Meet the Inn Curator

Meet David!

David has spent all his working life in publishing as a pub/restaurant inspector and writer and as a guidebook author and editor. From chief pub inspector and writer with Egon Ronay's Guides and the Which? Guide to Country Pubs, David has edited the AA Pub Guide and Room at the Inn, and developed and edited the Alastair Sawday Pubs & Inns Guide for 12 years. David launched Inn Places in October 2015, a niche website for Britain's top inns and pubs with rooms before joining The Epicurean Club as Inn Curator in 2019.

David also contributes to the Good Food Guide, the Publican's Morning Advertiser as a writer and awards judge (Publican Awards, Great British Pub Awards, Top 50 Gastropub Awards), and has written pub-related articles for the Sunday Times, the Independent and Country Life Magazine.

David is well known and respected across the industry not only for his love and detailed knowledge of pubs, food, drink and great walks but also for his talent as a writer, inspector and pub guide editor.

In his own words...

"My 30 years as a pub inspector, industry awards judge and pub guide editor have taken me across Britain, visiting hundreds of pubs and inspecting everything from food, beer, bars and bedrooms. Not so long ago the thought of staying overnight in a pub would conjure up vivid images of cheaply furnished bedrooms, the smell of stale smoke, food and beer, and basic bathrooms at the end of dimly lit corridors. It's inspiring to see just how much the industry has changed in the past 15 years. I have been impressed by the new, innovative breed of pub entrepreneurs, who continue to develop successful destination dining pubs with stylish rooms. I handpicked my personal favourites to be part of The Epicurean Club, in order to help customers experience the best inns that British has to offer. It's true to say that pubs are Britain's new breed of country hotels and restaurants."

The Interview

Not satisfied with just the bare facts, one of David's intrepid colleagues (that's me, Victoria...) decided to take a deep dive into the mind of the Inn Curator - what makes this mysterious man tick? Will he part with his secrets on the art of inn curating? Does he prefer his eggs poached? Read on to find out!

Hi David!

What is the best thing about your job? Do people ever tell you they wish they had your job?

Meeting owners and operators that are truly passionate about pubs - those with vision and the midas touch (a rare breed) who can breathe new life into faded rural pubs, transforming them into fabulous modern-day inns that ooze style and comfort.

Yes, always, every trip an owner or manager says "oh I'd love to do that!" but it's not all beer and skittles, (is that how the saying goes?), when I'm on the road it's full-on every day from early to late - driving miles, meeting/interviewing owners, viewing rooms, making keynotes on all the inns for writing up later, which continues late into the evening when I stay over at the inns.

How did you get into the job of pub inspector in the first place? Was your family in the pub trade?

Well I can say that nobody in my family has been in the pub trade! I've always loved pubs, combining a lunch visit for a pint and ploughman's with walking or cycling, then I worked at the award-winning Wykeham Arms in Winchester in the late 1980's, where I learnt so much about running a busy inn (tourists, school dons, barristers staying over, town drinking venue) - it was a real hotspot .. I learned from the best landlord in the business at the time - Graeme Jameson. I joined Egon Ronay's Guides and started working on their Pubs & Inns Guide as a research editor/writer and spent time of the road with the experienced hotel and restaurant inspectors, where I gained invaluable knowledge about assessing food, service and the quality of rooms at inns and hotels etc.

I went freelance in 1990 and continued working on the Egon Ronay Pubs & Inns Guide as chief inspector and writer, as well as the Which Guide to Country Pubs, travelling the country looking for the best steak and kidney pie as pub food was very traditional at the time - there weren't many places offering menus like you see today!

Also, I researched several Pub Walks Guides and put all my knowledge into the AA Pub Guide as editor for 4 years, then helped Alastair Sawdays develop a Pubs & Inns Guide. As editor for 12 editions, I managed a team of inspectors and travelled the country visiting the best foodie pubs and quality inns. After that I wrote 'Room at the Inn' (a coffee table book for AA Publishing) and then developed my own project Inn Places…

Pubs and inns have changed so much over the past ten years. Does the line between boutique inn and hotel become blurred and what quintessentially makes an inn still an inn?

Our boutique inns and pubs with rooms are certainly challenging the traditional country house hotels for design, comfort and attention to detail.

[On what make an inn still and inn]

Informality - open all day, a lively bar at the heart of the operation, great bar food, real ale and wine, relaxed atmosphere and service, dogs and kids welcome, wellies at the door, informal check in at the bar (no formal reception generally; often better value for money.

Are quirk/charm/personality of a pub as important to you as all the other criteria of quality?

It's not all about fine dining food and roll-top baths in the bedrooms - I don't have a tick-box criteria checklist to measure quality. Yes, we have our 'boutique' places that are swish with no expense spared bedrooms and Michelin starred food, yet they are very relaxed and informal and very much an inn. But, charm, personality and often a huge dose of quirk are equally important when assessing an inn - I just love finding a rustic rural inn run by hands-on owners who are passionate about their business and they care about the customer's experience - personal, detailed touches shine through in simple, clean and comfortable bedrooms, the food may be hearty and traditional but it's freshly cooked using local and seasonal produce, and the place oozes charm and character, instilled by the personality of the landlord/owner. It's the overall experience of the stay; comfort, warmth, welcome, decent food, good atmosphere, great value - add footpaths from the front door and they offer the perfect recipe for a great weekend away.

What are the qualities of a super-landlord/operator?

Being a landlord/operator of a quality inn is not a job, it's a way of life and not an easy one either - to succeed they need to be in tune with today's leisure aspirations and lifestyle and, more importantly, with customers expectations. The best are energetic, passionate, hands-on people (or they can recruit and reward a top manager who fully understands their ethos) who are sticklers for attention to detail - the extra, cossetting touches, other than a fabulous welcome etc, that make guests feel special, comfortable and at home, most notably in the bedrooms. I go back to Graeme Jameson, landlord of the Wykeham Arms in Winchester in the late 1980's. He had just won the Egon Ronay Pub of the Year Award and at the next staff meeting, it was all about identifying and improving six things that week to the overall experience for the customer.

[long pause] So, it's not resting on any laurels - always being at the top of your game as it's a pretty competitive industry.

Can a pub be both a local and a destination?

Pubs, especially rural pubs, need to be both in order to survive these days. Locals are the regular visitors, they will eat, drink and generally support their local pub year round and they are the lifeline for pubs in winter in seasonal areas like Cornwall. They also create the buzz and atmosphere in a bar.

Do you go to the pub in your down time?

After a few days on the road, I like relaxing at home and cooking meals, but I also enjoy visiting some of the great pubs near me in Kent - generally an early evening drink in a glorious pub garden or a weekend family lunch by a roaring fire in winter.

What part of the UK would you like to familiarise yourself more with/explore?

I'd have to say Scotland - the pub/inn scene has changed quite a bit in recent years and my inspecting/guidebook work has generally been based in England and Wales.

You know so many pubs and inns already - How do you find out/hear about new potential collection inns? Will you ever know them all, or is your job never done?

It's down to detailed desk research, keeping an ear to the ground on my travels about new owners and openings, plus owners do contact me directly. I also make time to 'snoop' potential new places while out on the road - I have found some real gems over the years. I also talk to owners and I ask "Is there any new competition?" Because I know a lot of them really well I can sit down over a beer and chat to them and they say (because they understand and respect what we're doing, and they have this respect for like minded owners nearby) they're very happy to recommend other places who would fit our ethos.

My job is never done - closed pubs or failing faded rural inns will be snapped up by one of the new wave pub entrepreneurs or a niche small group and be reinvented as a foodie destination or a stylish pub with rooms.

Have you ever toyed with the idea of running an Inn yourself?

A lot of people ask me that, actually. No, not really, but I'd like to think that I would know what to do to make it succeed…?

What words of wisdom do you have for whippersnappers wanting to carve out a career as a pub curator?

[Thinks for ages] I might need to think about that one more. It's definitely useful having writing experience.. a good memory. [David is being modest here - his memory is encyclopedic rather than good]

Quickfire round! (Inn Curator proclivities)

Pub garden in sunshine or chesterfield by the fireplace in the winter?

Hmm.. it's sort of both. [But if you have to choose..?] If I have to choose then Chesterfield by the fireplace with a glass of red in the winter.

Bring the dog or leave the dog?

Umm.. bring the dog [sounds unsure - are you sure?] Yes, yes bring the dog!

Wet room or roll top bath?

Wet room.

Ale or wine with dinner?

Wine.. [which?] Oh.. I don't mind.. always a red. Depends on what they have.. some of pub wine lists are really quite interesting!

Good conversation or good music at the bar?

[no hestitation] Good conversation!

Views of water or views of rolling hills?

I would have to say both - for two really fine examples - The White Horse at Brancaster Staithe in Norfolk for stunning sea and saltmarsh views [see it below] and the Inn at Whitewell in Lancashire for beautiful views of the Trough of Bowland.

Continental or full English Breakfast?

Full English. [How do you like your eggs?] Poached.

Early rising (carpe diem!) or lie in and late check out?

Early rising

Cheese board or sweet treat for dessert?

Cheese board

Thank you for your time, David!