Fish and chips, Sunday roast with gravy, mushy peas, sticky-toffee pudding—these are the historic staples of British pub food. Yet there is a growing contingent of British pubs that actually serve curries and pad see ew to go with your Guinness.
The trend of serving Thai food at pubs started at The Churchill Arms, an oppressively cozy pub close to Kensington Palace. Covered in a riot of plantings and Union Jacks, the pub, which opened in 1750, is exactly what comes to mind when non-Brits conjure up the image of an idyllic British pub except for the smells of nuoc mam and peanut sauce wafting in from the kitchen.
I sat down with general manager Gerry O’Brien, a dapper Irish man in his sixties, to find out why. Gerry began managing The Churchill Arms thirty-two years ago. During his first two years as manager, the pub served British classics at lunch and meat-and-potatoes dishes at night. One day a Thai chef named Ben (yes, Ben has a longer Thai name, which Gerry can’t remember and still can’t pronounce) walked in with a proposal: he wanted to take over the Churchill’s kitchen and cook Thai food.
Gerry brushed him off. But Ben was persistent, and invited Gerry to come out to the Thai restaurant where he worked and try his food. Finally, Gerry gave Ben’s food a try. That meal was Gerry’s first taste of Thai food—London in the 1980’s was rife with Chinese and Indian spots, but Thai was almost unheard of—and he was hooked.
Within a year, Ben had taken over the kitchen at Churchill’s. Customers were returning for the food—and staying to drink more after. To keep up with demand, Gerry renovated the kitchen, bought some woks, and converted the cellar into a prep area.
After three years, Ben got an offer from a restaurant in Reading and left The Churchill Arms. But before he left, Ben introduced Gerry to Kloijai Samphaotong, who goes by “Pal,” and her husband, a Thai couple took over the kitchen and manage it to this day. The Churchill’s kitchen team currently consists of fifteen staff, most of whom are Thai. As Churchill’s food business started to grow, so did the attention it garnered from nearby pubs. Gerry began receiving calls from other pub owners asking him for his secret—and Gerry, who loves a good story, told them everything. He claims that almost all pubs serving Thai food in London were inspired by—or were inspired by someone who was inspired by—The Churchill Arms.
It seemed I had found the nexus of the Thai food-pub phenomenon. However, here is where the quest begins to get a little murky. Most pub owners I spoke to, Gerry excepted, seemed to be totally unaware of what prompted their decision to serve Thai food in the first place. Were all of these pubs—The Faltering Fullback, The Heron, The Hemingford Arms—simply imitating The Churchill Arms, blatantly or subconsciously?
At least a few were. The Churchill Arms is a Fuller’s pub, meaning it is part of a chain owned by Fuller’s Brewery. After seeing the success of Churchill’s new menu, Fuller’s installed Thai kitchens in fifteen of their other pubs around London. Some kitchens, like the one in Latymer’s pub in Hammersmith, were even started by Thai cooks from Churchill’s. Some Thai kitchens in pubs are also franchises themselves. The Pineapple in Kentish Town has been serving Thai food for ten years out of a kitchen that general manager Poppy Wheldon rents out to a chef named JD Thanapong. In addition to The Pineapple, JD oversees several other Thai kitchens in pubs around London. He manages the staff, the ordering, and the pricing; The Pineapple just collects a monthly fee for rent. This tenant-landlord situation is how most pubs I spoke with operated. The kitchen and the pub
are essentially separate entities; customers order their food either at the bar or in a separate window, and the Thai chefs prepare and run the food themselves. It is, from what I saw, a symbiotic relationship, if not always an intimate one. None of the pub managers or staff I spoke to knew any Thai.
You’re probably wondering, Is pub Thai food possibly any good? The answer is a resounding “Yes.” Everything I tried was fresh, hot, (mildly) spicy, and worked well as a beer soaker-upper. Menus offer some true traditional dishes (often listed under a ‘specialty’ heading) alongside more Western-influenced and pan-Asian ones, like crispy duck noodles and mixed-vegetable stir-fry. Of course, the classics are there as well, and in fine form: the Pad Thai, Panang Curry, and chicken satay are as good as any you would find around London.
Perhaps the strangest thing I found in my investigation is that no one else seemed curious about how Thai food first started appearing in pubs. Going to a British pub to eat Thai food was perfectly normal to the chefs, the pub owners, and the patrons—the only thing they found odd was that I seemed to care about how it came to be.