I finally made it to 57 Thomas St today; ironically enough I was on my way to the Marble Arch at the time and had forgotten I’d be passing the Thomas St bar. (I never got to the Marble Arch; I was heading over there to buy a bottle of the Special, but they had it on sale in Thomas St, saving me the trip.)
I’m not sure what to say about this place. I mean, I’m a real Marble loyalist; I like the idea of a bar serving Marble beer, food and very little else (no wine or spirits); and I would really like it to succeed. The cold meat list is impressive, the cheese list even more so, and the bottled beer list makes me wonder if this is where Jason from the Belgian Belly ended up. Also, I had one perfectly nice beer and a perfectly decent toasted sandwich; the decor had some nice touches (I particularly liked the two chessboards on the table, each with bowls of white and black bottletops for playing draughts); and the mix they were playing included a couple of songs I really like.
Lots of positives, then.
Now for the negatives.
1. The place is tiny – one long table down the side of the room; some odd geometric cushiony things, like misshapes from a sofa cushion factory, at the front of the room; and, er, that’s it. Tiny, tiny place.
2. The food is fine – although they seem to have scaled it back a long way from the bill of fare featured in this preview (tabouleh? potted rabbit?). The menu basically consists of cold meat platters, cheese platters, pork pies, ploughman’s and toasted sandwiches. Nothing wrong with any of that – except the price. The ploughman’s is £7.50; a pork pie would set you back £3.50, and my toasted sandwich was £4.50. Now, the Northern Quarter is coming up in the world and has been for some time, but Thomas St is still in the grotty end of the town centre, just about; it’s the sort of street where you can get a cooked meal for £3 and today’s special for £4.50 (albeit not in a bar that looks like 57 Thomas St). My sandwich was perfectly pleasant, and I’m sure the ingredients were fairly high-class, but the pricing feels all wrong – and that’s “all wrong” in the sense of “I’m not paying that much again”.
3. Gravity dispense. This is a big one. The only beer served from pumps is lager. There were four barrels on the bar, all of them on the go – apparently the original plan was to have two tapped and two settling, but if so this has gone by the board. Today the beers on offer were Pint, Lagonda IPA, Dobber and Ginger; I was hoping to spot the elusive Brew 1734, but I fear I’ve missed out on that one. I had a half of Dobber, which (getting back to the topic of gravity dispense) was a bit on the flat side, but actually benefited from it to my mind. I haven’t really gone for Dobber in the past. Of Brew 1425, which I think was the test version of Dobber, I wrote “the strength hits you in a big, heavy, slightly apple-y flavour in the middle of your mouth; essentially, this is Wobbly Marble”, but when I first tasted Dobber itself I was less keen:
they’ve fixed the aroma – basically it doesn’t smell slightly off, which has got to be good. But something else has happened to the flavour; the uncompromising bitterness and the Wobbly Bob alcoholic richness have blended in a way they hadn’t before, and the result is, as far as I’m concerned, actively unpleasant.
Today I found it a challenging flavour, but one I could appreciate – and I felt that the relative stillness of the beer gave it an extra weight which complemented the heaviness of the flavour, making it easier to get into. I followed it up with a pint of Ginger – which was presumably running lower than the Dobber, as its barrel was jacked up at a steeper angle – and that didn’t work so well; bluntly, it was flat as paint. To be honest, I know nothing about what calling a beer “cask-conditioned” actually means; when I see discussions like this one I feel like I’m back in Chemistry at school (and I didn’t understand it then). But I do get two messages: (a) gravity dispense doesn’t have to mean flat beer, but (b) you do need to do it properly. Here’s hoping the Ginger was a one-off.
4. This is the really big one (and may be related to 2. and 3.) Where is everybody? I went in at about 12.30, to find two bar staff chatting in an empty room. Fifty-five minutes later, when I was looking at the last of my Ginger, another party came in (a group of four, two of whom were on the lager). There was one person (viz. me) in the place for the best part of an hour – or in other words, for most of a sunny weekday lunchtime.
I’m sorry to say it, but I can see 57 Thomas St closing – or at best turning into a white elephant for the Marble – unless they make some changes. I don’t think we’re talking about teething problems any more; I think there’s a basic problem with what they’re trying to do with the place. But I do wish them well with it, and I hope I’m wrong.