The Stile Bridge Inn is a centuries old pub located in Staplehurst but since its new management team, who also own The Poet in Matfield, took it over it’s proving to be anything but traditional…
Let’s start by you telling us how the last few years have been for you?
We (Chris and Debbie) have owned the lease for The Poet in Matfield for the past 10 years – six and a half of those with our business partners Petrus and Andy. Overall it’s been a very successful operation so a couple of years ago we decided to start looking at how we could expand the business further. But then of course Covid hit. This was a very tough time for us all in the restaurant trade but we had to do something. So during the numerous lockdowns the management team decided we should do a takeaway service of restaurant quality food that you could effectively warm up and enjoy in your own home. This proved exceptionally popular and we started delivering all over Kent and Sussex. The absolute peak of this was delivering Valentine’s steak and lobster packages to a very receptive audience! During this whole process we found ourselves delivering every day to areas around Marden, Staplehurst, Linton, Coxheath and Chart Sutton and we soon realised that no-one was servicing these areas with high quality food.
Was delivering The Poet’s food elsewhere in the area how you came across The Stile Bridge Inn?
Effectively yes! When the food deliveries took off we contacted our friends who run the Curious Eatery in Boughton Monchelsea and decided to partner up in order to give some variety to each other’s customers. We would switch our individual offerings for a week so that we could sell to their customers and they could sell to ours. It was very successful but it also meant we drove past what used to be The Stile Bridge Inn. We loved the building and the location spoke for itself given our experience with success of our takeaways so we decided to see if the pub was for sale…
What made you so determined to get your hands on it?
We thought it would be a good opportunity for us, given the plans we were trying to formulate before lockdown. And before we knew it, we were in negotiations to buy the pub! Thankfully they were successful and suddenly we were faced with having to refurb the place. We absolutely hated the decor but loved the floors and although we tried to hire tradesmen to carry out the work we had no real luck in securing anyone – apart from an excellent painter/decorator but he was only available for three weeks! So we spent the first two weeks doing it all ourselves…
“Oscar likes to cook everything on fire with loud music and lots of fun! People need to experience his flavours and style of cooking is not anything we have ever experienced.”
Tell us how you initially brought the pub back to life?
During this period of decluttering the pub, we were contacted by the family of one of the pub’s best customers, the late John McCann. He was a regular drinker at The Stile Bridge Inn for many years before its closure but sadly he passed away during the pandemic. Apparently he had left strict instructions in his will that he had to have his wake at The Stile Bridge as he had never bought a drink in his drinking life! His daughter and son were very keen to execute the conditions of his will and therefore asked us to open the pub to fulfil their obligations. So we obtained a special license to accommodate them, and got The Poet team to supply the food and order drinks according to their requirements. The pub was in a really bad way as we were only a short way into the refurb, but the family didn’t seem to mind! We were so busy at The Poet that we had to personally staff this event along with our two daughters. The occasion gave us the opportunity to meet so many of The Stile Bridge Inn’s amazing locals and we immediately felt the pub was a very important place to so many in the community.
Are you looking to replicate a similar feeling at The Stile Bridge to that of The Poet?
Initially our idea was to staff The Stile Bridge Inn from the The Poet and make it a sister restaurant which would be a bit more pub-like and less formal than The Poet. But it soon became obvious to us that the area needed a food-led hospitality offering as the previous incarnations had not been successful. So our goal was to change the reputation of the pub from a pure drinking establishment to a more balanced food orientated environment.
Tell us about your Head Chef there, Oscar Fonesca…
We are blessed that Oscar, who had been a friend of The Poet for a number of years, and is also a close friend of its chef Petrus, decided to change direction and join this new venture. He explained to us he wanted to take great local British produce and take it on holiday, all over the world. We were instantly sold on the concept so Oscar ended up bringing his team onboard.
What is Oscar’s culinary USP?
He likes to cook everything on fire with loud music and lots of fun! To be honest he is a joy and people need to experience his flavours as his style of cooking is not anything we have ever experienced.
Which of his signature dishes are proving popular?
The octopus, pork and pineapple combo is an absolute must, but we also recommend the chuleta which is a huge cut of beef and can be shared with lots of delicious accompaniments. It is covered with a sauce that only Oscar can ever make and aged in our own ageing chambers for two weeks.
Do you offer private dining for guests?
We have a 50-seater function room attached to the venue and have already hosted a number of events. If SO readers want to let us know their requirements we will do our best to accommodate!
What can customers expect from your autumn/winter and Christmas menus?
Our autumn and winter menu will reflect what is locally available. Diners can expect game and some gorgeous earthy mushrooms as well as other seasonal vegetables – all further enhanced with Oscar’s unique flavour twists. Our Christmas menu will be online soon – but don’t expect it to be predictable!
And finally, congratulations on making it into this year’s Michelin Guide…
Thanks! We found out we were in it in Apil – only five months after opening! We didn’t ask them, they came incognito – we guess because of the pub’s link with The Poet.