Pub review: The Dartmouth Arms
Tristan O’Hana takes a trip to south east London’s Forest Hill to try out the first ever MEATliquor pub.
In September 2013, I interviewed Scott Collins, co-founder of brazen burger brand MEATliquor, for a piece in Pub & Bar. We had lunch in a restaurant opposite The Bishop pub on East Dulwich’s Lordship Lane, a venue he helped launch under the Capital Pub Company venture before it was sold to Greene King for over £90m in 2011. The sale would take The Bishop into Greene King’s Metropolitan Pub Company estate, with Collins tagging along for the ride as a consultant. When we spoke all those years ago, MEATliquor was one of the most talked about restaurant brands in the country, but he still had a finger in a pub pie or two.
Now, as the industry reaches the summit of a New Year’s rollercoaster, timidly peering over the edge of our carts at the corkscrew tracks ahead, MEATliqour is operating an impressive 11 sites across the country, having settled comfortably into a national brand status. Unsurprisingly, at some point along the road, pubs had to take a back seat for Collins, but with his loyal @thepubgeek social handle and the fact that funds from this side of the sector paved/paid his way into running restaurants, you got the impression that a return to pub life was never completely off the table.
And you’d be right. For in May last year, MEATliquor announced the news of its first pub, having taken the lease of The Dartmouth Arms in south east London’s Forest Hill, coincidentally enough where, until December 2020, I lived for just over a decade. For me, the news was met with excitement over seeing what a MEATliquor pub would look like, combined with a smidge of frustration that such a milestone venture, which had the potential to lift the life of local hospitality, was decided upon months after I left the area. Rest assured, I took it personally.
The new seating at The Dartmouth Arms
I visited the former functioning Dartmouth Arms a couple of times over the years. There was nothing wrong with it per se, but two or three visits over a decade should tell you all you need to know about its overall magnetism. A big question mark over the operation was the use of space within the venue – maybe it was the arrangement and choice of furniture across its two service areas, but it just never felt like somewhere I wanted to settle down in. And now? Well, what a difference wall-mounted benches can make. Without breaking the bank and smashing through brick, Collins and his team seem to have doubled the breathability (and no doubt covers) of the space – particularly the restaurant area at the back, which now has plush, red seating hugging the outskirts of the surrounding walls. What’s more, while the whole venue is plastered with trademark MEATliquor creative and decoration, touches like these benches and various other bespoke features help differentiate The Dartmouth Arms from the rest of the restaurant portfolio – I did wonder if that would be possible to achieve, but this is most certainly still a pub.
Food and drink at MEATliquor's first pub
Where the sister site similarities begin, of course, is with the food and drink – this is a MEATliquor pub after all. The restaurant’s menu has evolved over the years, although there is still a notable absence of gluten-free buns. My first few visits to its renowned (and sadly now closed) debut site in London’s Marylebone certainly didn’t present a ‘Green and Serene’ (vegan) section on the menu. But, like so many progressive operators out there, even the meatiest of menus has adapted with the times. Plant-based diners can enjoy options such as the Tempeh Tantrum (tempeh, mushroom and beetroot patties, ‘cheese’, burger sauce, lettuce and pickles) and Satan Fingers (fried seitan with ‘almost buffalo sauce’ and vegan mayo). The latter is the vegan-friendly alternative to MEATliquor’s Monkey Fingers (battered strips of chicken breast in buffalo sauce, served with a blue cheese dip), which the business had to trademark a number of years ago. At the time, other co-founder Yianni Papoutsis told me this was because a large pub company had been promoting the same item across its business. How primative (sic). Thankfully, Monkey Fingers have now found their rightful (and legal) place on a pub menu. What an industry we work in, huh?
Visitors to The Dartmouth Arms will find all of the other MEATliquor classics still doing the business, including the Dead Hippie, also trademarked, (mustard-fried patties, Dead Hippie sauce, lettuce, American cheese, pickle and minced white onions) and the rather brilliant Green Chili Cheese (double patty, American cheese, green chili butter, red onions, pickles, lettuce, mustard and ketchup) – this creation even made it through to the final of the 2021 National Burger Awards. It’s a beauty of a burger.
The Green Chili Cheese
Naturally, at The Dartmouth Arms, with meat comes liquor, and pretty much all tastes and tipples are accounted for. There’s a wide-ranging choice of beers on tap and in the fridge behind the bar, complemented by decent wines and a lively cocktail list. As the name suggests, I probably wouldn’t jump in with a Game Over (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec, pisang ambon, absinthe and fresh lemon juice, finished off with tropical Red Bull), but instead maybe plump for a more introductory serve. I’ve lost count of the amount of St Lawrence cocktails I’ve sank at various MEATliqours over the years – bourbon, infused maple syrup, lemon and bitters. Simple, superb and a great place to start.
Whether it’s gentrification or the natural progression of the capital’s outskirts and villages, the scenester streets of south east London are stretching further afield by the year. Places like Peckham, Nunhead and East Dulwich have been an attractive prospect for contemporary operations for a long time now, but the fact that MEATliqour has made it out to SE23 shows that the expansive area of coolness is still growing. With the makeover of The Dartmouth Arms and, perhaps, the departure of yours truly, Forest Hill has certainly got a little bit cooler.