After a refurbishment, the Hare and Billet traded rustic cosiness for a family-friendly vibe; not so much ‘one man and his dog’ as ‘one professional couple and their brood’. Have new owners The Greene King Pub Company changed things for the better?
Location is one of The Hare and Billet’s undeniable advantages. It sits on the sleepy and well-to-do Hare and Billet Road, only a few minutes’ walk from the centre of busy Blackheath Village but just far enough that it’s often missed by outsiders. As a result, it’s hardly ever uncomfortably overrun. Perched away from the village’s hustle and bustle, opposite a pretty, tree-lined pond, the Hare and Billet has something of the country pub about it, and it’s a favourite destination and watering hole for summer ramblers and those testing their mettle on a bracing winter walk. The pub’s charm (the sense that it is a stumbled-upon retreat) had always made it feel like a more authentic pub than many of its local counterparts.
Unfortunately, the Greene King Company seem not to agree. Their refurbishment obviously can’t do much to harm the pub’s location, but their internal renovations have undone the classic feel of the pub and instead replaced it with a chain-pub facelessness. Everything is tasteful enough - the heavy rustic tables, the sage and plum wall panelling - but visitors will be painfully aware that it seems to have lost its heart. Laminated menus and chain pub touches abound, you can’t help but feel like you’re sitting in a dismal theme park approximation of a pub, rather than the real thing.
Although the Hare and Billet has lost some of its character, it’s valiantly fighting to preserve its ambience. Less full of old boys and regulars than in the past, it boasts a chirpy, cheerful vibe with friendly staff and a lot of young locals and family groups. OK, so all the baby-bouncing and buggies might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’ve got the kids in tow and you’re looking for somewhere to stop off for an innocent half, the Hare and Billet will provide a fair welcome.
The new and extensive food menu is less gastropub and more garlic bread, but it is reasonably priced, offering everything from burger and chips to chilli con carne, Greek salad and lasagne. Quality, alas, does not match up to quantity. Although the portions are healthy, the food itself seems to have been prepared with little care or attention. The apple and Kentish cider pie, enticing on paper, completely lacks any hint of cider, though at £2.95 it is undeniably decent value.
A goat’s cheese and red pepper burger with chips and salad sounds equally mouthwatering, but when it arrives (possibly after a long wait even on quieter evenings) it is basically an oven-blasted disc of breadcrumbs. If there had once been any goat’s cheese or red pepper in it, they will have been overcooked so mercilessly that they scarper before reaching the plate. The accompanying salad is plain but fresh, whilst the chips are sadly scant of potato. In fact, they are rather more like crispy, oil-encased bags of air and almost entirely empty of flavour.
Greene King is most definitely the watchword at Hare and Billet, with the brewery company’s ales taking the lion’s share of customer interest. You can grab a glug of Old Speckled Hen, IPA or Flowers among others, all for around £3.20 a pint. And if real ales aren’t your thing, you can grab yourself a more mainstream pint of Hoegaarden. The wine list combines old and new world and runs to a couple of dozen varieties, priced from £3.25-£5.10 a glass, or £12.95-£20.95 a bottle. The choice isn’t bad, but there’s nothing overly interesting or romantic about what’s on offer.
The Last Word
Motown on the stereo, gurgling babies on every other knee, electric mock gas-burners on the walls: the Hare and Billet of the past is no more. Families in need of a pit-stop will find lots to be glad about in its new chain pub guise, but few will enjoy this as much as the cosy, rural-tinged stop-off it was once. Not hideously bad for a quick pint when you want to avoid the village’s busier drinking dens, there’s nothing here to keep you coming back - especially not the food.