Published: 16:25, 12 June 2019
| Updated: 16:25, 12 June 2019
The Fordwich Arms restaurant in Canterbury, Kent, has been rated the best pub in the UK. Here, owners Dan and Natasha Smith talk to KentOnline about the secrets behind their success...
In 2017 Dan and Natasha Smith moved from London to Kent with lofty ambitions for a quaint, riverside pub.
In the December of that year the couple - both chefs - relaunched the Fordwich Arms, with just the two of them in the kitchen at first and co-owner Guy Palmer-Brown front of house.
Tucked away in the corner of the smallest town in Britain and up against some frosty locals, it was a risky move and one they questioned in those early days.
But just 10 months after opening, and with an established team in place, they were awarded a coveted Michelin star, much to their surprise.
Fast forward seven months, the pair - who managed to squeeze in their wedding last year - were this month named UK pub of the year in the prestigious GQ Magazine Food and Drink Awards.
They’ve also just bought a house in nearby Bridge and are expecting their first child in October.
“Don’t they say getting married, moving house and having a baby are the three big things in life and we’re somehow doing it in a very short space of time,” said Dan, who met his wife while they were studying at Westminster Kingsway College 10 years ago.
Quite. And they can add opening an award-winning pub into the mix.
But Dan, 27, says it had always been a dream of his.
“I’d always worked in restaurants and always gone down the fine dining route,” he said.
“But I love the feel of a pub. I love the community and social aspects. People love the relaxed atmosphere.
“It’s still lovely to go to The Ritz and these other fancy restaurants where you get bleached white tablecloths and a guy playing the piano in the corner, that’s amazing, but people also want to go out and feel more relaxed, but it doesn’t mean the food has to change.
“Our food is fine dining level, but in a relaxed atmosphere.”
'We got emails when we opened saying we’d ruined the pub and that they hoped we’d go bust' - Dan Smith
Dan, who was voted the Observer’s Young Chef of the Year in 2016 and has worked in some of the country’s top restaurants, including the Michelin-starred The Clove Club, says the Fordwich Arms has stayed true to its roots.
“When we took over we did all the refurbishment ourselves and we never once tried to change what was here,” he said.
But he admits Natasha, 27, who worked at One Leicester Street and Chapter One, and Guy were on the receiving end of some backlash from locals when they took over from long-serving landlords Sue and Shaun Donnelly.
“It felt like a lot of people were against us so its nice to be able to prove them wrong - most of them love us now,” said Dan.
“We got emails when we opened saying we’d ruined the pub and that they hoped we’d go bust.
“Someone created a TripAdvisor group called ‘upset locals’ and they left us loads of bad reviews.
“Two months in we sat down and said ‘are we doing the right thing here? Maybe we should simplify the menu or do something different’.
“Then Grace Dent’s review came out - she took over as head food critic for the Guardian and we were her first review so all eyes were on it and she gave us 10/10 so the publicity was brilliant.”
He says despite people’s assumptions about Michelin-starred venues, you don’t have to re-mortgage your house to eat there.
They offer a midweek set menu, three courses for £35, with homemade breads and a selection of canapés.
The tasting menus will set you back £65 or £85, but prices vary on the standard menu.
Dan says provenance is a big thing and using seasonal produce from local farms and fisherman where they can.
“It’s been an amazing year-and-a-half,” he added.
“To get the Michelin star was totally unexpected and GQ was another amazing surprise.
“There’s always pressure to maintain standards, but if you were good enough to win in the first place, then continue to do that and you’ll be OK.”