Since I wrote this post, Pharmasea has sadly closed.
It’s always the same when a new place opens, especially in a small town where any addition to the slightly limited choice is eagerly awaited. People get excited, the launch night is usually a success, and then the following weeks are peppered with equal helpings of disappointment and praise as the restaurant finds its feet.
It’s for that exact reason that I think pretty much everywhere deserves a second chance. Apart from, of course, the places where their crimes against dining are so heinous that they can be considered unforgivable. And by that I mean the ones who have no qualms about dishing up shockingly bad food or those whose service doesn’t just leave a bit to be desired but is downright bad. In short, the ones who don’t give a shit.
But for most of the others, I do think perhaps we shouldn’t be too hasty to write them off. Opening a restaurant is hard – some of the best chefs and restaurateurs in the world haven’t been able to make it work so it stands to reason that people who are new to the game might find it a challenge. Yes, of course they should do their research and prepare themselves, but let’s show a bit of compassion and at least give them a chance to put things right.
In the weeks after Pharmasea opened in Rugby, I heard mixed reviews. The lights were too bright, the food was slow, the service was a bit hit and miss. The first time I visited was a quiet Tuesday night. I had Mediterranean seafood stew and it wasn’t half bad. Plenty of fish and shellfish, decent depth of flavour, and a generous portion. It didn’t blow me away but it was enough to make me tempted to try again.
The second time I returned was another week day. My friend and I hadn’t booked and it was packed. Despite that, we were welcomed, a table was found for us, and while we were warned there might be a bit of a wait for food, we were furnished with drinks and kept happy. Good service? You’re damn right it was.
We both went for burgers. I went all out with the Loaded Pharm – beef patty, bacon jam, burnt pork ends, lettuce and tomato. While it might not quite have reached the dizzy heights of some of the burger pros we’ve tried on our travels around many a meat festival, it wasn’t far off.
The patty was thick, moist and juicy – the kind that would make you happy just to have a straight burger without any additions. Not to say I didn’t love my extra chunks of caramelised pork and the sweet, sticky bacon jam, though the whole thing did beat me and I had to leave some of the bread. Both more than happy with our evening, I came away thinking that perhaps Pharmasea had turned the tables on a sketchy first few weeks and made enough tweaks to spell success.
With that in mind, I decided to check just one more time. Just in case I was being overly positive for some strange reason. Or perhaps had just been lucky on the two occasions I’d visited. We decided the ultimate test. Visit on a Friday night. With friends. With our dogs in tow. Pharmasea is dog-friendly in the front part of the restaurant, near the bar, though I’ve learned from experience that somewhere calling itself ‘dog-friendly’ and actually being ‘dog-friendly’ can be two different things.
We reserved a table, mentioning the dogs, earlier in the week. It wasn’t a problem and we were told they’d make sure we’d have a space at the front. It also wasn’t a problem when I then had to call up a few hours before and move our table back because Mr M was at work.
When we arrived, we were looked after brilliantly – moved to a better table where it was a bit easier for four to dine. Again, served swiftly with drinks and, perhaps more importantly, served with enthusiasm and cheer. Even the dogs were welcomed with open arms, given water, strokes and treats.
To start we shared an antipasti platter, complete with manchego, cured meats, salad and bread. Simple, yes, and not particularly challenging for a chef, but a good plate of sharing food. For main course our friends opted to go halves each on a burger and one of Pharmasea’s ‘espetadas’, funny hanging kebab things that I can’t decide about – are they a gimmick or something genuinely a bit different? Food existentialism aside, I’m told it was tasty.
Mr M and I decided to leave room for cocktails and share a seafood platter along with a few sides. It’s an impressive plate of food for one person – half a lobster, a crab claw, some salt’n’pepper squid, crayfish and prawns. Now before you start, no, it’s not quite the same as having shellfish somewhere like the Crab Shed. But it’s refreshing to have something slightly different in my little town and I can’t complain about the way any of it was cooked. It was fresh, simple and looked good on the plate.
I’d be lying if I said that our night at Pharmasea that night was all about the food. We drank too much, sampling their prosecco as well as some of their cocktails instead of dessert. We laughed, we chatted, we lingered too long. We did all the things that I think are by-products of a place having got things right. And we weren’t alone. It was busy, it was bustley and from what I could see, most people seemed pretty happy.
That, for me, is a sign of somewhere that is definitely doing something right. Yes, maybe Pharmasea had a few teething problems. Perhaps they didn’t plan the lighting quite right. Maybe it took some time to get the food operation running smoothly and the staff bang on point. But they certainly seem to have done quite well at fixing all those things.
The food is nice and well cooked (I’m still gagging to go back for one of those burgers), the ambience is fun, friendly and relaxed and the service – in my experience – is just right. Helpful, friendly, polite, cheerful. Each time I’ve been I’ve had a good time and no, only one of those was alcohol-induced.
I have no doubt there are people who tried Pharmasea in its first few weeks and haven’t been back since. And I bet it’s the same with all sorts of places across the country. But perhaps we should cut new places a bit of slack. Give them a second chance. Maybe even a third. They just might change your mind.
I’ve paid in full each time I’ve been to Pharmasea and I’m fairly sure they had no idea I was a blogger.
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