The Fordwich Arms has had a pretty good run. In September 2018, the Canterbury, England pub was named the country's Restaurant of the Year in the annual AA Hospitality Awards. Just a couple of weeks later, it was awarded its first Michelin Star, which was extra-impressive considering that it had only been open for 10 months. Its co-owners—who also serve as the head chef, pastry chef, and sommelier—were all 26 at the time.
"England’s smallest town is a pretty little place that plays host to this elegant Arts and Crafts style pub, which boasts an impressive bar and a wood-panelled dining room looking out over the river," the 2020 Michelin Guide gushes in its review. "It’s been given a new lease of life by its three proud young owners: Guy [Palmer-Brown] enthusiastically looks after their guests, while Dan [Smith] and Tash [Smith] can be found hard at work in the kitchen."
Although the cured meats and pheasant dumplings might be top-shelf, one local man is questioning that "looks after their guests" part, and has alleged that the restaurant was completely unsympathetic after his father's sudden death.
Martin O'Grady says that he paid a £660 ($862) deposit so that he and five friends could celebrate both his birthday and New Year's Eve at the Fordwich Arms. Four days before their booking, O'Grady's father had an accident while abroad, and the Canterbury man left the United Kingdom so he could be with his dad. "One of our party called the restaurant on 27th December in advance to make the manager aware of what had happened and to request a postponement of our dinner date. He received a recital of nonsense about terms and conditions and that our dinner date could neither be refunded nor changed to a later date," O'Grady wrote on the Canterbury Residents Facebook page.
"We were not seeking a refund. We were simply requesting a goodwill gesture to allow us to change our reservation to a later date once I had a chance to return to the UK. When asked how management view such extenuating circumstances the manager and owners neither cared nor wanted to hear anything about it. Another recital of terms and conditions ensued."
O'Grady's father died on December 31, and again, one of his friends tried to rebook the table due to the tragic circumstances. Again, that request was refused.
Head chef and co-owner Dan Smith told Kent Online that he did offer to refund the booking fees for O'Grady and his partner, or to allow the other four guests to put that money toward their drinks' bill. But O'Grady's friends weren't in a celebratory mood—nor would it have made sense to hold a birthday dinner for a man who was out of the country grieving the loss of his father.
"With it being New Year's Eve, this particular menu utilised a lot of premium expensive ingredients which were purchased specifically for the event and ensures that no food is wasted," Smith said. "On this evening we also had 16 members of staff to ensure we offered the best service we possibly could [...] As a small independent restaurant in the current financial climate, it is vital we take steps like these to take pre-payments to protect our business."
That all sounds reasonable… but O'Grady's dad had just died on his birthday. Smith said that the manager called two parties that had been on the waiting list to see if they could take O'Grady's table, but they'd already made other plans. Regardless, some may wonder if a former Restaurant of the Year could've filled those seats with other guests. (Fordwich Arms did have a Facebook account, at least until this story went beyond the Canterbury Residents' page.)
O'Grady isn't here for Smith's explanation. "They are 'sorry for my loss'? They didn’t communicate that to me. It seems that all the negative comments and criticism has pressurized them into commenting," he said. "Their rationale is just about economics. The human aspect of this seems entirely lost on these people."
Through it all, O'Grady has repeated that he never wanted a refund, just the opportunity to change his booking to another date—and a belated birthday celebration probably would've been a welcome distraction during what has to have been an emotionally exhausting time.