I ended up doing a head-to-head this week after visiting two pubs just a stone’s throw apart in Hawkhurst, near Cranbrook.
Anyone stepping into the Royal Oak and the Queen’s Inn will be struck by the similarities between these two sizeable village boozers.
They both offer rooms for those seeking a sleepover, they both have trendy, bleached beams and are furnished with high-backed wing chairs. The bar staff in both are dressed head-to-toe in black, they both have open fireplaces, they offer many of the same drinks, both smell of food as you walk in and even their addresses only differ by a single postcode letter.
So, you might think there’s not much to choose between them – you might think that, but you’d be very, very wrong. One is a delight, the other as dull as dishwater.
The Royal Oak Country Pub & Carvery, to give it its full title, had absolutely no life about it and felt like the lobby of a quiet Premier Inn.
The atmosphere was as flat as the Harvey’s Sussex Best and the false log walls at both ends just added to the boring sterility.
The switched off staff stood refusing to chat to anyone but themselves – the only time they looked animated was when they went outside for a fag in the front car park.
Despite the carvery, to the left of the front door, the overpowering aroma was burnt fat and the open fire grate, with stacks of logs, showed no sign of having been lit in recent times and just added to the frosty atmosphere.
However, take a short stroll along Rye Road and you will come across the well-lit Queen’s Inn. Looking impressive from outside, you only need open the door to receive a much warmer welcome. The Sussex Best here has the right fizz, as do the staff who were busy and buzzing. The log burner gives off great heat and even the candles in the window add to the atmosphere. The smell upon entering this one was fresh fish and garlic.
The cost of the drinks was as similar as the postcodes – a pint of bitter and a large Sauvignon Blanc was just 5p more in the Royal Oak but everything else about them is a world apart.
The Royal Oak’s front bar has clearly been spruced up fairly recently but they need to dig a bit deeper and tackle other issues.
The toilets, for example, were clean and fresh at both pubs, but both the ladies and the gents at the Oak are long overdue for an upgrade.
The Queen’s bar had an eclectic mix of folk from couples out for a quiet drink to larger groups of mates enjoying the banter and chatting freely.
In the Oak people sat in corners quietly and spoke only in hushed tones, almost as if they were afraid to be overhead. The only exception was a woman sitting at the bar drinking pints of Kronenbourg concentrating constantly on her mobile phone.
I’d been in a full 15 minutes before I realised the child in school uniform playing quietly at the table behind her was her daughter.
Sadly, from what I witnessed, the only time she acknowledged her daughter’s presence was to shout at her unnecessarily and tell her she would be unloading six bags of shopping when they got home.
Hardly anyone was eating in the Oak, although looking through the shared corner window that led to Chinese takeaway next door it was doing a great trade.
In contrast, the restaurant at the Queen’s was bustling, busy and full of groups of people enjoying the atmosphere and each other’s company.
Although the Queen’s is undoubtedly more cosy and welcoming, the Oak, with hops hanging off its beams and comfortable high-backed chairs could be a decent pub.
Sadly it is the staff who really let it down, they’d much rather be talking to each other, checking mobiles or smoking than looking after customers.
Contrast this to the Queens where the big, bearded fellow behind the bar, could not have been more welcoming or attentive.
Geographically speaking these Hawkhurst inns are cheek by jowl, but they’re miles apart when judged on pub appeal.