The Merchant of Bishopsgate is a new gastropub deep in the belly of Liverpool Street Station.
The lower concourse of a major UK railway station isn't somewhere that you would traditionally associate with good food or pleasant drinking. However, with the new and improved food and drink offerings at King's Cross, as well as this smart new venue, things seem to be changing.
The Merchant of Bishopsgate is a new venture from Select Service Partners, a company with an extensive portfolio including Upper Crust and Costa Coffee. It's reported that they've spent about £1.2m on this site - and it shows. Branding consultants have clearly been heavily utilised (somewhat bizarrely the menu speaks to you directly in the first person, “I am the Merchant…”) and the concourse of Liverpool Street is festooned with adverts for the new “freehouse and kitchen.” Furthermore, the structural renovation inside is very extensive. Brickwork and tiles abound, the huge bar and kitchen are completely bespoke, and there are some nice features, such as luggage racks and suitcases reclaimed from old railway carriages adorning the walls. Amazing attention to detail is evident throughout the venue, from the visible oak casks behind the bar supplying the ale via polished copper pipes, to the own-branded glasses and crockery, right down to custom printed paper that the chips are served in. The only gripe about the venue - and let’s hope it is just a teething problem - is that there seemed to be some sort of plumbing issue in the bathrooms resulting in a rather damp floor.
Judging by the amount that has been spent on decking this bar out, it is clear that the management are keen to foster an environment which is not simply a last minute watering hole for commuters waiting for their train home. They have done this by creating a characterful and contemporary setting to attract the young professionals and City folk who roam the streets above. So far the signs are positive: on a Thursday evening it is pleasantly busy with a certain buzz about the place. While there were clearly a few patrons who stop by for some swift pre-travel libation, it seems the vast majority come to relax, eat, drink and make merry and were not in a hurry to go anywhere at all.
One of the major ways in which the Merchant of Bishopsgate is reaching out to a less transient clientele is through its food offering. They do supply some of the more usual gastropub options; the fish and chips and the Merchant burger (£10) are both served on the now ubiquitous wooden boards, and many patrons will be justifiably satisfied with these dishes.
Given the time constraints that the commuting public might face, the kitchen serves up a broad selection of hot and cold “grazers” for folk on the go. These involve the increasingly common fusion of meze/tapas style dishes with traditional pub fare. For example, freshly cooked black pudding scotch egg, mini Welsh rarebits, and pork pie wedges with cornichons, priced at £4 each or 3 for £10
The only place where the Merchant of Bishopsgate falls down are in some instances of form over function: The steak looks great, served on its branded wooden board with sauces in copper pots, but the board makes eating it overly fiddly, the onion-rings are a little stodgy, and the chips are nothing special. At £17 you are entitled to expect more than just pretty presentation.
The Merchant of Bishopsgate has pulled out all the stops to demonstrate that it is a far cry from a beer-stained railway tavern. Along with a fairly standard selection of real ales - Greene King, London Pride, Doombar, Old Speckled Hen - you can select from a much more inspiring assembly of international bottled beers (Chimay Red - £5.50, Coopers – £4.50 and Schneider Weisse £5, to name but a few) as well as a more common list of draught lagers. Perhaps the jewel in the boozing crown of this venue is a new and increasingly popular system called “the enomatic”, which prevents open bottles of wine from oxidising, thus making it possible to order anything from the list by the glass rather than a whole bottle, which is ideal if you are in a hurry and would like a nice glass, or if you and your companion are eating very different food and would like wine to taste. The wine is a varied international selection and ranges from £15 to £74 a bottle. It is also helpfully broken down by taste rather than price on the list so you can make a more informed selection.
The Last Word
Although you might think the in your face branding masks a lack of substance, the Merchant of Bishopsgate delivers consistently on almost all fronts, and is certainly a step in the right direction for the quality of food and drink on offer at railway stations.