When is a pub not a pub? Last week, I had two very different lunch experiences, at opposite ends of the spectrum of modern pubbery. The first was in a new place in London's West End – I won't name it, because I'm a kind person. An ordinary little pub, stripped of any last vestige of comfort or conviviality, and now operating as a kushiyaki bar.
You know, a kushiyaki bar? Like in Japan, where they serve skewers of grilled meat to salarymen on the lash. Only this was about as Japanese as pork scratchings; a dismal shell of a room combining the worst aspects of old-man's pub and chilly Japanese café, where I perched on a tall stool to eat nondescript bits of grilled and deep-fried flesh, and – God help me – tempura avocado.
In its striving, on-trend way, it was every bit as grim and unforgiving as city-centre pubs used to be, before they invented the gastropub and we could all sit with a fish pie and a glass of merlot.
So that's one direction a pub can go in, and good luck to them: A3 licences in the overheated London market are hard to come by, and there are shoals of ambitious young chefs eager to go it alone and do unforgivable things to avocados.
Another new direction is to style yourself a 'tavern'; not in the old sense of a roadhouse serving foaming tankards and beef to trenchermen, but in the modern sense, which is basically 'restaurant'.
That's how they've done it at the Church Street Tavern in Colchester, an Essex town which has yet to challenge Ludlow in the gastronomic stakes. Now this is a pub to spend some time in. A handsome, big-boned townhouse just off the main shopping drag which combines the warmth and hospitality of the traditional tavern with the serious cooking chops of the Tavern 2.0.
Arriving late and discombobulated for a mid-week lunch, after an unfortunate misunderstanding about a disabled parking permit, my mother and I were welcomed, and – in a sun-filled, spacious upstairs dining room beautifully decorated with objets trouvé and groovy – very well fed.
Tiny spoonfuls of chicken liver parfait arrived unannounced with springy herb bread. Then a shivery, irresistible pot of parmesan custard, to be scooped up with delicate wands of anchovy toast. Chickpea fritters appeared as a ladies-who-lunch take on falafel, with pomegranate-sprinkled whipped ricotta standing in for hummus, and some kind of grassy oil to be mopped up with the crisp, spinachy puffs.
The menu is huge, and apart from the safe haven of various cuts of steak, ambitious. A brace of Norfolk quail get the dirty treatment, exuberantly spiced, spatchcocked and chargrilled, leaving the skin deeply flavoured with salt and smoke, the flesh sweetly pink. With them, nutty, veg-studded pearl barley and a sultry blast of black cabbage and hazelnut pesto.
Partnering subtle skate with equally soft and pale gnocchi was brave, but the dish was hot-wired by purple sprouting broccoli humming with tarragon and punchy little brown shrimps. Only my starter of rabbit pie flopped; sweetly spiced like Moroccan pastilla, it was swaddled in an over-dense pastry which temporarily silenced my half of the debate about the missing parking permit.
A side of Jansson's temptation, an anchovy-kissed swoon of potato, cream, cheese and garlic, reconciled my mother to a dish she had spurned since the early Sixties, when a Swedish friend's dinner party went horribly wrong.
The short selection of puddings includes rhubarb and custard with orange and polenta shortcake, a dish which perfectly reflects the CST's brand of trad comfort with a twist. Bravo to whoever designed this dream of confident good taste, the sober scheme of wood floors, leather banquettes and foxed mirrors quirked up with sculptural driftwood and flurries of vintage china. The lounge bar downstairs, where every seat is a deep armchair or sofa, rather than a bony high stool, is equally beguiling.
This is a place put together by someone who knows exactly what they're doing. That someone is Piers Baker, whose Sun Inn in the Essex village of Dedham I enthused about when it opened 11 years ago. "The instinct for hospitality behind the Sun is positively Continental," I wrote then. "Everything's just a little bit better than it needs to be."
The same is true, in spades, of the Tavern, which Baker opened a year ago, installing a young team from the Sun, including head chef Ewan Naylon. Despite appearances, the building was converted from an estate agents rather than an existing hostelry. Which goes to show that while it's all too easy to convert a pub into something dreary, it takes time, good taste and talent to make a dreary building into a wonderful pub.
Church Street Tavern, 3 Church Street, Colchester (01206 564 325). Around £30 a head for three courses, before wineReuse content