You take your life into your own hands when you duck under the lintel of a dark village pub on a sunny lunchtime, especially one that used to have a reputation for, well, being a bit of dive. But at the Cross Keys, in Kippen, Stirlingshire, the first thing you hear is a cheery “Are you here for some lunch?” and a smiley barmaid invites you to choose between a seat in the garden and the snug, wood-lined bar.
Last year the 300-year-old Cross Keys, nestling between the Gargunnock and Flintry hills, was taken over by a couple with a vision. Debby McGregor used to work for Nick Nairn, the chef; Brian Horsburgh is a TV director. Their idea was simple: to create a seriously good village pub, with a friendly atmosphere and excellent food made with local ingredients.
Their success is one in the eye for the village’s posher restaurant, the Inn at Kippen, just a stone’s throw away, which had been reaping acclaim for some years. But as the Inn’s star has waned, that of the Cross Keys has risen. On the weekday we visited it was bustling with local families and groups of ladies who lunch.
The service was fast, bright and good-humoured. When a sudden cloudburst sent everyone scurrying inside, mid-meal, the waitresses could not have been more helpful, transporting plates and glasses.
There is a comprehensive light menu, soup and sandwiches, salads, with lovely smoked chicken, for about £7. The full menu is imaginative — starters such as salmon thai fish paté, crostini and tomato salsa (£6) and asparagus, broad bean, pea and lemon risotto with Parmesan (£5).
The Moroccan lamb stew, flatbread, rice and almonds (£11) is rightly famed, but if you prefer plainer fare there are home-made steak pies, sirloins and excellent fish, chips and mushy peas (£9). Despite the waitress’s persuasive charm, we managed to resist the puddings, which included rhubarb custard with almonds on top, with a huge struggle. It was only lunch, after all.
The emphasis in the Cross Keys is on a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. Every Sunday two generous roasts of local meat are laid on. Children are made very welcome and there are, it seems, even treats for dogs.
Previously famed for its pub-grub, this classic old tavern on Kippen Main Street has been given a creative culinary boost courtesy of new proprietors and new Head Chef Francis Girvan. Regulars will be relieved to note that the characteristic oak beams, wooden tables, open fires and flagstone floors, have been left intact and with its narrow doorways, low ceilings and higgledy-piggledy nooks and crannies, Cross Keys maintains a cosy, affable atmosphere.
The daily menu is big on fresh produce and local sourcing, mixes staples such as fish pie, pork chops and grilled salmon with more adventurous fare including a starter of red pepper risotto – tender and succulent, infused with a fresh, edgy tomato pesto – or a crisp, freshly baked tart filled with smoked fish, spinach and cheese. From the mains, a deep thick Moroccan stew, rife with cinnamon and clove, has a vigorous fruity undercurrent swirling around the meaty chunks of lamb, all readily mopped up by a caraway-seeded flatbread and some perfectly cooked rice.
Food is served all day till 9pm in the bar, lounge and restaurant, which merge together in a large, spirited eating and drinking space where effusive locals, chatty families and serious foodies come together to enjoy a uniquely small-town atmosphere.
Go with me on this. Do you drift off into sleepybyes each night plottingyour superiors painful and protracted death and fantasising about being your own boss?
Might the postie bring you a letter one morning offering you redundancy?
What if your financial advisor runs off to Grand Cayman and takes his wife's bst friend and your pension with him?
Let's assume you fancy/need/are forced into a new career. Might you be tempted to shake the tobacco dust off that old pipe dream of yours - running the perfect countrypub?
Debby McGregor and Brian Horsburgh, though not motivated by any of the above as far as I know, have done just that.
With their 8 year old daughter, they scouted around Scotland for the ideal premises and, discarding thier first choice of Bute for seasonability reasons, fell upon them in the pretty village of Kippen in Stirlingshire.
The Cross Keys is one of Scotland's oldest inns and the interior delivers all the classic ingredients including exposed stone walls, a roaring fire and dark wood furniture.
I've met both the owners before, but separately. Brian tells me that his first job was to bring me a glass of water in the BBC Scotland news studio when I presented Reporting Scotland. Ironically, he reminded me of that as he brought me another glass - of wine in his own pub. Debby I know form her stint as general manager of the Hallion Club in Glasgow.
Traditionally, the English do locals so much better than we Scots. South of the border, there's more of an age, class and gender cross-section and that,I suspect, is the feel brian and Debby want to create.
The bar is small and intimate, the kind of watering hole where, historically, you would have found a couple of leather-skinned old men with smokers'coughs nursing half pints of newcastle Brown until closing time.
Gone are the sozzled old codgers, but the basic cosiness remains. Next to the bar is a bigger room with more space for diners and the menu also contributes to the Cross Keys' tone. firmly rooted in the pub food style, it dares to do it better, adding touches of quality without going down the poncey Francais route. In fact, simple Scottishness is the tone. Potted ham hough with oatcakes and plum chutney is a regular starter, as is smoked fish pate and home made soup. Main courses might include fish and leek pie, mushroom and garlic pie, lamb stovies and roast chicken with potato salad, made to a special Horsburgh family recipe. The puds are classic pub fare, ticking all the sticky toffee pudding,rice pudding, crumble and ice cream boxes.
Refreshingly, Debby and Brian dont clockwatch where mealtimes are concerned. You wont be turned away for lunch at one minute past 2pm, and on Sundays, roasts are served all day. The addition of three hotel rooms this month means that if you have washed down your beef with a little too much Merlot, then an overnight is available if you can negotiate the stairs.
For once the children's menu is worth a mention. Pasta is partnered with home made tomato sauce for a healthier option and local bangers, mash and onion gravy are also offered to the dining yoof. The grown-ups whose palates havent kept pace with their bodies can order bigger portions of the children's food if they want. AND, fellow potatoholics, they do excellent chips.
Their challenge is to keep the cooking strong, simple and affordable and maintain the casual friendliness to pullin the Stirlingshire eateratti. They've already done a good thing by using the local butcher across the road T + R Skinner for much of their meat. Local suppliers are what sets apart the family run pub form the big inn chains which often cook centrally and send out ready-portioned, vacumn-packed meals to all of their outlets.
Whether The Cross Keys is a realiseable dream or an unachievable fantasy is anybody's guess. I just wish it was my local. Pass me the property pages.
A hefty dose of TLC has turned a tired old boozer into one of Stirlingshire's most welcoming gastropubs
NESTLED at the foot of the Campsie Fells just west of Stirling, The Inn at Kippen has long been one of my favourite destinations when I'm in the mood for a weekend stroll followed by a spectacularly good Sunday lunch. I first came across The Inn at a time when pubs offering consistently good grub were few and far between. Happily, though, the times they are a-changing – and nowhere is that more obvious than in Kippen itself, where The Inn has suddenly and unexpectedly found itself with an impressive competitor right on its doorstep.
I remember the Cross Keys as the sort of dark and dingy boozer you'd go to only when there was nowhere else to drink. The food, if it served any, would be microwaved to within an inch of its existence and eaten only out of beer-soaking necessity. And the beer itself wouldn't be up to much either.
That, however, is all in the past. This year, the place has been transformed, not so much visually – although there are major changes under way – but by the arrival last August of Debby McGregor and Brian Horsburgh, a couple with big plans and some grand designs.
McGregor has worked for Nick Nairn and The Tron, and was a chef at the Hallion in Glasgow when she and Horsburgh, a TV director who has worked on River City, saw the Cross Keys and fell in love. Their vision was for a proper village pub that would also attract visitors and walkers by serving simple food prepared with local ingredients, attention to detail and a minimum of fuss.
One of their first steps was to convert the top floor into three comfortable en-suite double rooms for visitors, and having got those fully operational just after Christmas they're now turning their attention to the ground floor. To be honest, it clearly needs some tender loving care, but McGregor and Horsburgh are approaching the job systematically, giving the place a new lease of life while trying to hang on to those old features that deliver its palpable sense of comfort. Although extra windows are soon to be added, with the log fire roaring away in the corner the ambience is invitingly cosy.
The accent is on affordable quality, and as this is first and foremost a pub the tone is set by the presence of Harviestoun's excellent Bitter & Twisted beer. As for the food, it's superior pub grub with the occasional flourish that's straight out of the Hallion cookbook.
For instance, the chicken-and-chorizo terrine with red-onion chutney that I started with was excellent, and quite unlike anything I've tasted before. Dry, pungent in places and with a texture like ground, compacted couscous, it was an unexpectedly palate-provoking mix. Bea went for the moules marinières, which turned out to be standard issue, while Mark plumped for a gooey smoked-haddock tart that would have been perfectly at home in any Parisian bistro.
When it came to the main courses, our problem was deciding what to choose. In the event, my lamb shank with garlic mash was a job well done; Bea's Moroccan lamb stew with turmeric rice and flatbread was as good as anything we've eaten in Morocco itself; and while Mark adjudged himself completely satisfied with his big plate of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, I'd have preferred the meat a little less well done.
The highlight of the puddings was a spectacularly rich dark orange rum mousse, but the apple crumble and custard just about passed muster too. As for the kids, they loved the Luvians ice-cream, which arrived in huge bowls and disappeared at an unbelievable rate.
On the subject of kids, it's worth bearing in mind that McGregor and Horsburgh are absolutely fantastic with families. Their nine-year-old daughter Robyn is on hand anyway, and there's an enclosed garden where the children can work off some energy. But even indoors they're indulged as much as is humanly possible. Excellent kids' portions of home-made food – there's bangers and mash, pasta with tomato and basil, fish and chips or home-made chicken nuggets – come in at just £4, and sweets and lollies are dispensed with dizzying regularity. They clearly understand that happy children equal happy parents.
News of the improvements at the Cross Keys has yet to really filter out so it's not too difficult to get a table at the moment.
We went with friends who live nearby and have three kids. All six youngsters cleared their plates, charged around outside and generally enjoyed themselves immensely.
So did their parents: we all concluded that the Cross Keys is a genuine find.
The Cross Keys
Main Street, Kippen, Stirlingshire (01786 870 293)
Out of pocket
Starters £4–5; main courses £6–£12; puddings £4–£5; kids' portions £4; house wine £12
The Cross Keys, Main Street, Kippen, Scotland, 01786 870293, firstname.lastname@example.org
I believe you have a great gem here, showing us the better of Scotland. Have enjoyed my stay - both at dinner and in bed.
A very comfortable stopover. Many thanks.
Kevin + Fiona, Seil Island
main street, kippen, stirlingshire, fk8 3dn