Food Review: The White Horse Tavern Keeps it Simple With Pub Fare and Plenty of Beer 

click to enlarge Harrison Steel, Jim Dickerson, James Talley and chef Stephen Henderson relax at the bar of White Horse Tavern in Woodland Heights.

Scott Elmquist

Harrison Steel, Jim Dickerson, James Talley and chef Stephen Henderson relax at the bar of White Horse Tavern in Woodland Heights.

If what Richmond’s seeking in a restaurant is classic British pub food, traditionally rooted but not mired in the past, dished up in a casual atmosphere with busty barmaids, dartboard matches and a roaring fireplace — well, we’re out of luck.

But if what you want is a spot like White Horse Tavern, a low-slung building in Woodland Heights serving filling pub grub and a thoughtful array of beers on tap with locals drinking at the bar, we’re golden.

James Talley and Jim Dickerson, the original owners of Commercial Taphouse, patterned their new spot after the White Horse in London. Divided into two sides, one more family-friendly and the other with a true bar feel, the place seems destined to become a neighborhood hangout.

The menu reads like a primer on pub classics with a nod to this side of the pond. According to the menu, a 17th-century recipe is used for traditional hand pies fashioned in two sizes, main or small (meat $6/$11 or vegetable $5/$9), originally intended to be eaten standing at a counter. Even sitting, they’re as filling as they are easy to chew, if not particularly memorable. Better to tuck into golden brown bubble and squeak ($7), traditional after-holiday patties of potatoes, carrots and peas seasoned with pepper.

Chalk it up to the workingmen’s roots, but this isn’t a kitchen that puts consistent emphasis on presentation. Taphouse sauce-glazed chicken wings ($8) roost in a bowl alongside three sticks of celery, no dressing in sight, plain and simple.

Fans of pub food rightly expect to find a ploughman’s platter ($7) on the menu, and there it is, updated with crowd-pleasing SausageCraft sliced bangers made especially for White Horse, plus bread, sliced cheese and pickled onions. Fun fact: Traditional as a ploughman’s plate sounds, it didn’t come about until after the rationing years of World War II, when an advertising agency developed a campaign to sell more cheese in England by promoting it for lunch.

Every bit as commonplace a pub standard is the fish “butty,” an English contraction of bread and butter. The fish sandwich comes two ways, but bypass the standard fried and head straight for pan-seared fish butty ($9) with malt vinegar aioli on buttered bread for a superior take on classic British comfort food.

Ample appetites are easily satisfied with picturesque-sounding cottage pie ($11), a piping hot bowl of savory ground beef and vegetables under an oven-browned crust of cheese over potatoes. English bacon — or smoked pork loin, as we Yanks call it — is the star of a fat BLT ($9), which pumps up the star quality with garlic aioli and thick-sliced Billy Bread. The Taphouse burger ($9) remains every bit as solid as it was in its namesake location, a flavorful patty smothered in white cheddar with crispy chips — aka fries.

In what can only be a concession, White Horse offers three “afters,” so I’m curious, only to find two of the desserts so underwhelming that I don’t bother trying another on my third visit. Virginia apple cobbler ($5) promises a crumble, but disappoints with mushy apples under an unappealingly doughy topping, while the granular texture of a cloying treacle tart ($5) leaves me wondering how Harry Potter could call this molasses custard pie his favorite dessert.

But sweets aren’t a pub’s raison d’être. The White Horse has 12 taps, including the distinction of two British hand pumps, which means beer is served warmer than brews from American taps, a subtle distinction that matters to beer fans.

Happily, we’ve evolved to the point that busty barmaids no longer are standard issue with a pub license, either. Service comes with both experienced and novice attention, but overall good intentions delivering hearty fare.

Talley’s latest has the potential to be the type of neighborhood bar that he created at Commercial Taphouse by drawing in hop heads, neighborhood families and fans of a straightforward pub atmosphere. Wouldn’t it be fitting if White Horse Tavern resurrected that restaurant’s live music tradition? The Scott Clark 4-tet, Loversville, Glows in the Dark and Allison Self all took Sunday nights to new heights in the small Fan space.

I’d like to bet on the White Horse to do the same. S

White Horse Tavern
Sundays-Mondays 4 p.m.-midnight; Tuesdays-Saturdays noon-midnight
3410 Semmes Ave.
Search for White Horse Tavern on Facebook.

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