“ Address: Vernon Building / Gunwharf Quays Portsmouth PO1 3TY / Hampshire „
The sun didn't seem to shine all too often this summer, but we certainly picked one of the hottest days of the year to do a spot of shopping in Portsmouth towards the end of July. The nice thing about shopping at Gunwharf Quays is the amount of choice on offer if you're looking for a spot of lunch (or just a drink) after all that retail therapy. After a morning of looking around the shops, we were rather hot and tired. We really wanted to find a restaurant with a nice outdoor seating area so we could enjoy the sun whilst it lasted. The Old Customs House is in a rather nice spot at Gunwharf Quays as it's close to both Portsmouth Harbour and just a hop, skip and a jump from the Spinnaker Tower. The Old Customs House is basically just a pub but it has a fairly extensive food menu, and most importantly, a lovely outdoor seating area with plenty of tables and chairs from which to both soak up the sun and indulge in a bit of people watching.
~~~ THE PUB ~~~
The Old Customs House is actually a Grade II listed building, and it evidently used to be the Portsmouth base of an old navy Admiral, Edward Vernon (1684 - 1757). Admiral Vernon was also known as "Old Grog" as he was the jolly old cove who introduced watered down rum rations with an added dash of lemon or lime on board the Royal Navy fleets of the 17th century. The addition of lemon and lime to the rum was key in reducing deaths by the dreaded scurvy amongst the Navy crew. Huzzah for Admiral Vernon :o)
The nautical history of the building is echoed in the internal décor of the pub. The walls are decorated with old nautical maps, naval flags and pictures of boats and frigates abound. One of the walls has wallpaper with old galleons on it, and another has a map of the world circa 1750. There's a charming porthole window so it almost feels like you're on board a ship. The overwhelming feel of the place is that it's rather like a traditional Gentleman's Club of yesteryear. The walls are painted in tones of brown, cream and blue and the furnishings are predominantly dark wood chairs and tables interspersed with big wide leather Chesterfield sofas. Despite a rather masculine ambience to the décor, the Old Customs House is certainly welcoming enough whatever your age or sex. It's always been sparkling clean whenever I've visited and the high ceilings with twinkling chandeliers give a real grandeur to the rooms. The slightly masculine décor is broken up with jokey union jack cushions on the leather sofas and a floor-to-ceiling virtual book shelf along one wall featuring nothing but pictures of ancient tomes.
The Old Customs House is rather large. The entrance lobby is wide and dotted with leather sofas and tables. The lobby is the place to order any coffees or to place any orders for food. Through the archway is a spacious bar area where you can enjoy a drink. There are quite a few alcoves and lobbies in the pub, so you can wander on through the pub and easily find a quiet spot should you so wish. Outside there is a decked area to the side of the pub as well as a large patio area to the front of the building - all with plenty of outside seating from which you can watch the world go by.
We'd had plenty of drinks at the Old Customs House when we'd shopped at Gunwharf Quays in the past, but we'd never tried the food. This time we decided to take our drinks outside onto the patio area and have a look at their menu. We arrived around 1pm and the venue was rather quiet inside. However, most of tables on the patio and decked area were being used as everyone was trying to make the most of the sunshine outdoors while it lasted.
Once we'd perused the menu, we popped back inside the entrance lobby to place our order at the designated counter. We were asked if we were sitting inside or outside and then given a number to listen out for. We didn't need to collect our meals, just respond to the shouted number when our food was brought out to us. You do need to pay at the counter when you place your food order at this pub. I guess they're had one too many people wander off without paying in the past so no tabs were on offer here. You then need to pay seperately next door in the bar for any drinks you want, which is a tad frustrating as the food ordering counter and the bar are right next door to each other :o(
~~~ THE MENU ~~~
The Old Customs House has a typical pub menu, but most of the dishes have a bit of a twist to them - an unexpected ingredient or an unusual presentation. Starters here are described as "Small Plates" and consist of things like Welsh Rarebit and Streaky Bacon, Potted Shrimps, Soup or Farmhouse Pâté. Prices range from £4.95 to £6.95.
Being a pub, they do, of course offer sandwiches as well as hot meals. Sandwiches range in price from £5.95 to £8.45 so they're certainly not a cheap option. You may do better to choose one of their "Boards" range (£12.95 to £16.95) where you can share a selection of bite size hors d'oeuvres from a West County Cheeses selection, a Sausage selection, a Fish Board or a British Board (pork pie, chicken drumsticks, pasty, quails' eggs, Branston pickle, coronation sauce and salad cream).
If you're looking for a hot meal, they have a "Traditional Pub Classics" selection offering Steak & Ale Pie with Mash (£9.95), Rump Steak (£14.45) or Lemon and Garlic Chicken (£10.95). Being so near the sea and being the base of an old navy Admiral, the Old Customs House has to offer a full range of fish dishes otherwise it would look more than a little odd :o). They have Beer-Battered Fish and Chips (£8.45), Fish Burgers (£9.95), Fishcake of the Day (£9.95) and the ubiquitous Scampi and Chips (£9.95). Finally they have a seasonal selection of dishes, and the summer menu when we dined there offered Lemon Sole (£11.95), Poached Pear and Walnut Tart (£8.95) and Steak and Stilton Salad (£9.95) to name but a few. I'm obviously not going to list the whole menu here, but if you're considering a visit then the full menu can be viewed at http://www.theoldcustomshouse.com
If you want to take the children with you to the Old Customs House there is a range of dishes on offer for £5.95 (Fish Fingers, Sausage and Mash or Quarter of Roast Chicken) and the price includes a glass of Bottlegreen cordial too.
~~~ OUR MEAL ~~~
As it was an extremely hot day, we all decided on a light lunch, with no starters or heavy pie or steak based dishes. My father didn't read the menu properly and simply asked for "Plaice" at the order point. He assumed that he was ordering Seafarer's Ale Beer Battered Fish and Chips with Mushy Peas and Tatare Sauce. The member of staff assumed he meant "Plaice Goujons" when he placed his order, as the Fish and Chips dish clearly stated "choice of Haddock or Cod". My partner pointed out that my father had ordered the wrong dish for himself and my mother. It certainly wasn't too late to pop back in and change the order, but my father decided they'd both be quite happy with the Goujons...possibly because he couldn't be bothered to rectify his mistake or maybe he was too embarrassed :o) I did think that perhaps the member of staff could have clarified that my father's request for "Plaice" actually meant "Plaice Goujons" rather than just assuming it did...but that's by the by.
I was tempted by the "Fishcake of the Day", which was a Salmon Fishcake with Wilted Spinach and a Hollandaise Sauce, but I felt that the Hollandaise Sauce may be a little heavy on the stomach on such a hot day so I passed on this occasion. Instead, I decided to have Plaice Goujons with Chips, Lemon and Dill Mayonnaise at a cost of £9.95. The Goujons were served in a London Pride pint jug which was lined with greaseproof paper made to look like an old newspaper. The pint jug was stood on a large wooden board with a goodly portion of chunky chips, a wedge of fresh lemon and a small plastic pot filled with Dill Mayonnaise. The Goujons were lovely - crunchy to the outside with piping hot plaice fillet inside. I'm not a huge fan of chunky chips normally, but on this occasion they worked well with the fish. Skinny fries would have looked silly! The chunky chips were golden brown and crispy to the bite with a lovely soft and fluffy potato filling. The Dill Mayonnaise was delicious and worked really well with the Goujons. I love Dill Mayonnaise with poached salmon normally, but it was certainly just as good with the Plaice here. All three of us cleared our boards of chips and glasses of Goujons in record time.
My partner chose the Old Customs House Burger (£8.95) which was described as Seasoned Burger, Floured Bap, Salad Garnish, Chips and London Price Relish. The burger was certainly tasty enough, but it looked very tiny and more than a little swamped by the wooden board it was served on. The salad garnish described with the dish was actually served inside the burger, and I think they'd have done better to have served it separately on the board so as to make the portion look a little more generous. There was a tiny burger to one corner, a dollop of relish to another and a small portion of chips in a tin to the third...all with this massive expanse of bare wood to the middle. Himself finished his meal in record time...possibly because there was not a lot of substance to it rather than him having a hearty appetite!
All the dishes arrived in good time and I estimate we waited less than 10 minutes for our food. All the meals were served on rather large wooden boards, which was certainly a novel approach to food presentation. However the boards looked massive in comparison to the amount of food on them, so it made the portions look miniscule. The Goujons of Plaice presentation worked reasonably well, but my partner's Burger looked swamped by wooden board. I seriously think they need to reconsider their presentation of some of the dishes or choose smaller wooden boards.
The Desserts certainly sounded tempting enough at the Old Customs House but it was simply too hot to eat much that day, and the prices were a little too rich. We decided to have an ice-cream later on in the day instead of lashing our £5.45 for a dessert. However, if I go back I'd certainly want to try their Eton Mess as it's one of my favourite desserts. Other options included Lemon Tart with Clotted Cream, Bakewell Tart, Double Chocolate Brownie or St Clements Cheesecake.
The bill for four main courses and two rounds of drinks came to just over £50, which certainly wasn't the cheapest lunch I've ever enjoyed, but it was most enjoyable due to the lovely weather and location. Sitting outside eating fish and chips and sipping lager on a warm summer's day was just the ticket, especially with that cooling sea breeze from Portsmouth Harbour.
~~~ DRINKS, SERVICE AND ANYTHING ELSE ~~~
The Old Customs House is not a free house and is part of the Fuller Inns group. Therefore all the ales on offer are from Fullers Brewery. There's a full range of beers from London Pride, ESB, HSB, Seafarer's Ale, Honey Dew and Discovery (which is a blond beer a bit like a lager),as well as the occasional guest ale.
If you're not a beer drinker, there are a full range of all the usual beverages you'd find in any good pub. There is also a fairly extensive wine list of offer with a glass of white wine (Chenin Blanc) costing you £3.75 of a glass of red (Syrah) from £3.90. Most of the wines on offer can be purchased either by the glass (175ml or 250ml) as well as by the bottle.
The toilets are nicely decorated and appointed, but you do need to climb a rather steep flight of stairs to access them. Fear not if you are disabled or infirm though, as I believe the pub has a specially designated ground floor toilet.
The service was brisk and efficient, but I must admit that there was no real warmth to it. It was more of a case of getting on with serving the next punter rather than chatting with the person they were actually serving. We had a couple of queries on the menu, and these were answered quickly and efficiently with no trailing off to ask a colleague or to enquire in the kitchen. One has to award them full marks for being on top of their game menu-wise. However the service did feel a little impersonal and you are definitely a (table) number rather than a name at the Old Customs House. I guess it's because most of their clientele are transient or one-off visitors rather than regulars - after all it's not really the sort of place you'd make your local.
~~~ RECOMMENDATION? ~~~
The food was good at the Old Customs House. When I say good, I mean that it tasted nice and it was presented well. However, it was nothing out of the ordinary. For the prices charged I did feel that the portions were rather on the mean side. However, I would concede that the portions may have been made to look smaller than they actually were due to their use of those overly large wooden serving boards. The Old Customs House may be scoring an own goal here in that their presentation is making their portions look mean, and they may do well to rethink the boards option or invest in some smaller planks of wood!
The service was certainly very quick and efficient, but somewhat lacking in charm. Perhaps they could try and encourage the staff to be a little less robot like and a tad warmer in their manner, though I do appreciate that they possibly do not feel it is worth the effort of getting to know their clientele as the trade is so transient there.
Recommended with three stars...the food is certainly good enough but the portion sizes are a little mean for the prices charged.
~~~ THE DETAILS ~~~
The Old Customs House is part of the Fuller group (full name Fuller, Smith & Turner PLC) of hotels and inns and has nearly 400 different outlets throughout the UK.
The Old Customs House
Telephone: 02392 832333
* The pub has plenty of both indoor and outdoor seating
* Opening hours are Monday to Sunday 9.00am to 12.00pm (with an extended closing time of 1.00am on Friday and 1.30am on Saturday nights and an earlier Sunday closing time of 11.00pm)
* All major credit cards accepted
* Good disabled access with a specially designated ground floor disabled toilet