After just two-and-a-half years, Liam Dillon – chef-owner of Lichfield’s the Boat Inn – has established an admirable reputation for his Staffordshire gastropub.
Gastropubs in the Midlands have not had a fair representation in recent years on the Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs list. However, hoping to change that is chef-owner of Lichfield’s the Boat Inn – Liam Dillon.
One year after opening, the Boat was crowned Newcomer of the Year at the Top 50 Gastropubs Awards in January 2019, a category that saw many newly opened food pubs vie for the prestigious title.
In 2020, the chef catapulted his pub into the Top 50 Gastropubs list for the first time and was last year’s Highest New Entry, joining the party at number 20.
However, judges awarded Dillon the accolade due to his intelligent approach to cooking and the impressive stories he told on the plate.
Needless to say, things kicked up a notch when Dillon hosted the third Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs Supper Club of the year at his site in 2019.
A four-course menu, plus four delicious and moreish appetisers, was served to a group of about 40 top operators from the Midlands.
But why launch a gastropub and why in Lichfield? “For me, I wanted to open a gastropub. This site lends itself to being one because it’s a big pub,” explains Dillon. “Growing up in Lichfield, there weren’t a huge amount of high-quality restaurants in the area. That might sound a bit big headed, but that’s what we’re trying to achieve.
“I was looking at sites in Birmingham because that’s where I thought I needed to be. But looking closer to home, it all kind of just fell into place and the dream or mission statement is to create a quality-led food and beverage hub in Lichfield, Staffordshire.”
The idea, while strong and developed with good intentions, was a risky one as the pub sits next to a busy A-road and is by no means in the centre of the action from the nearby town. That said, Dillon and his growing team has seen trade grow dramatically since the launch.
“The guest structure has started to build. It’s taken two and a half years to raise the awareness of what we’re trying to achieve here,” explains Dillon.
Although things seem to be going well now, it wasn’t easy to get the pub up to its current speed, the chef explains. “It was very difficult, I say this quite often, but we didn’t have the luxury of buying a site, renovating it and opening it, saying ‘this is what I’m going to do now’.”
It was very much a case of moving straight into the venue, “ripping out the old card machines and installing our own”, and trading straight away, explains Dillon. The change resulted in much curiosity from the locals.
“All of the guests were saying ‘what’s going on?’ and ‘who’s this?’ and ‘why’s the menu changing?’, so it’s taken time to change and move to where we want to be but, then again, two and half years is quite a quick turnaround.”
Doing things this way has, however, led Dillon to learn more lessons than expected, had he not dived into the challenge. Although, he doesn’t necessarily believe it’s made him a better operator.
Things may all be rosy, but that’s not to say Dillon doesn’t have his fair share of problems to contend with. “Any operator would say staffing is difficult,” explains Dillon.
“We’re a roadside pub and, in Lichfield, it’s hard to get the right people who understand what you want to do and to get staff who want to do this as a career rather than just a bit of pocket money.”
One of the ways he’s been able to convince staff and customers alike to come the Boat Inn is through his approach to cooking as well as the sourcing of his ingredients.
“We try to source locally as much as we can and sustainably too. But it’s also a toss-up between consistency and being as local as possible. We have a fantastic lamb supplier literally on the other side of the A-road next to us. I got a lamb off him once and it was fantastic. I asked for another one and he said it was going to be another week yet. So, I have to go a little further afield to get the consistency that I need.”
The word ‘local’ is a buzzword for Dillon, but it’s not the be all and end all because he’s very much concerned about the quality of the food he serves diners.
Local, however, does provide a unique selling point. “It all adds to the experience of you coming to the Boat because of what we’re trying to achieve,” says Dillon.
“If we’re using as many ingredients as we can from Lichfield that adds to what we’re trying to do and no one else can do that because they’re not in Lichfield. So that adds to why you come to the Boat.”
The big question about the future of the Boat Inn is a must-ask. Although the pub has transformed dramatically into an aesthetically pleasing venue – so much so you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s complete – Dillon has plans to improve things further. “Now it’s about building the team, making the menu and offer stronger and carry on doing what we’re doing.
“There’s a lot more work to be done on the pub itself. It’s a big site and it needs a lot of care and attention. So, loads of changes will make the experience better for the customer too.”
He continues: “Looking back, the transformation has felt like a lifetime, but it’s been quick and it’s been a big change.
“But every day we’re trying to push and change and make it better all of the time. It feels a lifetime but, in reality, it has been a short space of time.”
That short space of time, however, has already led Dillon and the Boat Inn on to great things.
He’s been noted as a rising star within the Top 50 Gastropubs community and those at the dinner were impressed by his style and standard of cooking.