The Coach & Horses

Olivia Greenway travels to the West End's best-known pub – and London's first vegetarian pub – to find out about the transition to a meat-free menu.

The Coach & Horses

Tucked away on Greek Street in the centre of London's Soho is the Victorian Coach and Horses public house. It gained notoriety in the 1970s for having 'London's rudest landlord' and being the second home of well-known Soho drinkers such as Keith Waterhouse, Jeffery Bernard, George Melly and Lucian Freud. The pub was even the inspiration for Keith Waterhouse's play, Jeffery Bernard is Unwell, based on Bernard's drinking life at the pub and the imaginary scenario of being locked in one night.

Always popular with the literati and other creatives, the Private Eye team has their lunch there fortnightly on Wednesdays, maintaining a 48-year tradition. Landlord Norman Balon eventually retired in 2006 and Alastair Choat took over. Alastair was keen to keep the pub more or less as it had been during Norman's long reign, but in April this year he decided to make a really significant change – the whole pub is now vegetarian. This makes it London's first vegetarian pub.

Keeping with tradition

To understand the change, one has to get under the skin of this very distinctive hostelry and its owner, who treats it like his well-loved but occasionally naughty son. We meet in the pub, of course. It's midday and there are just a couple of solo customers, nursing half pints. Alastair is not one's idea of a typical landlord: he's slim and smartly dressed. Not the same can be said about the pub. By Alastair's admission it's 'an old boozer', slightly scruffy with wooden tables and chairs, several beers on draught, no piped music, fruit machines or 'poncy drinks' such as cocktails.

I enjoy talking to customers. They have such stories to tell. They open their hearts to me. That's why I love this industry

Alastair Choat

'If we are asked to shake something, it's usually our fist as the disappointed customer leaves,' jokes Alastair. There are two sides to the bar – the 'shallow end' near the entrance in Greek Street and the 'deep end' opposite where regulars congregate. While it's not quite a 'spit and sawdust' type of place, it certainly isn't the ideal rendezvous for a quiet, romantic drink.

My first question is how he came to buy 'The Coach' as everyone seems to call it. Alastair explains he has always worked in the pub trade and had wanted one of his own for some time, but the right place never materialised.

'I'd been hunting for well over a year. Then this came up and I shot over here straight away. I knew as soon as I walked in it was "the one".' And maybe Norman knew Alastair was the one for him, too.

'I don't think he wanted the new people to muck about with The Coach too much. He's never told me as much, but I think he approved of me. He had had three other offers, but they didn't proceed, for whatever reason.'

The place oozes character precisely because it hasn't bowed to the pressure to smarten up; it has a faintly anarchic, bohemian air to it, not to everyone's taste. However, for local people – either residents or office workers – who want to meet acquaintances for a chat or gossip over a beer (or two) it's perfect. It's one of those rare places that has not only withstood the passage of time, but in many ways has chosen to ignore it, or, heaven forbid, made a rude two-fingered gesture to it.

Moving to the upstairs dining room, accessed through the bar and then up steep winding stairs, Alastair talks passionately about his plans. This room used to be Norman's sitting room in the early days and still has the original fireplace and stripped floorboards. Wooden tables with matching chairs are each neatly dressed with an old embroidered linen tablecloth and laid with mismatched bone china, a vase of fresh spring flowers adding a final flourish. The last of the late afternoon sun casts a warm glow through the sash windows as songs from the 1940s arise quietly from a gramophone playing in the corner.

A new departure

As one of the founders of the Sustainable Restaurant Association, an organisation that aims to cut food waste, Alastair has been thinking more in recent years about how we need to cut down on wasting food.

It's been estimated that nationally we throw away 600,000 tons of food waste from restaurants every year, the equivalent of three double decker buses per establishment. A lot of this waste comes off diners' plates, but Alastair doesn't think the whole answer is in simply supplying doggy bags. He concedes that a doggy bag is better than the restaurant just throwing the food away, 'But why not serve less food, or at least food that is eaten? Although some people take food home, how many actually eat it? It ends up being thrown away, anyway.'

The food we eat, the provenance of food, how wasteful of resources meat and fish are: these are issues that have bothered Alastair for some time and explain his decision about the vegetarian menu. 'I really wanted to do something about it all and this is my small way.' It won't be what Alastair regards as a typical vegetarian restaurant, however. 'It's got to have a pub feel to it – a "gastro" pub really, although I don't like that word – serving a wide range of hearty food.' Although Alastair is not vegetarian himself, he has vegetarian sympathies, his four vegetarian sisters being positive role models.

Alastair has appointed Lahiri Balloni, known as 'Hal', as head chef, formerly of the vegan restaurant Manna. This is great news for vegans, as many vegetarian restaurants don't always cater well for them. Hal has been a vegan from childhood. He started to cook his own food through necessity and from there it was a natural move into catering.

'I don't like to preach; I just like to cook good food,' he tells me. And good food it is, with proper pub-sized portions. With two courses for £14.95 and three for £19.95, it's a good idea to come here hungry. Favourite pub starters like pâté is served with breadsticks and home-made chutney; and Welsh rarebit consists of good Cheddar cheese mixed with stout and spread over sourdough bread. More unusual is the vegan roasted Jerusalem artichoke and Puy lentil salad, served with blood orange segments on a pomegranate and tahini dressing.

Mains include the very popular 'tofish and chips' – firm tofu wrapped in seaweed nori, and then dipped in house batter made with organic ale and deep-fried. It's served with chips, minted crushed peas, tartar sauce and a lemon wedge.

Other choices include 'pie of the day'; portobello burger served with crispy halloumi cheese, a slice of portobello mushroom, roasted courgette, peeled pepper, a slice of beef tomato and baby Gem lettuce leaves in a toasted flour bap. This is served with chips, home-made mushroom ketchup and basil mayo (not a good thing to have to type when you are feeling hungry!). Beetroot tarte tatin consists of baby beetroot roasted with aromatic herbs, honey and red wine. The beetroot is sprinkled with chopped cashew nuts and topped with puff pastry. It's accompanied by asparagus, walnut and fresh seasonal salad, lightly dressed. Home-made sausages are served with red skin potato, celeriac and sweet potato mash served with bean and tomato gravy.

For pudding, there is a different fruit crumble each day served with a variety of unusual ice creams, such as banana and rosebud; a fresh lime tart; or biscuits and cheese from Yorkshire artisan producer Shepherd's Purse. The menu is still evolving; Hal and Alastair will fine-tune it over time.

Upstairs, downstairs

Back downstairs in the bar, Alastair explains that they will only be serving snacks here. People come here to drink, to chat, or to perhaps sing along on Wednesdays and Saturdays when a Mrs Mills lookalike – Betty in her eighties – tinkles on the ivories. Many see food in the bar as an interruption to the important business of drinking and no one would come into the bar especially for the food.

As James, one of the regulars, told Alastair, 'Eating's cheating!' So there will be cheese and onion pies to munch on a bar stool or perhaps a bowl of chips and a few other snacks, but serious eating (and an escape from the noise) happens upstairs. It's extra noisy at the moment because a new carpet is waiting to be laid downstairs on the bare wooden floor.

Alastair keeps in close touch with Norman, now in his eighties, and in fact sees him every week. 'He's not happy about the lack of carpet, but that's happening soon. He's very knowledgeable about the pub. I think he's glad I'm keeping it as it was.'

The downstairs pub is starting to fill up and it's obvious Alastair enjoys the role of landlord and appears to have stepped into Norman's shoes with apparent ease, although his mien is quite different. Peter, a regular, has been popping in three or four times a week since the late 70s. 'I enjoy talking to customers like Peter. They have such stories to tell. They open their hearts to me. That's why I love this industry.'

With the vegetarian menu not having caused a riot – and in fact being well received – the new carpet now laid and everything appearing to be tickety-boo, I ask Alastair what's next.

'Did I tell you I have another pub in the middle of the meat market in Smithfield?' he responds. 'You're not planning on making that vegetarian are you?' I gasp. The answer is in his smile.

• The Coach & Horses is open for dinner every day of the week, 6–9.30pm.

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