Aaron Morby reports from the Charles Lamb pub in London's Islington where a strong French influence has combined to great effect with a sense of place in the local community
Need to know Only a few years ago the now bustling Charles Lamb was an unremarkable and forgotten end-of-terrace north London pub that looked destined to end its days as another flat conversion.
But young husband-and-wife team Camille and MJ Hobby-Limon took over the lease of the freehold pub, then called the Prince Albert, and in just five years lifted weekly takings from an ailing £2,000 to around £15,000. "We were looking for a business where we would also be able to bring up a family," explains Camille.
The couple, in their early thirties, stumbled across the pub while cycling around the Islington area on a search for premises.
"We started out on a shoestring budget. The lease cost £35,000 and we spent around £30,000 on building repairs and new signage in the first year," Camille says.
They both set out with the aim of running a cosy, friendly local where the community could meet and relax.
"We decided to rename it the Charles Lamb in honour of the 18th-century writer and philanthropist who once lived in the area," says Camille. "The Charles Lamb school had just been knocked down to make way for new townhouses and it turned out to be a popular decision with residents to keep the name alive."
Target audience For the first years the cosy local specialising in home-cooked food with a French twist remained a well-kept secret among local residents.
Best known for The Charles Lamb may have only two rooms, but it still manages to seat 55 and caters for about 400 covers a week.
Camille is chef-patron in a kitchen of four cooks, dishing up French classics like beef bourguignon and moules alongside her signature fish pie that still "flies out the kitchen".
French tastes imbue the menu, decoration and hospitality of the Charles Lamb, an influence owed to Camille's French parents, who came to England in 1966 to run pubs and hotels during her childhood. "I just started cooking the food I grew up with, which I why we have a mix of English and French dishes," she says.
The pub boasts an own-branded £17 French house wine from Domaine St Hilaire, and imports 1,200 bottles every quarter to keep up stocks. "We decided to go for a quality house red, white and rosé that would say something about us," Camille says. "It's so good that, if anything, we find people don't go much further up the wine list."
Four ales, including a regular guest beer, have been squeezed into a tight cellar, with sales rising to equal lager, helped by the resurgent interest in real ales in the capital.
Business development The Charles Lamb has been held up as a model for all budding landlords. Camille says her best advice is to "Spend as you go; make do with what you have until you work out what it is you really need.
"Oh, and ask people in the business for contacts and advice. The chances are they have done the research and will help you out."
At first the plan was to deal directly with farmers, but very few were prepared to supply a small neighbourhood pub.
Camille joined the Clerkenwell Ordering Group, a collection of local businesses that meet every six weeks to jointly source products. "It turned out to be a great networking group," she says.
Favourite supplier Fish, whether in pies, tagines or stews, forms a key part of the Charles Lamb menu. It is supplied by Kernowsashimi, a husband-and-wife team who run six boats off the Cornish coastline. Orders are placed after the catch each day and arrive by courier early the next morning.
"We're getting something without the middleman, so its fresh, at a good price and prepared like it came from the fishmonger," Camille says.
The staples are crab, monkfish, red mullet and Dover sole, although because Kernowsashimi is licensed to keep by-product, the pub is sometimes treated to even greater variety.
The future Camille has put her belief that nobody should get stuck wearing just one business hat into action. She recently set up a small cocktail bar in partnership with mixologist Tony Conigliaro.
The Italian film noir-themed bar called 69 Colebrooke Row is well known among cocktail connoisseurs and is thriving, with sales approaching £600,000.
Such has been their impact on the metropolitan scene that the partners have been invited to run the new Zetter Townhouse Bar in London's fashionable Clerkenwell area for owners Mark Sainsbury and Michael Benyam.
For the time being that's enough on her plate, she says.
Spotlight on Bastille Day
Bastille Day on 14 July is a big event in the Charles Lamb's calendar, with people coming from far and wide to celebrate. The main attraction is a popular pétanque competition, which sees roads sanded over for boule throwing. Takings soar to £4,500 during the event, most spent on specially imported Breton cider.
"I got the idea from my parents, who used to host a huge competition in Sheffield, which drew in people from all over England," explains Camille. "We close off parking bays and do it properly, with judges from the national pétanque association. People have even started apologising to me in advance if they can't make it."
Camille Hobby-Limon's Revelations
Favourite hotel Domaines la Barronie, Ile de Ré, France
Favourite restaurant Morro, London
Book that inspiredHops and Glory by Pete Brown
Motto Never be afraid to wear several hats
If you were not a pub owner what would you have been? Music producer
Whom do you most admire? Mike Belben, the Eagle, Clerkenwell, London
Describe your business in five words Cosy refuge, community, spirited, fun
Facts and stats
Owners Camille and MJ Hobby-Limon
General manager Darren Smith
Covers served 400 per week
Average spend £18