Nationally, pubs are closing at a rate of 28 a week. In Hackney it can sometimes feel like that many are opening a week - or at least it does in the run up to summer 2014. Within less than a mile of my flat, four pubs have 'transformed' in the past fortnight. Two were long shut (Clapton's Fitzgeralds and the Cricketers, this week becoming the Bonneville and Verden), and two were closed for a quick refurbishment before re-opening under the same name but targeting a different market (Adam and Eve and The Gun, both in Homerton).
Given the growing number of pubs largely targeting the same market, just selling craft beer and putting a few shabby sofas and upcycled furniture isn't going to make you stand out from the crowd. So fancy food, fancy fit outs, and interesting speciality drinks (beyond craft beer) are the focus of many of the new places.
The Bonneville, on Lower Clapton Road, does all of the above, and stands out as the most decadent refurb of a Clapton pub so far. The owner, who was previously involved in a few other gentrified pubs in Hackney, worked slavishly for months, sourcing amazing architectural salvage and stripping the pub back to its core.
The end result is stunning - an arched, stained glass ceiling is atop the main dining room, artfully distressed walls bring out turquoises, browns and golds, luscious leather banquettes, a high darkwood bar, and a bit of expressionist creepiness. It's clearly inspired by the early 20th century decadence of Paris, Brussels, Prague, and Berlin, and the menu of interesting (and well priced - with most around £7) cocktails reflects that decadence.
(photo borrowed from the Bonneville's instagram)
Refreshingly, the beers focuses on Belgian imports, including a specially commissioned house beer. The owner, Ruari, is half Belgian, so knows a thing or two. With the bar, literally, being so high, it was hard to see into their fridges to see what Belgian bottles they had in. A beer menu would be a nice addition if they intend to specialise in beer alongside the cocktails.
The food menu is short, and will change regularly. It's a French kitchen, and the focus is on simple, seasonal, fresh dishes. Starters (we skipped) included asparagus with hollandaise, a soup of the day, and a terrine, while mains were onglet steak, lemon sole, savoury crepes, and a shoulder of lamb to share.
I ordered the onglet steak, which was perfectly cooked (the assumption was that it came rare), chopped already, served with delicious, rich, thick, browned pomme frites - you ain't had nothing like it. The real deal. It also came with wilted spinach and an anchovy flavoured emulsion, which added a nice pungency to everything.
My vegetarian friend enjoyed the crepes, which came in a hot tin dish, ready-rolled, stuffed with chard and goat curd and topped with fresh tomatoes. We were all kept happy with a board of delicious, chewy sourdough and some whipped butter (our waitress informing us that it had been sourced specially from France).
We had all the desserts on the menu. All classics, done very well. Laura's creme caramel was made with thick, proper-tastes-like-real-dairy cream and a deep, deep flavour to the caramel. Belinda's tart tatin was topped with what seemed like whole mini apples, perfectly caramelised and served with a milk ice cream. My moulleux au chocolat (melting middle chocolate pudding, microwave fans!) was perfectly cooked, superbly rich and oozing, and offset nicely with milk ice cream (like a posh mini milk) and raspberries.
Service was chummy, attentive and efficient. We also had proper thick teatowel napkins! So un-Hackney. But it's obviously quite Hackney, because its opening hadn't even been announced or PR-ed and the place was rammed - lots of happy diners getting through the menu, and folk perched on bar stools supping a cocktail or two before moving on.
I suspect the Bonneville is going to do quite well. It's Clapton's first French restaurant, and there's nowhere with a specific and extensive focus on cocktails. It's also bloody stunning inside, and I haven't even told you about my trip down to the most atmospheric pub toilets in London. I won't spoil the surprise. You will have to swing by and see for yourself.
[Disclaimer 16/06/2014: I wrote this blog before a storm erupted over the Bonneville's tweets in response to a stabbing on Lower Clapton Road. I stand by my review of the Bonneville, for which I received no freebies or special treatment, and fully enjoyed. That does not mean I condone the tone and content of the tweets or their subsequent response]
[update 25/06/2014: I've posted my reflections on the issue here.