nderlining Belsize Park’s renaissance is this Haverstock Hill landmark. It’s a shame its last, fleeting reinvention in 2016 (under original name The Load of Hay) failed – but, after the elegance of previous incarnation The Hill, the rather basic offer just didn’t seem to attract locals through the doors.
The pub’s history goes way further back than that, of course. While the handsome current building dates back to 1864, the original moniker was established by 1721 (prior to that it was called the Cart and Horses) – and it once boasted a tea-garden, a standard stop for coaches travelling up and down the hill to Hampstead.
Fast forward over two centuries and, after a spell in the mid-1960s as the Noble Art, with gym and boxing club at the back (frequented by none other than Mohammed Ali), its reign as The Hill followed a period in the 1990s when it was squatted and known for all-night parties. In the pub’s early noughties’ heyday, it became a real celeb-magnet, its dark mahogany interior a haunt for music and movie stars like Sadie Frost, Liam Gallagher and Derek Jacobi.
And now, it has a new lease of life. Admittedly the name seems to have been picked by the owners (who are also behind Homegrown in Pop Brixton and acclaimed new arrival Casa Do Frango in Southwark) specifically for its SEO uniqueness; but it’s not an unpleasant word, and it references the area. Well, sort of.
On our first visit in August the pub had just opened: a sunny evening, it was heaving in both the garden and its – what you might call – contemporary rustic interior, all sky-blue panelling, globe lights, benches and houseplants-on-shelves. There’s a subterranean onsite microbrewery that serves fresh, citrusy pale ale on tap, to which we instantly took a liking.
A prime move has been to install an appealingly dramatic open kitchen to the right of the bar, with counter stools should you wish to watch the chefs at work in the clay oven. Outside is a south-facing garden that was always well-used as The Hill, but we also like the cosy seats-for-two on the pavement – prime position for evening sun.
The place was fully booked, said the waiter, as he finally found us a space at the end of a sharing table, with mostly twenty- and thirtysomethings gobbling down pizza and pasta. The menu also has three or four choices each of small plates, mains and salads.
Despite a wait (for which, without asking, they deducted the wine from the bill) the food, under head chef Michele Saconni (ex-Enoteca Rabezzana) was impressive for a just-born venture.
Highlights included octopus tentacle, charred and buttery in texture, propped up by cubes of potato and taggiasca olives (the small, fruity Ligurian variety).
Only complaint? It was slightly too skinny and greedy ol’ me would have liked more of it. Meanwhile the capital’s love of cauliflower was in evidence, blackened and liberally topped with a punchy coriander yoghurt, fired up by chilli and textural pangrattato (basically breadcrumbs). Nice pairings seem to be the order of the day, in fact: creamy burrata came kicked into acidic gear by slices of blood orange and pink grapefruit, with crunch from fennel and hazelnut. And rosy beef carpaccio was more sedate, crowned with familiar, though not unwelcome, spikes of capers, parmesan and mustard.
The winning dish that night? Unexpectedly a side of Sicilian tomatoes: all different colours and ripeness, some stood pert, some prostate, all sweet, sharp and squishy, with a tangy basil yoghurt and the bitter hit of radish.
Overall it was such a surprise that, with summer now a memory, we returned the other evening to see how the menu’s bedded in. Slight changes have been made, but many items remain, including the burrata and octopus. The latter is now a yet more elegant affair, with a thicker, still-tender tentacle and umami-rich olive sauce. Another plate, Calabrian sausage, arrives coyly curled, its notes of heat calmed by an earthy caponata of aubergine and toasted pine nuts. Only the side of tomatoes proved a disappointment this second time: not as flavourful, and too fridge-cold. Guess that’s the seasons changing. Meh.
We also tucked into one of their signature pizzas, from a simple list of half a dozen: thin-crusted, specked with mozzarella, our tomato-free Tartufo was pure autumnal magic, its musky notes of black truffle hitting just the right level of funky. Even better was the other main, possibly the juiciest chicken Milanese I’ve ever had the good fortune to devour: a hunk of breast in a light breadcrumb, it was well matched with a zingy salad.
The simple conclusion? The Belrose is an instant hit on a slope crying out for a contemporary (and lest we forget, independent) dining room and craft beer bar. On both visits every table was taken, punters ranging from families to young couples and coiffured pensioners on a modest night out. All rise then, Haverstock Hill.
Main image: Charlie Kay