Naughty curries and steaming beef buns. Original mahogany furnishings, Fernet in the optics bar, and charm etched into every splinter of the walls. In an age where the modern pub can be a thing of horrendous fake veneer—of sick-striped banquettes and soulless ready meals—The Marksman on Hackney Road in East London is out to restore our romantic faith in the great British institution.
Tom Harris and Jon Rotheram, two chefs who earned their stripes under the tutelage of Fergus Henderson at St. John, have recently taken over this 150-year-old boozer named after one of history's famous assassinations. Fifty feet was the distance from which a French marksman shot and killed Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and 50 feet was roughly the distance between two Victorian pubs located just off east London's Hackney Road: The Marksman and Nelson's Head. Poetic justice from a time when pub names and town planning were inspired by murder.
A century and a half later, many of the pubs around Hackney Road's arterial route through east London have closed down—unless they happen to be strip clubs. But The Marksman still stands as a lone nostalgic spike in the stream of gentrification that sprawls through the old East End and gulps up historic pubs with the thirst of a souped-up punter. Now, The Marksman has been given a new culinary lease of life. Just don't call it a gastropub.
"This whole thing about gastropubs being born in 1985—fuck off," says Tom. "You read Samuel Pepys and he constantly talks about going to inns and taverns and eating manchets and pies, drinking a pint of ale and eating a fine mutton supper at the Hog's Head in Fleet Street. Dickens talks about food in pubs. The very first restaurant in Paris—The Grande Taverne de Londres—was named after the London Tavern run by chef John Farley."
In tune with their appetite for history, Tom and Jon kept the old mahogany bar, the old cheap-as-chips but perfectly patinated plywood panelling, and the creaking shelves. They swapped the conference-style pub chairs with quality oak, cleaned up the tiles on the front of the building, and added a vintage 70s jukebox in the bar, stuffed with Studio One reggae and soul from their home collection. Everything was done with careful consideration for the pub's origins.
"You don't want to lose the charm in a place like this," says Tom. "You have regulars who have been coming here for 20, 30 years. We have stuck by The Marksman vernacular; we know what The Marksman looked like and we make sure it doesn't change. We don't want to recreate things.
"We are not preservationists but there is so much more weight, so much more feeling in something that's been lived in than something new. You see so many pubs buying up old mirrors and bars, but why are they faking it? What's the point? The Marksman had a shitty back bar, really cheap plywood, and why would you change that? It still looks great and it's been there for 50 years.
"I came into this project as a chef, but we have become pub landlords. We went into it thinking this is a fucking great place to do a restaurant and now we just think, This is a great pub—and we better start thinking about the food."
But of course they thought about the food. Later this summer, they will open a private dining table in their basement kitchen and a dining room upstairs with a more bold and modern look, created by local furniture designer Martino Gamper. "Upstairs, we'll refine some dishes," says Jon. "That restaurant has to be special. You'll either love it or hate it."
There is very little to hate about the ground floor pub kitchen, its jukebox, original mahogany furnishings, and its menu of curry, oysters, buns, and braises. There is brown butter and honey tart, as well as beef and barley buns—a pub dish if there ever was one. It's an unctuous handful that liberates the other hand to neck pints. Toasted barley, onions, pickled walnuts, and minced beef are encased in a enriched milk dough bun which is baked, steamed, and served with light, fluffy horseradish cream.
"It's something that we wanted to put on at the St. John hotel but Fergus thought it was a bit racy," says Jon. "We want to do a pork and snail bun next. You bite into a nice pork ragu, but in the middle you have this gobstopper of a garlic snail. The buns just seems to work on a British menu."
And then there is the curry, which is an inspired choice for the pub menu: The pickling of the liver, the fattening of the membranes, and the tingling of the taste buds. It's a beautiful partnership, but one that's too often associated with Friday night culinary hooliganism on the high street; the Neanderthal's nadir of booze and vindaloo.
Not so at The Marksman, where Tom and Jon are cooking their take on a traditional Victorian club curry.
"We're using goat—the whole kid," says Jon, "and we are breaking it down with fenugreek, this lovely Edwardian spice. A curry in a pub. It just fits, it works."The kid curry comes with fermented potato sourdough bread, tomato chutney, and fried potatoes instead of rice. "It's basically curry and chips," says Jon. "We grill the chops over charcoals and make a dressing with mint leaves and cucumber in the leftover braise. It's just …naughty."
Both of the chefs won plaudits for their cooking at the St. John hotel, but its location in the decidedly less romantic part of Soho seemed somewhat cursed from the get-go. Jon left halfway through to head up the kitchen at Fifteen with his old school friend Jamie Oliver, while Tom Harris went on to win a Michelin star at the hotel before it changed owners. Now, at The Marksman, their alma mater is still a very palatable influence. Not that they wanted it any other way. They have both drunk from the fountain of knowledge that is St. John, and for evidence you have to look no further than The Marksman optics bar, which is stocked with Vieille Prune, Fernet Branca, and Martini Rosso.
"It's always been a dream of mine to just go up to the bar and order 'one Vieille Prune, one Fernet Branca'," says Jon. "Anyone who knows anything about food and alcohol will look at that optics bar and go: brilliant."
Saturday means all-day brunch in the pub; Sundays will feature a set roast menu in the upstairs dining room, without fussy food but with fuss for guests nursing sore noggins. Roast, potatoes, gravy—and even prawn cocktails. "People are hungover. They want the prawns out of the shell, they want it on a piece of toast," says Jon. "They just want to be soothed and relaxed and easy their way into the Sunday.
"You should cook the food that you love to eat and not worry too much about trends. It may seem obvious but it's so true. If it tastes delicious then it goes on the menu.
"That's why we serve fried potatoes and curry."