‘We’ll look after you – I just think that you need to look after people. They might come in for a pint of ale and you just pour it and give it to them. They might ask for a Bloody Mary on a Sunday morning. They might be someone calling up with an allergy to book some food. Or they could be someone who comes in and they’ve just viewed a house and we talk them through the area. Hopefully, the thing we’re best at is looking after people. That and beer.’ – Richard Salthouse, manager, Royal Albert
Several Deptford boozers can boast of early performances by Squeeze and Dire Straits, but more contemporary ghosts haunt the Royal Albert. A mere ten years ago, believe it or not, there was something called the “New Cross Scene”. As chronicled superbly in the Transpontine blog archives, art rock bands like Bloc Party, Long Blondes and Art Brut, record label Angular Recordings and a host of DJs and promoters ran amok up and down the New Cross Road, attracting attention from the likes of the NME and Vogue (yes, New Cross was the new Hoxton before Deptford was the new Shoreditch). The scene’s lynchpin was the gloriously scuzzy Paradise Bar, a live music venue on the Deptford/New Cross borders.
Eventually the New Cross scene fizzled out, unable to survive the day-glo horror that was “new rave”. Most of the art rockers hung up their guitars, knuckled down at work and started saving for a deposit. The Paradise Bar, meanwhile, was taken over by the Antic pub group in 2006, refurbished as a tasteful local boozer and relaunched as the Royal Albert, its pre-1990s name.
You’ve probably been in an Antic pub before, even if you didn’t realise it at the time. That’s kind of the point: it’s a chain that isn’t supposed to feel like one, ensuring a Time Out-approved standard of food and drink while giving its managers relatively free rein to inject their own ideas and respond to the character of the local area. While the ex-art rockers might feel a little conflicted about drinking in a pub owned by The Man (and behind Antic’s pumps lurk Byzantine ownership structures and complicated bankruptcies and restructurings), the actual experience, at least at the Royal Albert, rarely feels fussy, corporate or overly aspirational, and the choice of food and drink is generally excellent if keenly priced.
I meet Richard, manager of the Royal Albert, at 2pm on a Thursday afternoon. Despite not opening for another two hours, the pub is a hive of activity: we talk over the buzz of power tools (the kitchen is being upgraded), while chefs periodically wander over to offer Richard samples of potential menu additions.
Richard has been back at the Royal Albert since last November, his second stint after managing the pub from 2008 to 2010 (‘I’m new blood, but old new blood’). A Brockley lad, Richard started out at the Jam Circus pub on Brockley Road, another Antic pub, before coming to the Albert.
Antic will soon open the Job Centre pub on Deptford High Street, becoming only the second pub on a high street that used to boast seven or eight. The choice of location has raised eyebrows (as has the somewhat problematic name, but let’s save that for the comments section), but Richard faced the same skepticism when he first joined the Royal Albert.
‘In the early days when we opened this pub, Deptford was a risky place to open, to a lot of people anyway,’ says Richard. After a slow and fitful start, he says, business picked up thanks to hard work and more people coming into the area who were willing to go out and spend money in Deptford ‘rather than jumping on a train up East’.
What kind of crowd drinks here now, I ask.
‘I’m sure every pub in the world says this, but it really is quite a big mix,’ says Richard. ‘The day-to-day reliable crowd are probably people who are settled into their first or second job, anywhere from late twenties through mid-forties. That’s the bread and butter. On the Friday night it gets quite a lot younger, either students or recent graduates who have settled in the area and are part of the Goldsmiths art crowd. They come in when it’s a bit louder, a bit more high-tempo, with probably an average age of 20. And then at the weekend it goes back to the people having a bit of lunch, a bit of peace and quiet.’
As well as a few regulars who prop up the bar – ‘two blokes who have been coming as long as I’ve been working here, they stand in the same place and drink Amstel, lovely fellas’ – the pub attracts a couple dozen regular faces, including couples, who come in at least once a week.
The Royal Albert has become busier since 2006 – they have applied to the council to extend into the shop next door, which should probably happen by the summer – but the basic offer is still the same: ‘It’s incredible how quickly it felt like home again, the nuts and bolts downstairs haven’t changed, the customers haven’t changed, the regulars haven’t changed.’
Richard’s approach is essentially to stay ahead of what modern pub customers expect. This means real ale and craft beer, a decent food offering and a higher level of service.
‘There is definitely now an expectation for craft beer across London,’ says Richard. ‘The numbers of breweries has gone up and up and up – we always have people asking what beers we’ve got coming on, what’s on now, asking about certain breweries, asking for samples, and the shift in sales is incredible. Our biggest seller now is cask ale, followed by Amstel and Heineken. That’s a really big shift.’
The other main draw is the food, although having long considered the Albert to be a gastropub, I’m surprised to learn that food only accounts for about a quarter of the pub’s takings.
‘You need to be sure you are doing good food just to give yourself a chance in terms of reputation,’ says Richard. ‘It’s quite an expensive operation to run the kitchen, but it’s worthwhile because it’s part of the package, it’s part of what people expect now. That’s something that’s changed over the last five years – even if you’re not intending to eat, you feel better about a pub if it has food.’
A quiz night helps bring people in on Mondays, but otherwise the pub does steady trade throughout the week based on its food and drink offering – as well as ambience and service, which are also increasingly important to many customers:
‘It’s quite a familiar place to come in as a customer I hope, it’s the sort of place that looks quite homely as soon as you step in. People definitely expect a little bit more these days: the way pricing has gone in the last three to four years, it’s costing more of your wage packet to drink in a pub, especially as your wages are probably less in real terms. People can forgive a bit of graffiti in the toilets but they do expect a little bit more! It’s a good thing, it pushes us to be a bit more considerate.’
I return to the Royal Albert later that evening, sinking into a very comfortable armchair near the door with a pint of Railway Porter, a dark beer from Hackney’s Five Points Brewery (their IPA is now the Albert’s house IPA). Mismatched lampshades hang over the bar, which is backed by etched glass and barley twist columns. Fairy lights and bunting hang from the ceiling, while framed mirrors and pictures are clustered on the walls with a studied haphazardness. On the tables sit tealights and paper menus curled into half pint glasses.
The pub is busy, with drinkers lounging about on the big red leather sofas that bracket the front room. Nearby, a customer carries a round of drinks over to a group of flannel-shirted men and women in patterned dresses: ‘£6.60 for two, and it comes in a tankard!’ It’s actually a dimpled glass, but the point is well made – while the headline Five Points IPA is an eye-watering-for-Deptford £4.50, the ever-changing ale selection spans a range of styles and price points.
In front of me sits a young man with greased-back hair and a leather jacket, guitar case propped against the table – later, his place will be taken by a rockabilly couple wearing suspenders (him) and a short jet black fringe (her). Elsewhere, a seasoned punk with pink hair and a Ramones t-shirt waits at the bar next to a man in a shirt and tie, cardigan and clear-framed glasses. The music – a blend of old school country and Victoriana – is played at a discreet volume, and a few people sit on their own reading newspapers or novels.
I imagine this is what after-work drinks at 6Music must be like. Sure, at some point those mismatched lampshades have probably appeared on a PowerPoint slide back at Antic HQ. But hey, there are worse fates for ex-art rockers than a few pints down the Albert.
The Royal Albert, 430 New Cross Road, SE14 6TJ. 020 8692 3737. http://www.royalalbertpub.com/