Saturday, 12 October 2013

All the world's a chain... Review: The Red House and The Ladhar Group

There are a lot of strong opinions regarding restaurant chains.  Some bloggers won't review them at all, some restaurant critics see them as easy bait; seemingly safer to lambast a faceless corporation than an independent trader.  I can understand this as it is a difficult position to pan an independent restaurant when the livelihoods of the owners are directly at stake.  However, this is problematic when it comes to integrity (not to mention the fact that I have eaten at several lousy independent restaurants based on these 'kind' reviews!).

The main issue with 'chain hating' is that on closer inspection there are few places that aren't part of one!  In this economic climate it is only possible to open a new venue if you have a lot of money to back you.  That money has to come from somewhere and often it comes from successful entrepreneurs who have achieved success and are looking to replicate it.  The Apartment group are a prime example of this (they operate As You Like It, Mr. Lynch, Baby Lynch, Madame Koos, Floritas, Nancy's Bordello) as are the Ladhar Group who operate The Red House on Newcastle Quayside.

If you're not familiar with the name Ladhar, you'll certainly be familiar with the places they have operated past and present:
Pleased to Meet You, Lady Grey's, Gotham Town, The Lounge, For Your Eyes Only & Blue Velvet (Lap dancing venues) Bar 42, Sinners, The Den, Hoko 10, Legends, Hop and Cleaver(soon to open).....I could go on!  Not to mention the fact that they have businesses located from Glasgow to Bournemouth; so maybe some of these places aren't quite as independent as they appear!

I don't really have a problem with this; it's not the romantic vision that I prefer but how often does that vision actually exist?  We all love the image of the passionate owner who pours their heart and soul into their restaurant or bar; living the dream and passing the business from generation to generation.  However, in reality this is a rarity.  What happens instead is astute business people spot gaps in the market and engineer a solution.  The Ladhar Group don't quite engineer solutions but they do spot trends very well.  Their new venture Hop and Cleaver is a prime example of this; it will capitalise on the current BBQ/Smokehouse trend.  However, if the product is good and the ethics are sound then we don't really mind.

So is the product any good? (We'll get to the ethics later).  We went to the Red House last Saturday afternoon.  I was slightly hungover and a plate of pie, mash and peas felt like the perfect cure (plus we couldn't get seated at The Bridge Tavern!).  These are the only options on the menu; you choose your pie, then your type of mash, then your peas and liquor (gravy to us in the north!).  The pies are really good (I had Steak), sourced from Amble Butchers.  The steak was tender and the gravy in the pie was satisfyingly thick and seasoned nicely with pepper.  The pastry had seen better days and had dried out (the black strip across the top suggests it was either overcooked or 'hot held' for rather too long!) but overall it was a good pie.  The 'buttery' mash was disappointing and lacked seasoning and most importantly butter!  The mushy peas were directly from a can without any further assistance!  They were served in a polystyrene cup which I'm assured by a Chef friend of mine is about speedy microwave service; portion them all up before service and then 'ping' your meal is ready!  This rang true with our experience as our meal for 3 arrived approximately 4 minutes after ordering!

The meals are £6.95 each which is a competitive price.  However, there was some confusion when I tried to order a pie without the mash, peas and liquor.  Initially the barman said it would be £2 less for just the pie but then doubted himself half way through ringing the order in and went to check with his manager.  When he returned he apologetically informed me that they had recently changed the rules and there was no longer a discount for ordering just a pie and it would be £6.95 with or without!  As you can imagine, I stubbornly asked for all the accompaniments even though I knew my son wouldn't eat them.(Principle!)

It's this type of inflexibility that generates ill-feeling toward chains and it's easy to understand why.  It's unjustifiable greed but I'm a bit more chilled these days than I used to be; a few years ago I would have just told them to cancel the order and walked out!

Although there were a fair few negatives in our visit we did enjoy it overall and it was a great way to see off the remnants of my hangover!  The pint of IPA and the Chilli Vinegar that I used to bring the mushy peas to life certainly helped! (although my wife wasn't happy that they didn't offer normal vinegar as well).  As we left we were thinking that the quality of the pie was probably worth giving the place another try.  However, since researching The Ladhar Group I'm sure I won't be back anytime soon. Here comes the ethics bit!

The Ladhar Group have quite a chequered past:

In 2011, Ladhar Leisure were fined £10000 and ordered to pay £4000 in costs after a 6 year old boy fractured his skull after falling through a gap in a staircase at The Lounge in Newcastle.  Ladhar were found guilty of failing to provide a suitable and sufficient side guard for the stairs and of failing to conduct adequate risk assessments.

In 2010 Ladhar Leisure were fined £2000 and ordered to pay £2093.85 in costs for selling watered down rum in their Billingham Arms Hotel.  In an initial inspection in 2009 the rum they were selling was found to contain 20% water; despite a warning, when the inspectors returned in January 2010 the rum was still 14% water, hence the high penalty.  Ladhar Leisure installed CCTV and implemented staff training to deal with the issue.

In 2009 Sinners bar in Newcastle was at the centre of controversy after displaying a sign offering free shots to women who flashed their breasts to bar staff.  Students from the University of Newcastle held protests outside the bar and Labour MP Denis MacShane described the bar as "wretched" in Parliament.  The Ladhar group stated that the directors of the company had no knowledge of the sign and had disciplined the member of staff responsible for displaying the sign.

In 2010 and again in 2012, the Inside Out Nightclub in Darlington was surrounded in controversy regarding an alleged ban on Armed Services personnel.  Marine Commando Stephen McCabe was refused entry in 2010 and then two years later, 6 members of the Military Police were prevented from entering by door staff who allegedly refused them after ascertaining they were part of the Armed Services following an ID check.  The Ladhar Group insist there was no ban on Armed Services personnel.

Perhaps the most worrying information to surface regarding Ladhar is concerning their care homes which fall under Crown Care (formerly Ladhar Healthcare).  They have had a number of warnings from the Quality Care Commission following routine inspections of their care homes.  Problems cited include the incorrect storage of medication (stored alongside urine samples) in Wallsend, failure to meet national standards in cleanliness and infection control and failing to assess risks, or to implement measures to protect against risks in Doncaster.  They are currently under a warning to make immediate improvements to their Flexible Support Options site in Pengarth, Morpeth for failing to meet national standards ensuring safe and suitable premises and safe, available and suitable equipment.

The other side of this story is that Ladhar provide hundreds of job to our region and operate some of the more attractive venues in town.  I like Lady Grey's and I've wanted to try Pleased to Meet You for a good while now.  I was looking forward to trying Hop and Cleaver when it opens but now I don't want to give this company any more of my money. (I've given them thousands over the years!)

In the title of this post I parodied the 'All the world's a stage' monologue from Shakespeare's As You Like It. That monologue ends with the words "sans taste, sans everything".  Does this sum up the Ladhar Group?  I'm not sure but what I am sure of is that I simply don't trust the Ladhar Group at this moment.

How do you feel having read this?  Would any of this information make you think twice about visiting the Ladhar Groups venues?

I have been unsuccessful in trying to contact the Ladhar Group regarding the issues raised in this post.  I did manage to contact John Munsey (Area Manager for Ladhar overseeing The Red House, Lady Grey's and Pleased to Meet You); I sent him a copy of this post but I have received no reply to date.


Sources of information in this post:


  1. Hmmph, interesting stuff. I was vaguely aware that these guys owned a bunch of places, but didn't know exactly where. Interesting too that Brewdog is leased from them in the site of the old Hoko 10.

    You've got to give it to them, to some extent; they're able to design places that have an independent feel and customers willing to pay a premium price for it. They also seem to be making a habit of identifying what is trendy in London, then doing it up here: Gin Bar, BBQ etc.

    Thanks for an interesting read.
    Yours, ever in search of an ethical pint...

  2. Thanks. I totally agree, they are very astute and spot trends very well. I like the direction they're taking with their most recent venues. Ptmy sounds great and Hop and Cleaver are importing smokers from the US; I think their ribs will be pretty special with those bad boys (sigh!). It'll certainly hurt me more than them to stay away!

  3. These are also the people who hosted the EDL march earlier this summer in Gotham Town - providing free bacon butties and coffee before the march.