Until quite recently, Staines was called… Staines, but a recent re-branding exercise has inspired a name change. Following in the footsteps of its neighbour Kingston-upon-Thames, Staines would now prefer to be known as Staines-upon-Thames. This is ‘Three Men in a Boat’ territory and any pub quiz worth its salt has a question asking what the ‘K’ stands for in that author’s name – Jerome K. Jerome *. Somehow, Staines has always been a worthy rather than magnificent place and is forever tied to its leading role as factory and headquarters of the Linoleum Manufacturing Company, which was big business towards the end of the 20th century.
Like Staines, The Retreat has gone through a major refurbishment and tweaked its name. Until November 2016 this sprawly pub on Staines Road was called The Angler’s Retreat, and had a reputation as a music venue. Now it has been taken back into the Brakspear managed estate and styles itself as ‘The Retreat – Pub & Dining’.
When Brakspear moved brewing operations from Henley to the Wychwood Brewery, it left a tranche of loyal beer drinkers moaning that things would never be the same again. The flagship beer was Brakspear Bitter, which has always pulled off the difficult trick of being well-hopped and full-bodied despite being only 3.4% ABV. Thankfully, this definitive session beer is as good as ever.
The Retreat heads up a list of Brakspear managed houses – the 10th will be opening shortly – and the estate comprises a further 132 tenanted pubs. The refurbishment of The Retreat follows a predictable pattern – the dining area expands into an extension; there’s a wood-burner in the fireplace and there are logs stacked in various nooks and crannies. The décor is soft and narrowly manages to avoid the cliché of Farrow & Ball’s rural colour schemes. This is a bright place with complex lighting, banquettes, comfortable chairs and a good many mirrors.
The à la carte menu is long and touches a good many bases – there’s a wood-fired pizza oven and a list of eight different pizzas (£9.50 to £12.50) that are mostly in demand as bar snacks. There’s a two-for-one pizza offer that is very popular on Sunday evenings after the busy Sunday lunch service (The Retreat usually serves around 200 Sunday lunches). The cooking is capable here and the presentation is informal on the plate. From the 10 different starters, the cod, bacon and brie, served with pea purée, a poached egg and Hollandaise sauce (£6.50) is outstanding – a good fishcake in a crisp coat and a savoury pea purée. A complicated dish, but a very good option. Also noteworthy is that re-vamped favourite crayfish cocktail with avocado, chilli, pickled cucumber and lemon oil (£6.50) – a straightforward dish done well and served as a massive portion. There’s also salt and pepper squid (£6); sticky pork ribs with barbecue sauce (£5.50); or chicken liver pâté with toasted brioche and caramelised onion jam (£5.50).
Thereafter choosing gets more difficult – two salads; seven classics; four burgers; plus five grills and mains. The classics are agreeably familiar. There’s Oxford Gold beer-battered haddock with chips, mushy peas and tartare sauce (£12.50). Or how about The Retreat’s chicken kiev? Garlic and rocket butter, peas and onions, roast vine tomatoes and fries (£12.50). Again, a large portion, accurately cooked. The mighty chicken element served on a sea of petits pois and swimming through the buttery juices, it would be worth securing a spoon for this dish. Bangers and mash come with onion gravy, and beer-battered onion rings (£10.50). The classic pork sausages are meaty and have good natural casings. They are large and there are a lot of them. The fries are good here, cut with a groove down each as if they have been chiselled from a block – this makes for a delightfully crisp leading edge on each individual chip.
As is the mood of the times, there are four burgers to choose from: a 7oz Wagyu burger (£15.50); 7oz beef burger (£12.50); grilled chicken fillet burger (£12.50); and grilled halloumi burger (£11.50). The rest of the menu tops out on the grill and mains section with a 10oz ribeye steak (£21) and an 8oz sirloin steak (£17.50).
At lunch there is an array of sandwiches (rump steak with stilton, fish finger brioche bap, roast chicken with mayo (£6.50 to £8)). Plus a good value express menu (one course £9; two courses £12; add a third course for £2.50).
Desserts are from page one of the gastropub manual – Bramley apple crumble; ice creams by the Marshfield dairy; chocolate brownies; a wildly out of season Eton Mess (£4.50 to £5.25).
The refurb at The Retreat has been done carefully – this is more of a comfortable country house than a metropolitan pub. The staff are cheerful and efficient – and judging by the succession of happy lunchers, things run smoothly. The menu changes regularly and the kitchen is to be commended for the presentation – good looking but not too fussy. The pricing is carefully worked out and at most levels it is a peg lower than places closer to central London. If you were going to retreat anywhere this would be a pretty good option.
*Born in 1859, the author’s name was originally Jerome Clapp Jerome – he substituted the middle name Klapka himself.