The Hookers are enjoying a runaway success with this traditional inn serving British classics to please the locals, says Amanda Afiya
As a young man and a drinker at his local spit-and-sawdust pub the Cornish Arms in Tavistock, it never once crossed John Hooker’s mind that one day he would become its chef-proprietor. Fast-forward 20 years and Hooker, in partnership with his wife Emma and St Austell Brewery, is the proud owner of one of the most-admired pubs in the UK.
Steeped in history, the 17th-century Devon coaching inn – so called because it was the last stop before Cornwall – is massively popular with food lovers. Currently ranked 18th in the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs, hardly a week goes by without an industry celeb stopping by for a feed up.
“Our success has exceeded our expectations, to be honest,” says Hooker, who took over the pub at the end of 2012 and relaunched it after a refurbishment the following year. “But it’s all down to hard work, pure grit and investment. We never dreamed of operating a pub like the one we have today – it’s been so well received.”
In the early days, however, Hooker admits that he didn’t get the food offer quite right. Fresh from his three rosettes at nearby Lewtrenchard Manor (not to mention two series of BBC TV’s Great British Menu under his belt), Hooker first offered a range of menus, including separate restaurant and bar menus. “It was impossible, so I ripped them up and created just one menu, which has worked brilliantly for us ever since,” he says.
Ultimately, the couple has created a place that they would want to go to themselves. The menu is peppered with the finest British produce, including the best dayboat fish Hooker can source, and premium beef, lamb and pork from respected butcher Philip Warren. “To make it financially viable, we went old-school – we serve the best fish and chips we can, the best sausage and mash we possibly can.”
But it’s not all about the food and Hooker is at pains to point out that the real ales receive as much care as the produce. “It’s critical that we look after the real ales properly, that we condition them properly – it takes someone years to get the beer recipe right. And it’s crucial to us that the Cornish Arms still feels like a pub. Yes, we cook for appetites and we cook for people who want to eat unpretentious, tasty food. You can have a beautiful three-course dinner if you want it, but you can also sit at the bar and have a pint. It’s really important that the Cornish Arms serves the community well.”
The menu begins with a selection of ‘nibbles’, including coppa ham and Cheddar croquettes; grilled chorizo and hummus; fishcakes with satay mayonnaise; and teriyaki chicken wings with peanut and sesame – all at £5.50 each.
A choice of nine starters includes heritage beetroot, blue cheese and candied walnut salad (£6.50), wood mushroom and truffle arancini with chive mayonnaise (£6.50), and satay king prawn with coriander relish (£7.95). The dozen-or-so mains feature dayboat Newlyn plaice roasted on the bone with chips and seaweed béarnaise (17.95), and ale-battered Cornish haddock with chips, mushed peas and tartare sauce (£14.50) – “if we took that off, there would be a revolt”.
The list of best-sellers is endless, but Hooker says his English trifle has to be up there. Served all year round, the trifle evolves with the seasons to include apple, rhubarb, strawberries or raspberries. A great British classic influenced by French techniques, it epitomises Hooker’s flavour-crammed repertoire.
“We cook with the seasons, really, and change the menu accordingly,” says Hooker, who oversees a brigade of eight, while front of house is run by general manager Steven Eperon and bar manager Bob Finbow. “It’s not the best of the south west, but the best of British, and we produce a menu that keeps the team inspired and keeps them hungry to learn. The people that work for me buy into what we do.”
And they’re not alone. With seating for 48 in the restaurant, 48 in the bar and a further 65 outside, covers can reach upwards of 1,500 a week in the height of summer. Add to this the seven newly created, beautifully styled bedrooms upstairs, which opened in May 2018 following a £400,000-plus investment, and the Cornish Arms looks destined for even greater success. Indeed, occupancy for January, a quiet month for this tourist hotspot, was an impressive 75%.
From the menu
• Ham hock Scotch egg, blue cheese, beer-pickled onion £7.95
• Oak-smoked haddock omelette, Parmesan, chives £7.50
• Padstow crab on toast, dill mayonnaise £10.95
• Braised ox cheek, mash, creamed horseradish, onion rings £17.50
• Saddleback pork belly, roasted cauliflower purée, raisins, capers, dill £16.50
• Seared lamb’s liver, smoked bacon, mash, roasted shallot, onion rings £15.50
• Dark chocolate delice, cherry sorbet £7
• Buttermilk panna cotta, poached mandarin, lime curd, honey cake £7
15 West Street, Tavistock, Devon PL19 8AN www.thecornisharmstavistock.co.uk