Cambridge on a sunny Sunday. So there's a queue to get into the city centre; a queue to get into the multi-storey car park; a queue to get into somewhere for lunch.
Hold on: there's somewhere in the centre of this chi-chi city where you can get terrific food without a queue and without resorting to a lacklustre chain? (Local landmark Fitzbillies doesn't count: it's always packed.)
Tipped off by industry powerhouse Scott Collins, I navigate the crowds in search of Pint Shop, which opened last November. In between Jamie's Italian and Zizzi, round the corner from Carluccio's – you get the idea – stands an anonymous office building. Peering in the window, where you'd expect to see a poster about ISAs is a tiny chalkboard advertising Scotch eggs. Up high is a small sign. Meat. Bread. Beer.
This murmured announcement is followed by a similarly quiet interior. There are three rooms – bar up front, dining-room at the back and a further dining-room upstairs. All are clad in pale grey/green-painted wood, with parquet floor and utilitarian lighting; simple wood furniture and – here and there – elegant, muted pieces by local artists.
What might feel a bit frosty is soothed by careful consideration – the chairs and benches are comfy, the space between tables expansive and, in the pub, a counter groaning with pies, filled cobs, sausage rolls, and those Scotch eggs. And if that weren't enough, a blackboard chart features 16 beers from off the beaten track and there are, wow, 44 gins on the menu.
We settle in to the dining-room – Mr M with a pint of Moor Dark Alliance stout; I have home-made lemonade. Near us is a family whose three nippers are tucking into roast chicken, a woman dining happily alone with a pie and a book, and there's a constant ebb and flow of groups and couples. Pint Shop has clearly established a toehold in the local trade. A look at the food menu explains why: a three-course Sunday lunch for £20; half a beer-brined chicken with house chips and curry butter for £13.20? Yes please.
But plenty of places do roasts and pies. What makes this special? That glance at the children's food is the first clue: it doesn't look like "kids' menu" fodder. Plump, crisp-skinned chicken, a heap of proper chips, lashings of gravy (and some veg, hurrah!).
The grown-ups' food goes up several notches from there. From the set lunch, a pear-and-hazelnut salad is silky and crunchy, the perfect light touch before a hefty roast beef with everything. The meat, I can confirm from a stolen forkful, is top-quality and definitely not production-line assembly.
Prawn cocktail comes in a glass, a heap of small fellas muddled with marie-rose sauce and shredded romaine. Atop it, two great big prawns in an embrace that it seems a shame to break up. Whoops, too late.
Sausage and lentils is a weeknight staple for me. Will it be elevated here? Yes, of course. The sausages are packed with garlic and fennel seasoning and without the tan lines slapdash grilling gives. The only teeniest grumble might be that the beef short ribs, which do the whole falling-away-from-the-bone thing, could take a jot more seasoning. All the meat is cooked over charcoal, which explains the exemplary texture. Chef Dan Peirce (formerly at Fitzbillies) is clearly a talent.
The veg is uniformly ace: onion rings are huge and tangy, and I could have eaten a vast plate of the purple sprouting broccoli with anchovy dressing.
Of the puddings, poached rhubarb with griddled scones and clotted cream is vast, and delicious Britishness on a plate. A mini chocolate pot with salted caramel and home-made shortbread is inhaled.
The inspiration for Pint Shop is the beer houses that sprung up in the 1830s as a result of the Beer Act. It certainly feels as convivial as someone's home… right down to the loos with enamel dishes of Pears soap. Owners Richard and Benny, who spent three years finding and converting the listed building, are to be congratulated on such a confident vision.
Lucky, lucky Cambridge we mutter, as the car-park meter ticks round another hour. Get there before the queues arrive.
Pint Shop, 10 Peas Hill, Cambridge, Tel: 01223 352 293. £60 for two, with drinks
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Hot cross buns
Every year I try my grandfather's method: slice, slab of unsalted, searing-hot oven. Eat toasty result with butter running down chin. But it's not the same without him.
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