Pub review: The White Horse, Dorking

Since moving away from its former Brasserie Bar Co title in 2023, the Heartwood Collection has taken some giant strides in the market. Tristan O’Hana visits its first pub with rooms launch in Dorking, Surrey.

The White Horse in Dorking, Surrey, has some tales to tell. Widely regarded as one of the oldest inns in England, it is believed to have been built in the 1700s, with imagery of the pub from the late 1800s showcasing much of the same frontage/structure that the site still displays today. Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Noel Gallagher – they’ve all been in. Its central location means it has acted as the beating heart of Dorking’s hospitality offer for hundreds of years, varying in success depending on who was running the operation.

I grew up in Dorking, so naturally have my own opinions on The White Horse and its various guises over the years – I can even remember when The Dorking Advertiser ran a front-page picture of Gallagher standing outside the pub in 1996. Oasis were recording Be Here Now just outside the town, and its population were buzzing over Britpop royalty frequenting its locals. I’d say at that time, it was highly regarded (my grandfather – a proud Basque gentleman – would always make it his accommodation of choice whenever visiting), but by the time I was dotting around Dorking’s pubs, it was pretty much a no-go – neglected, forgotten, overtaken by the town’s other establishments. 

Open fires at the new White Horse

Fast-forward to 2017 – some 10 years after I’d left Dorking – and The White Horse was acquired by Bespoke Hotels, which promptly pumped £4m into refurbishing this vast, historic building. The town chattered with excitement as friends and family gossiped over who had been to The White Horse and its new restaurant The Dozen. I went when visiting family around that time, but never made it back for a second go. It was a pleasant visit and an enjoyable experience in a proudly refreshed venue, but it never became a family favourite. It was… fine.

In June 2023, The White Horse changed hands once again, as the Heartwood Collection moved into town. The acquisition price was undisclosed, but at the time Bespoke said it was delighted with the sale after “enhancing the value of the property”, so one can only imagine a quite pretty penny was spent on the deal – and that’s before Heartwood’s multi-million-pound refurbishment took place. The Grade II-listed coaching inn went through a major overhaul, with the ground floor being reconfigured to create a pub to the front, as well as a dining room for over 100 covers. Upstairs, its 56 bedrooms were renovated to reflect Heartwood’s new style, with rooms ranging from a ‘Snug’ to ‘Really Fancy’. 

Some of the new dishes on offer at the pub

Of course, when I was invited by the Heartwood team to come and have a look at the pub, I couldn’t resist. But, by the time I had made it there, I wondered whether they even needed any more press attention. The truth is, after changing from Brasserie Bar Co last year and refocusing its operational strategy onto pubs with rooms, the Richard Ferrier-led business has been closely watched by many in the trade. In fact, while interviewing Liberation Group’s Jayson Perfect for this issue – who also talks about the growing focus his company has on accommodation – Heartwood’s new model came into the conversation. Turns out Perfect had already been in not long after The White Horse doors opened, just to “have a look around”. When you combine the success that Brasserie Bar Co had in its former operations with the refreshed name and format priority, it explains why many of Heartwood’s peers are intrigued by this impressive debut. 

And it is impressive. Like so many modern on-trade venues with space at their disposal, the Heartwood team have created distinctive zones for all styles of hospitality – a pub, a lounge, a restaurant, a hotel – all blending seamlessly into one another through subtle light and atmosphere transitions, capturing multiple opportunities of custom from each visitor. The night we visit, general manager Robert Konstantinidis explains how important the pub element of this set-up is when it comes to retaining the footfall of the hotel guests – and I can see what he means. If I walked through that pub area when leaving my room, I’d find it hard not to stop for a pint too. A quick doff of the cap to Konstantinidis here, though, who managed to run a seamless service when we were there, while having every member of the Heartwood board in as well, including MD Ferrier and former Young’s CEO Patrick Dardis, who is a non-exec director of the group. No pressure, Robert.

The dining area to the rear of The White Horse

But seamless it was. While the restaurant hadn’t filled its 100 covers, it was busy enough for a Tuesday evening, with the rooms running at 98% occupancy. The menu is just the right balance between ‘concise’ and ‘plenty to choose from’, with guests easily pleased from its snacks section all the way through to its mains and pub classics. There is still a touch of the French influence seen at Heartwood venues from yesteryear, such as the brilliant Morteau sausage salad from the starters (served with a poached Burford Brown egg and a Dijon dressing, £9.95). But otherwise, the food at The White Horse does a wonderful job of showcasing seasonal dishes, freshly made to a high standard. Aside from smoking meats (a potential fire hazard), everything here is done in-house. The Sunday roast, Konstantinidis tells us, takes 18 hours to prepare. Despite being a scalable prototype for its other managed outlets, this is a pub that feels authentic, considered and unique to Dorking’s centre. After all these years, it feels The White Horse is once again, justifiably, the talk of the town. 

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