The Garden Gate is named particularly well for the Google age. The pub was known from 1874 until fairly recently as The Railway. But in a spot of search engine fortuity, the newer title ensures it pops up endlessly in London beer garden Top 10s, despite most other boozers in the locale having similarly expansive (if less well named) outdoor spaces of their own.
Beer gardens are what a high percentage of summer visitors to Hampstead Heath end up poking away at their smartphones in search of, ensuring the Gate’s garden is always rocking at the mere hint of the sun.
This year, they’ve turned a shed into a rather handy new outdoor bar, complete with Pimm’s on tap, making the job of refuelling one’s table all too easy. The pub’s beer and ale selection is vast, so drink aficionados thankfully don’t need to compromise in order to enjoy sinking an alfresco jar or two.
So that just leaves the food. We were invited to give it a try and, inevitably, picked a totally sunless evening. So we sat in the equally sprawling interior. The Tudorbethan timbers out front always look a little twee, but once inside, the stained glass, wood panels and comfy seating make for a nicely unpretentious pubby feel.
A starter of mushrooms on rye toast with a thick stilton cream (£6) was tasty, but not a particularly successful combination of textures, the plentiful sauce soon making the bread a touch gloopy. Asparagus, avocado and broad bean salad (£6.25) was lovely though. Fresh and light, it would be ideal for munching during a daytime terrace session.
An Ox cheek and red wine pie (£12) swung into view next, boasting a massive, overly dry, top crust but no other pastry inside. It was a hearty meal, but not a pie that had much flair. You’d be totally happy with this if it was dished up in a little pub out in the sticks, but for South End Green, foodies will probably be hoping for something with a little more to offer.
That was the case with the southern fried chicken (main pic) too, served in wire basket with a variety of fridge-cold dips and slaws. It was totally fine pub fare, but at £14, should have come a lot closer to its cousins being served in the chicken hotspots not very far from here.
As summer darkness slowly fell, the pub filled up. There are multiple reasons to come here and, after years as a bit of a lacklustre old hangout, it is now anything but. Jolly young couples dine alongside pensive older gentlemen sipping on their ales. Clusters of hospital staff let off steam with regular guffaws.
Back in our corner, a salted caramel and chocolate tart (£5.75) proved a decent way to end up completely, indulgently, sated. It was lacking in discernibly home-made qualities, and this, we agreed is the crux of it. The menu, the hardwood garden furniture and the prices all shout ‘gastro pub’ but what’s on the plate is more ‘pub grub’.
This won’t trouble the sun worshippers, Heath ramblers, loyal regulars and tourists, who are all here in their legions for more than eating alone, but it makes it a difficult dining destination in its own right. All the ingredients are there, so with a few gentle tweaks to the menu, we’d certainly return. Who knows, it might even be sunny.
Words: Tom Kihl