Everybody knows the English public house is in terrible decline. The emergence of health zealotry and puritanism as a common theme of government, the tyranny of pubcos that sell rent for cheap before squeezing the life out of tenants and cut-price booze in supermarkets are all forces too strong to bear. Last September the reputable Campaign for Real Ale suggested that two pubs close every day.
All of which puts a premium on the remaining members of this endangered species, and never more so than when they are as charming and welcoming as The Hare & Hounds. We must hope that decades from now it will be remembered that such pubs were named for the vigorous pursuits that gave country life its meaning and virtue. Those ways of life are under threat now, too, of course; and everything about this recently and excellently refurbished venue embodies an obstinate defiance of what is perceived, in rural England at least, to be an onslaught from officialdom.
It wasn't always thus. Acting as a kind of fulcrum to the village of Fulbeck in Lincolnshire – a shire to which (due to its location, house prices and landscape) I'm convinced a chunk of my generation will end up moving – this pub used to have a rather Gothic upper level, in which overheard whispers subtracted from each table's privacy. Now, under new management, upstairs has been given a new lease of light, the downstairs has been covered in inoffensive beige-green carpets and paint, and the walls boast portraits depicting the quainter aspects of country living: the blazing hearth, the proud stag, the hare and the hounds.
Sadly, not much can be done about the fact that the pub's best face to the world is hidden from view, in a back alley, while the main road has only the back of the pub and a giant car park in view.
The menu is short. One of the things about short menus is that fewer things can go wrong. This is a lesson that might have been imported from management school, where young suited types are taught to "simplify and repeat" – do a few things well and consistently rather than plenty in a mediocre fashion. It's what Gordon Ramsay does every time he films one of his "kitchen nightmares": he chops menus down to size.
As far as I'm aware, Ramsay hasn't been through Fulbeck recently. But his philosophy has. There are only four starters, ranging from £4.95 to £6.50, and 10 mains, from £6.95 to £11.95. Of the former, the chicken-liver parfait on toast (£5.95) is exquisite, and comes with a sweet red-onion marmalade. The home-made scampi tail (£6.50) comes in crispy-but-not-greasy breadcrumbs with a memorably pungent lemon mayonnaise. There's also a lovely smoked salmon on Irish soda bread (£6.25) and soup of the day for £4.95.
The mains cover all your standard English delights. The chunky chips are brilliant little fingers of salted potato, crinkled and not too oily. They accompany a superbly succulent home-made burger with cheddar and cooked-but-not-crispy bacon (£11.95), and an excellent plate of locally sourced ham with free-range eggs (£8.95).
Then there's haddock and chips and Ploughman's lunch at £9.95, warm steak sandwich (£8.95) and Lincolnshire sausage and mash (£9.45). In other words, a huge number of courses for under a tenner. Audrey's roast beef (£13.95) with trimmings, meanwhile, is perfectly cooked.
My only two complaints are about the desserts. The chocolate cheesecake is superb – moist, intense, and with a genuinely crunchy base – but far too small; and the fine apple crumble comes with a custard that is passable only, and tastes like it comes from a packet. A simple home-made custard streaming with vanilla pods would do a huge amount for the menu.
There are excellent local ales, a very reasonable wine list (with a good Sauvignon for less than £20), and smiling service. The clientele is retirees, commuting families, and general Vicar of Dibley types. All in all, the effect achieved is of a wholesome, welcoming and affordable English country pub, which celebrates rural life in all its eccentricity.
How much longer will we be able to say such things of our public houses? Long enough for you to pay this one a visit, at the very least.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back, 9-10 as good as it gets
The Hare & Hounds, The Green, Fulbeck, Lincolnshire, tel: 01400 273 322 About £70 for two, including wine
17 High Street, Great Gonerby, tel: 01476 561 780
Food from Harry and personal service from Caroline – you don't get an experience much more like eating in someone's home than at the Hallams' celebrated 10-seater
The Old Bakery
26-28 Burton Road, Lincoln, tel: 01522 576 057
Near the cathedral, this gem of a restaurant-with-rooms wins high praise for its obliging service and interesting menu, which makes the best of seasonal and local produce
3 Ironmonger Street, Stamford, tel: 01780 756 080
Well worth seeking out for its terrific-value lunch, this conservatory-cum-bistro offers consistently good food
Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2012' www.hardens.comReuse content