For a long time, I’d held a jaded view of Lewes Road. For me it was simply the ugly portion of a journey elsewhere, even jokingly labelling it ‘The Badlands’ in conversations with my closest confidantes. Ill-informed snobbery, without a doubt. The whole area just seemed a bit unruly and unloved. It was a delicious paradox when I, along with scores of other people seeking reasonable property prices and quieter neighbourhoods, found myself moving into the area. But obviously, my mere presence has had a profound effect upon Brighton’s longest street.
Well, in fairness, maybe in a tiny part it has. The influx of students, young families or aspiring types is reflected by flourishing retail and food provision. There’s a plethora of interesting stores and cafes springing up. And, conveniently reinforcing my case for the area’s reinvigoration, The Lewes Road Inn has just taken a once underwhelming local landmark and made it into something rather wonderful.
For such a densely populated part of town, Lewes Road is bafflingly devoid of pubs. Sitting squarely at the centre of all which is interesting on the street, The Lewes Road Inn presents thoughtful renovation for a tired old boozer. It’s certainly a lot larger than I remember from occasional ‘ironic’ pit-stops on evenings long past. A few walls might even have been taken out, as sunlight now floods through this space – complemented by contemporary fittings and a crisp blue/green colour scheme.
It fully feeds into my conviction that public houses should be a space which feels like a second home. And The Lewes Road Inn fits this aspiration perfectly. There are no austere architectural features subduing you into a realisation you’ll never be cool enough, or any collection of junk shop detritus in an attempt to mimic the dive bars of the trendiest European cities. It’s all calm and comfortable with a subtly varied selection of spaces and furnishings, crisp and effortlessly welcoming. “The first few weeks we were just getting it open, working out who we are and who we wanted to be,” Aaron, the pub’s manager, tells me. “Now we’re looking at becoming that community hub. We want to attract the locals and be able to accommodate families. A lot of that is helped by our Sunday roasts. It’s not really possible to make everyone happy, but we can give something to everyone.”
It’s the pub’s food offerings which brought us in today. Away from the already popular Sunday lunch offerings, the rest of the week sees a storm of delights like pasta dishes, Turkish flatbread with lamb and heritage tomato salad. But, at the centre of what they do is pizza.
To be honest, Lewes Road isn’t short of 12” thin and crispy options, but few (if any) show much respect for ten centuries of Neapolitan tradition. Anyone can chuck some cheese on a bit of bread. Making it memorable takes a bit of love and talent.
Baked at over 400°C, their homemade pizzas all come with a crisp base, which reveals a soft, pillow-like interior to the bite. There’s also a near-imperceptible, but undeniable, upgrade for the traditional base sauce. Many places see the tomato layer as no more than the damp bit beneath the proper toppings, so it sits at the middle, uninspiring, over-sweet and a bit unloved. Here, with a hint of chilli, The Lewes Road Inn allows the tomato sauce to shine all on its own. It’s a simple trick, but convincingly effective.
With those sizable bases all sorted, it’s time to discuss the eclectic range of toppings The Lewes Road Inn has developed. My companion, The Burger Queen, helpfully taking some time out from seeking perfection in a bap to assist me for the afternoon, acts true to form – selecting the most meat-laden offering on the menu. The Boom! Boom! (£11.95) comes laden with buffalo mozzarella, coppa ham, soppressata salami, fennel & garlic salami and homemade Nduja pork. After a few minutes’ consideration, she declares it: “a heap of cheesy, meaty goodness”, enthusing about the various meats’ succulent and premium flavours. Then, with a wave of the hand, signals I should distract her no more.
Aaron is a bit more forthcoming about the interesting variety of offerings. “All of our meats and hams are British charcutier, so we’re really proud of that,” he tells me. “Ashley, our executive chef, is really good at finding the best suppliers and ingredients that the surrounding area has to offer.” Aware we’re settling in for a couple of hours, I order a lively Vinho Verde from an enticing and competitively priced wine list (it’s not often you see an organic house white in a pub). The daytime wine of choice in our household, this comes packed with balanced notes of pear and apple, even managing to be a touch complex at times. It has a delightful, gentle effervescence, backed by a zesty, palette-pleasing acidity.
For food, I deviate from the meat-heavy delights on the table’s far side, selecting the entirely vegan Woodstock (£10.95). While it might appeal to discerning diets, this didn’t hold back in any sense. The usual tomato layer has been replaced by a sensational dairy-free béchamel – clearly some kind of witchcraft is going on in that kitchen, as this French staple relies heavily on lashings of butter… Offsetting this is caper berry, wild mushroom, spicy seitan sausage and chilli flakes. The assemblage has loads of different textures and flavours, the seitan being one of the best examples I’ve encountered of this increasingly popular meat substitute.
With the hospitality industry facing so many difficulties right now, it’s a bold move to open a new pub. But, it may actually have been easier for staff at The Lewes Road Inn to adapt to the new demands on their sector – things like enhanced cleanliness and PPE – they all seem cheerful and attentive, without getting in the way of your good times. I’m certainly finding table service agreeable. “All pubs are almost in the restaurant territory, but you don’t want to be as intrusive as some restaurants can be,” agrees Aaron. “Pubs are supposed to be places to relax.”
In the interests of culinary plurality, I ask for the Superstar (£10.95) to be brought to my table, because it felt fitting for someone of my new-found (and admittedly temporary) status. Alongside that tasty tomato sauce, this is layered with roasted artichoke hearts, goats cheese, black olives and truffle oil, all covered with rocket. The truffle oil provided all the expected succulent flavour, while the olives complimented instead of overshadowing their companions. Goats cheese is always a favourite for me on a pizza, but it can get forgotten – especially when people just want carbs and salt in a box. All of these subtle flavours would have been nice alone, but were wonderfully elevated by peppery rocket, placing everything in sharp focus.
Not to be outdone, my dining companion selected a Little Reggie (£10.95). Landing with the house tomato sauce, this embraced mascarpone, their homemade spicy nduja sausage and fresh red chillies. Just like the other three dishes we had, this was all about balance, the delicate sweetness of the cheese providing relief from the spice. Despite having comparatively few ingredients, it yielded a shifting tableau of flavours.
Pizza doesn’t have to be about the obvious, but does need to consider ingredients’ strengths and weaknesses, identifying how they work together and treating them with respect. Just because it’s simple food, doesn’t mean it’s devoid of effort. The British ideal of pizza is now distant from the dish’s origins, but I’m grateful The Lewes Road Inn is bucking this trend. “There was nothing round here with a bit more quality to it,” Aaron tells me. “We’ve spent some time trying to get the dough right, but now we’re really happy with what’s coming out, so it’s full steam ahead.” It turns out they do takeaway as well, which should be popular when the area’s younger residents return this month. While pizza is The Lewes Road Inn’s focus, they also boast a collaboration with Hove Gelato, fully embracing this local institution’s love for fresh and funky inventions. They’ve even produced a range of alcoholic slushies together, like Aperol spritz or strawberry daiquiris.
The word ‘balance’ keeps returning in our conversation during the afternoon. Whether it’s examining the ingredients on a pizza or discovering the sweet spot between cluttered and anodyne when decorating a pub’s interior. Striking the perfect equilibrium is a never-ending process. Even though there’s no finite goal in sight when seeking balance, there is a splendid and rather handy analogy there for making great pizzas and running a decent pub.
We’re sat outside on the pub’s ample terrace, raised slightly from the street so less intimidated by traffic and pedestrians, it breaks up the slowly dissipating monotony of lacklustre takeaways and charity shops. The Lewes Road Inn is also playing its part in the area’s tentative steps into pavement culture. Now familiar blue/green colours flow out from the interior, helping offer a sense of connection through the premises. On the continent, patrons don’t sit outside solely because of fine weather, but due to the coincidences and sense of community it brings. And it raises a neighbourhood when people feel part of something. Even as we’re sat outside, we’re joined by two friends who are walking past.
The street is slowly turning from a role as simple thoroughfare to being a hub for the community. And it seems the pub could play a part in the regeneration. With that now-nirvanic sense of balance, it’s giving locals somewhere which isn’t intimidatingly trendy or boring, but a place where everyone should feel welcome. While there’re pubs like this, who take care and pay attention to what they do, and provide an air of inclusivity, we’ll always have somewhere to eat and drink.
The Lewes Road Inn is at 158 Lewes Rd, Brighton BN2 3LF