This year my partner celebrated a milestone birthday and I promised him there would be lots of celebrations and treats to lift him out of his depression in now being officially middle-aged. Unfortunately his birthday fell on Good Friday this year, and that put paid to my plans to take him away for the weekend. The cost of holiday rentals during Easter week are sky high, so we reached a compromise of a meal out on his actual birthday followed by a weekend away after the Easter silly price season ended. We ended up renting a cottage in the tiny village of Winfrith Newburgh* in the heart of Dorset…the selling point being there were three pubs within easy cycling distance of our holiday abode, and they all welcomed dogs. The Red Lion was the nearest, so on our first night in Cobweb Cottage (there weren’t!), we took a ten minute stroll up the lane to check out their facilities.
THE LION SLEEPS TONIGHT? NO CHANCE!
I must say that this looked like one very busy pub; we went there early on a Saturday night, and already at 7.30pm, the pub was doing a roaring trade with meals. Drinkers were rather thin on the ground - everyone seemed to be there for their dinner. Conversely, by the time we left at just after 9.00pm the pub had quietened down and it was relatively quiet. Obviously they do their trading earlier in the evening at Winfrith Newburgh, and if you want to be assured of a table there you either need to get there early or after 9pm. The pub is quite big with a good sized restaurant area as well as lots of tables and chairs just off the bar area. We were condemned to eating in the bar area rather than the restaurant as we had Monster Dog with us.
The Red Lion bills itself as the “local’s local”, but there didn’t appear to be much evidence of a warm welcome initially. We had difficulty in getting to the bar to order drinks as it was surrounded by people on bar stools blocking every conceivable entry point. We also had to fight our way back up to the bar to place our order for food. I would imagine that the bar was thus blocked as there is no designated drinking area in the pub; every single table seemed to be geared up for dinners. Surely a “local’s local” should be encouraging drinkers, and not expecting everyone will want to eat there? It’s just a thought, but if they truly want to be a local’s local they need to offer someone where you can have just a pint, a bag of crisps or a sandwich?
The building itself is quite large, but very, very dark inside. I did wonder if the lights were turned down so low in order to hide the fact that the décor was rather shabby and none too clean in places. It wasn’t quite a spit and sawdust kind of pub, but much of the décor was rather dated and grubby and generally in need of deep clean. The ceiling in the area where we ate had obviously not been painted in years as it still bore the evidence of years of nicotine stains from before the smoking ban in pubs. In sunny weather, the pub has a lovely lawn to the rear and a play area with slide for the children.
There is also a paved terrace to the front of the pub with some bench seating and umbrellas. One interesting thing the pub has is a range of animals and birds. There are some Kune Kune pigs and some assorted birds you can look at. The pub has its own geese and these tend to wander where they like. As we entered the pub car park, Tattie, aka Monster Dog, spotted a couple of geese on the bank near the front entrance to the pub. She is rather “fond” of birds having a large collection of stuffed Migrator toys, and decided that the live geese at the pub would like to join her “club” of birds. Luckily she was on a lead or it may have lead to an international incident involving lots of feathers and frantic squawking.
THE BIGGEST MENU IN DORSET AND POSSIBLY THE SOUTH-WEST
The menu at the Red Lion is possibly the biggest I’ve ever seen offered in a pub - there are nearly 50 different choices of main course! The menu covered four sides of an A4 page and the choices are vast. Unfortunately, when a place offers that much choice you just know a lot of the dishes are not going to be made using fresh ingredients - they’re going to be relying on a freezer and a microwave. After all, no pub kitchen is going to have enough refrigeration space to keep that many different menu components fresh. For example, the fish and seafood section of the menu offered mackerel, cod, haddock, scampi, crab, salmon, scallops, mussels, whitebait and sea bass and if all these ingredients are stored and served fresh you’d need a rather massive fridge. I’m afraid that too vast a menu really does put me off a venue. I’d much rather see a small menu with only 6 or 8 choices as you know the food is going to be fresh rather than a kitchen that has to keep 40+ options on hand ready to quickly defrost at the touch of that microwave button. Added to which any chef will be able to perfect 6 or 8 recipes more easily than the poor soul who has to churn out 40 or 50 different options every night.
For all its many menu options, the Red Lion offers good, traditional pub food at a price that won’t break the bank. There’s no gastro-pretentiousness here - a pie is a pie - it’s not a puff pastry vol-au-vent stuffed with a ham and saffron velouté accompanied by a timbale of mushrooms and okra. Another thing worth noting is that the Red Lion is definitely child friendly. For families wishing to dine there they offer a special children’s menu at £4.95 which is for a main course…and a lollipop if plates are cleared. Choices include things like chicken nuggets, pizza, lasagne or a burger to name but a few.
The Red Lion serves food every day with that truly massive menu, but I couldn’t see much evidence of snacks - sandwiches or ploughmans don’t seem to be option here. It’s more of a sit-down and have two or three courses type of venue. Considering there is so much choice of main courses at the Red Lion, starters are surprisingly limited here with only eight choices ranging from soup, baked camembert, scallops, mussels and olives. Prices for their starters range from £4.50 to £6.95.
Main course choices are more than a little plentiful with the menu divided up into salads, seafood, vegetarian, main meals, grills and burgers. Some of the choices under the main meals section sounded rather tempting with a Dorset Beef, Ale and Blue Vinney Pie
(£10.95), Dorset Jugged Steak
(£11.95) and a Sweet Chilli Chicken Stir Fry
(£12.95) being the most unusual dishes. Prices ranged from £8.95 and peaked at £16.45 for Rib Eye Steak. In addition to the printed menu there was also a blackboard offering omelettes cooked with eggs from their own pub geese. A lovely touch, but not one I managed to take up.
Desserts were as limited as the starters, and there was a very sparse choice from the blackboard opposite the bar. These included cheesecake, trifle, waffles, banofee pie, knickerbocker glory or ice-cream - all priced at £4.50.
DIN DINS FOR THREE
On the night we visited, we decided to forgo starters, and wade straight on in with a couple of main courses. With so much choice on offer, it took us some time to make up our minds. I decided to stick with something simple that was more likely to be fresh rather than defrosted and microwaved, so I went for a rather boring Hand-carved Honey Roast Ham with Fried Eggs, Salad and Chips
(£8.95). The ham was rather too thinly sliced for my liking and a bit too moist - I like my ham thick and dry (just like my men), not thin and watery. It was tasty enough, but it didn’t strike has having been hand-carved, more peeled-off-and-plonked-on-a-plate. The eggs were nicely fried with the yolks still runny when you cut into them. Ham and chips need a good runny yolk so you can soak all the juices up. The dog qualified for the whites of my fired eggs as I never eat them and she loves them. The salad garnish was good but the lettuce was positively wilting. The chips were proper chips - huge wedges of potato and these were excellent for dipping in the yolks.
My partner was tempted by their Beef and Ale Pie, but put off by the fact it had Blue Vinney cheese in it. In the end he decided to stick to the simpler end of the menu too and went for 8oz Beef Burger served with a Cheese and Bacon topping and accompanied by Salad, Onion Ring and Chips
(£9.95). The burger was tasty enough and there was plenty of melted cheese and bacon on it, but the bap it came in was a little boring and rather too pappy for his taste. Once again the lettuce in the salad garnish had seen better days, but the chips were good and plentiful. Sadly the onion ring failed to make an appearance that night, unless the dog snuck it off the plate whilst we weren’t looking :o)
Once our plates were cleaned it was up to us to check out the desserts. None were offered so it was a case of going up the bar and finding the selection on the blackboard. To be honest I wasn’t all that tempted by the selection they had no offer as it wasn’t all that clear what they consisted of. One of the choices was Waffles
with no description of how they were served or what they came with. I guess you could ask behind the bar, but the thought of fighting your way past all the drinking hoards and asking was just too much effort. They had Knickerbocker Glory
as one of their choices and I was seriously tempted as I hadn’t seen these on a menu since the days of old sit-down Wimpy bars of the 1970’s (anyone remember them?!). In the end I plumped for a piece of Frozen Banofee Pie
at the rather exorbitant price of £4.50. It came plonked on a plate with no garnish or decoration and looked rather dried out at the edges. However, I must say appearances were deceptive in this case, as it was quite simply the best Banofee Pie I’ve ever eaten. The biscuit base was sublime and the creamy topping rich and creamy. Full marks to the chef for the flavour, but he could work on his presentation. A simple garnish of a raspberry or a mint leaf would work wonders!
Our meal came to a rather reasonable £33.85 for two main courses, one dessert, 2½ pints of lager and a packet of crisps. We didn’t want to leave a tip on the table, but there was some confusion behind the bar as to the whereabouts of the staff box, so we just left a couple of quid with the barman. In the meantime, Tattie decided she wanted to check out the kitchens and made a beeline for one of the chefs - no doubt hoping for a snack. Luckily I managed to hold onto her lead and prevent her entry, thus avoiding the second potential international incident of the night.
TWO PINTS OF LAGER (AND A PACKET OF CRISPS)
The Red Lion is part of the Hall and Woodhouse
chain, a well known Dorset brewery. Hence they offer a full range of Hall and Woodhouse
beers and ales such as Tanglefoot
and Badger First Gold
. House lagers are Hofbräu
. For wine drinkers there is a small but good selection from all around the world sold by the bottle or glass. We were rather boring and stuck to lager - himself had two pints of Kronenbourg at a cost of £3.70 per pint, and I stuck to my usual girly half a pint of lager shandy made with Hofbräu Extra Cold (£1.65). As our dog tends to “kick off” in any new or unknown places, we bought her a packet of crisps with which to bribe her silence. After all chomping a crisp is much more interesting than barking and whining, which is what she tends to do given half a chance.
Initially I thought the service and welcome at the Red Lion left a lot to be desired. When we arrived we had difficulty getting served as the bar was knee-deep in drinkers. We were eventually served, but had to ask about dining and seating arrangements. Once we got the attention of the staff behind the bar they were very helpful, but I guess they were too busy to take the time to chat or welcome people as they had to keep serving. When we enquired about the dog, we were directed to the dining area next to the bar rather than the restaurant - but that is understandable. No one wants a badly behaved, drooling dog in a restaurant and the dining area near the bar suited us fine. We had to find menus for ourselves, and then search out the cutlery too. There was no table service on offer, so once we’d made our menu choice it was a case of fighting your way up to the bar to place your order, and then repeat this performance if you wanted more drinks or desserts.
I must say that the toilets left a lot to be desired. Himself said the Gents stuck to high heaven despite copious amounts of “pineapple segments” scatted in the urinals. The ladies did not smell, but it was none too clean. Huge cobwebs festooned the ceilings and it was freezing cold in there as the back door to the pub had been left open all evening. Someone in the past had pulled an old hand dryer off the wall and left a gaping patch of ripped wallpaper behind which had never been patched up. The tiles were chipped and the grouting grubby. It’s the sort of toilet where you’re best to just hover and then run.
If you are travelling to the Red Lion by car, there is plenty of parking to be had - like their menu, their car park is massive.
A ROARING SUCCESS?
The Red Lion gets three stars from me. Our meals were reasonable - the food was cheap enough and the portions more than fair. However, the massive selection of main courses did put me off a return visit as very few places are going to be able to keep that amount of stock fresh so you just knew so many of the dishes were being defrosted out the back.
The welcome was a bit luke-warm to begin with, but the staff were helpful enough if pressed. I just think they were too busy to do much more than keep the drinks coming. As for the décor, I reckon the pub really is overdue a bit of a refurbishment, or at the very least a deep clean. Everywhere felt just a little bit grubby, and as for the toilets - they could do with knocking down and rebuilding.
Three stars from me. Recommended if you’re passing, but not worth a special trip.
The Red Lion is located on the main road just before you turn into the tiny village of Winfrith Newburgh. It’s on the A352, almost at the halfway point between the towns of Dorchester and Wareham in the county of Dorset.
The Red Lion
Telephone No: 01305-852814
* Winfrith Newburgh is an excellent base from which to explore Dorset. Durdle Door is just 3 miles over the hill, as is the beautiful Lulworth Cove area. Corfe Castle is only 9 miles away and you’re only 10 miles or so from either Dorchester or Weymouth.