We Grill – Heath Ball
Heath Ball is the licensee of the UK’s Best Pub,The Red Lion & Sun in Highgate. The north-London pub scooped the top accolade in the John Smith’s Great British Pub Awards 2018 with judges describing it as ‘a pub that ticked all the right boxes and one many people would wish to have on their doorstep’.
Firstly, congratulations on the award! Were you surprised?
Yes, because there are a lot of great pubs around, so I’m still in shock that we won. I’m thrilled though, as it’s not only great for my staff of 25 who work so hard to produce amazing food and great customer service, but a nice buzz for our regulars who have shown us continued support.
Tell us about The Red Lion & Sun…
It was a dirty, old man’s boozer which had huge potential to become the kind of pub where I would want to eat and drink – and after a long journey it finally is! When I first took over the licence I rubbed a few of the then regulars up the wrong way, because I was brash and believed in what I was doing. It may not have gone down well with them to rip out the old, sticky carpet, re-decorate and ditch the fruit machines, but it worked. I wanted to keep the character and appeal of a Victorian local pub, but make it simple, clean and accessible for all.
What has made it a success?
Being hospitable – something I fear the industry is losing – and going the extra mile to please. We strive to produce good, quality food that is accessible to everyone – we don’t want to alienate people or think we are too clever – delivered with a personal, excellent customer service. I’m extremely fussy and hands-on, so I oversee everything from the food leaving the kitchen to the pints being pulled. I’m also very lucky to have a team of long-serving, loyal staff who work hard to make the pub what it is.
Tell us about your menu
All the dishes are made from scratch and it’s the kind of food you could or would want to eat every day – which is why some of our regulars dine with us up to four times a week! We are consistent, which I think is important. Our roast dinners are a huge hit, and so are our burgers and our fish and chips – we offer this as a takeaway option too as we don’t have a fish and chip shop in Highgate – but fish is only on the menu if we get it fresh that day. The old favourites since day one are jerk chicken and the now trendy flat-iron steaks.
What’s your passion?
Wine! We won the Wine Pub of the Year award before we became overall pub winner. One thing I aim to snub out at The Red Lion & Sun is wine rules and snobbery – I can’t stand it. I want wine – good wine – to be accessible to everyone; regardless of price or what you are eating. My aim is to open up my customers awareness and knowledge of wine, and to make the experience memorable and fun. I still stock the popular Pinots but I also have a wine presentation machine so customers can buy a guest wine by the glass, to encourage them to try something new. As 60% of my wet sales are wine, they clearly think I’m doing something right!
What wines are you serving during the festive period?
A lot of red! Bubbles always sell well too and now we only sell Prosecco by the bottle. However, we serve two organic Cavas by the glass and that sells well. Customers are dubious at first, but when I explain the story behind how they are made and they taste it; they are suitably impressed and then buy more!
Are you prepared for Christmas?
Yes. Our festive menu starts the last week of November and runs until 24 December. Christmas Eve we will do three to four sittings resulting in 250 covers and we will not finish until 1am – hence, why we are closed on Christmas Day! I have found it is far more financially and mentally rewarding to take the day off and then open on Boxing Day, when we are always full. We offer our normal menu and it’s a less stressful, more fun day. And as our takings are more than previous Christmas Days, it’s clearly the right option.
What about New Year’s Eve?
Like Christmas Day we decided being open on New Year’s Eve wasn’t worth the stress, so now we close at 5pm and re-open at midday on New Year’s Day – another packed day! Again, it’s a great atmosphere and it means our staff are happy too and don’t feel like they have missed out on the celebrations.
Which ales do you have on?
We run four classics all the time, because our customers tend to prefer the old school ales such as Black Sheep, Timothy Taylor Landlord and Dark Star Hop Head. At Christmas we may mix it up a little with some gimmicky ones, but we won’t stray away too far as the classics are what our customers want.
What’s your career history?
I grew up in New Zealand where my dad owned his own restaurants, so I always knew I’d end up working in the industry. When I was 18 I moved to London and started working in various pubs as a bartender. After a year in Dallas, Texas, I returned to London and became bar manager of the exclusive and high end clubs Saint’s Bar, Jerusalem and Opium, before opening, with a friend, our first business, the Drunken Monkey in Shoreditch; a cool and trendy dim sum eatery and cocktail bar. However, after three years I’d had enough of the on-trend places and wanted something homely and organic. That’s why I turned my hand to The Red Lion & Sun, 11 years ago.