of the Year would, like most of the other 16 Catey categories, have a winner and runners-up. Simple enough, maybe, but still a significant departure for the awards in their 23rd successful year.
The only problem was that it became apparent as judging progressed that our winner this year was so far and away better than the other nominees that to name runners up would give readers of Caterer and Hotelkeeper the false impression of a close-run race.
Judge Steven Wilkins said of our winners during judging: "You feel like the owners have put their lives into it. Our winner this year has swept away with this. There was no race, they are miles apart."
This year's unanimous winner, the Drunken Duck, set in 60 acres of private land in Ambleside, Cumbria, is the work of business partners Steph Barton and Paul Spencer (who last year purchased previous category winner the Punch Bowl Inn at Crosthwaite).
Amazingly, the Duck first launched back in the era of British punk, pre-Margaret Thatcher, in 1977 and has been owned by the same family since. "I'm impressed that its high standards have been sustained so long," Wilkins said.
Described by the AA, which has named it Best Pub in the past, as a traditional whitewashed Lakeland inn, its interior is "a successful blend of traditional and contemporary styles, with oak flooring, leather chairs and a striking bar made from local slate". It even has its own brewery, Barngates Brewery, which was set up originally to serve the Duck's own thirsty punters, but has since branched out to supply other local businesses.
The Inn is non-smoking and has 16 rooms. It offers pub lunches and a modern English menu, with the majority of produce sourced from local suppliers and service, according to judge Julian Sargeson, nothing less than "excellent".
Sargeson also complimented the business on its great website, which made navigation effortless and inspired a desire in the user to visit, which is no mean feat.
A taster of head chef Nick Foster's dishes include starters like hot smoked salmon risotto; mains including pork fillet with black pudding and apple and rosemary tarte tatin; seared king scallops with warm green beans, Cumbrian air-dried ham and tomato salad; or wild mushroom, Parmesan and asparagus risotto; and delicious desserts include vanilla brûlée with Armagnac prunes and ginger Florentine.
The judges also praised the Drunken Duck's active role in supporting local schools, which has seen Foster joining local caterers to educate schoolchildren about the provenance of their food.
Judge Tony Hughes, who as managing director of industry giant Mitchells & Butlers knows a thing or two about running a successful food and drink business, noted: "The level of sales for where it is are very impressive."
Rates at the inn run from £95 to £220 and guests are recommended to book half a year ahead to get a room and nine months for a reservation for the popular Garden Room.
As Hughes summed up at the end of the judging: "There's one clear winner this year."
Steven Doherty, The First Floor Café in Windermere, Cumbria
Tony Hughes, managing director - restaurants, Mitchells & Butlers
Bob Ivell, director, Restaurant Group
Denise Laing, editor, AA pub guide
Andrew Morris, operations director, Ribble Valley Inns/The Three Fishes, Lancashire
Julian Sargeson, formerly chief executive, Laurel Pub Company
Ewan Venters, food & catering director, Selfridges
Steven Wilkins, managing director, Lewis & Clarke