There has been much debate on the Isle of Wight about the merits and disadvantages of chain and franchise eateries. If the arrival of Costa in Newport’s St James Square raised a few eyebrows then the rumours of Starbucks has aroused widespread consternation.
However, left to itself, the Island doesn’t always manage to make the best of its assets. Without the backing of national companies, some popular hostelries could have literally been ruined. In the last couple of years the Old English group has spent a shed-load of moolah on the Fountain, the Folly, the Crab, the Hare & Hounds and most recently the Ryde Castle – which was in a pitiful state following a catastrophic fire. And that investment can only be a good thing surely? There are plenty of local examples of buildings that could do with a similar hefty injection of cash, but alas don’t look as though they are likely to get it.
For as long as Matt and Cat can remember, the site at Merrie Gardens, Lake has resembled what the planning authorities euphemistically call ‘brown field’. With the quaintly-spelled name ironically attached to one of the Island’s most soullessly dismal bungalow estates, and a former fridge factory for many years its main local amenity, one can hardly be surprised. The historic thatched farmhouse at the front of the site was possibly the victim of an arson attack about a decade ago and the land was left to lie. However, unexpected good fortune turned up last year when Staffordshire brewery Marstons submitted ambitious plans to build a 180-seat pub and convert the Grade II-listed farmhouse into staff accommodation. After a decent amount of disruption as a new roundabout was created, the pub opened its doors in summer 2013.
Having attended the opening nights of various restaurants, Matt and Cat tend to give a place time to iron-out any teething troubles before actually putting pen to paper. So when a suitable period had passed, and they were in Lake buying tiles (or was it tyres?) to Merrie Garden they went.
The first thing they noticed was the lovely job the refurbishment had made of the site. Frankly, it had been a dismal mess for years, and is still surrounded by land which falls pretty close to that category. It is impressive to see such care having been taken to make a little island of well-tended and welcoming landscape. Matt and Cat were struck by fact that the capacious car park was at the rear, from which there was a long-range view of Brading Down. There was no outside seating on this side of the pub; it was all on the south side to take advantage of the views of the new roundabout – and of course the sun on a nice day.
Matt and Cat were delighted to be acknowledged with not one, but two cheery greetings from the uniformed staff as they explored the pub’s many rooms. There was a vast bar, children’s play area, and the latest thing – a chicken rotisserie. Chicken. Cat likes chicken.
Taking a seat by the flickering fire – yes it was your actual flames, not simulated – M&C thwacked a phalanx of menus onto the table. Sifting through the publications was reminiscent of rifling through the Sunday papers and their extensive supplements. Like the sports and money sections, the wine list and children’s menus were among those quickly discarded, leaving the mains and the ‘1-2-3’ credit-crunch lunch menus.
Just as they’d processed all of the options, a charming waitress arrived unprompted with a bowl of complimentary tortillas and a dip of some sort, to take the order. Whoah, hold on, did a chain pub just offer up full table service? Apparently so. Whether this is standard or just when the staff have nothing else to do it was hard to say, but in either case it shows good organisation and unexpected focus on customer service. Drinks arrived by return; Cat was impressed to see a shoal of lemon and lime slices bobbing about in her cordial and Matt tried the beer – Marstons Pedigree, of course. This was all going pretty well.
While waiting for their food Matt and Cat checked out their environment. When McDonald’s drive-through came to Ryde it was delivered as a flatpack and seemingly bolted together in moments. Similarly chain pubs are often decorated in a bland corporate style, dressed with abstract canvasses and random agricultural implements, or nauticalia, depending on the venue’s proximity to the sea. There’s a touch of this at Merrie Garden, but there is also a pleasing nod to the area’s provenance with vintage photos of the bay area and Shanklin old village.
Matt and Cat shared the restaurant with a handful of good-natured retirees; one party was leaving as M&C waited. “Shall I go to the loo?” asked one lady of her companion, “I don’t know how long it will take to get home.” His laconic two-word reply reduced Cat to giggles: “Tena Lady.”
Pint of beer £3.17
Lime and water £0.30
BBQ rotisserie chicken £9.95
‘123’ special deal rotisserie chicken £6.00
‘123’ special deal apple pie £2.00
So, to the meal. Cat had rotisserie chicken, served with chips, veg and gravy – all for six quid. Now, there may be some of you who are wondering about the source of these chickens. Matt and Cat don’t know what it is. The menu asserted that they were all Red Tractor Farm Assured, which is a start, but hey, six quid. Blimey. The generous portion amounted to half a chicken, and was hot and juicy. The chips were better than average; there was a reasonable selection of vegetables, nicely hot and neither dry nor cooked to mush. Matt’s BBQ rotisserie chicken melt arrived without its bacony jacket but this was quickly rectified after the waitress popped back to ask the standard question. A solitary rasher of bacon was delivered on a plate of its own, along with plenty of apologies. A good recovery, and one that only served to draw attention to the satisfying chicken melt. There was a choice of accompaniments, and unlike Cat (who had paid heed to the menu’s slightly prim advice that the veg would count towards her five-a-day), Matt wanted to see what sweetcorn fritters might be. They were good, and took the form of little fried patties of sweetcorn kernels and corn dough. Having left a soupçon of room, M&C followed up their main courses with a pretty tasty slice of apple pie and custard.
Merrie Garden on a Monday afternoon in winter and well after the lunchtime rush was a place with attentive service and surprisingly decent food. At the height of summer with all 180 seats occupied it might be a different story. However, from Matt and Cat’s experience Merrie Garden didn’t really put a foot wrong, with its unchallenging family-friendly dining in a pleasing homely atmosphere. If only some of the Island’s other buildings could benefit from the munificence of Marstons.