British pubs are known for their traditional settings, cozy atmosphere, welcoming firesides and, very occasionally, their tasty menus.
But calling one the best restaurant in the world? Surely, that’s the beer talking.
Yet the Black Swan, a rural inn in England that’s been keeping the village of Oldstead refreshed since the 16th century, has been named just that by TripAdvisor.
After tallying up positive feedback, the review website ranked the pub over fine dining establishments from New York to Paris in its annual Travelers’ Choice awards.
It’s a claim worth investigating. Not just for the food, but as an excuse to visit the sublime tangle of country lanes, ancient woodlands and rolling hills of North Yorkshire that have failed to keep the Black Swan a secret.
So what’s it got going for it?
Firstly, this isn’t some backwater pub wallowing in obscurity. Talented young chef Tommy Banks, a local lad, is already a TV regular in the UK and has had a Michelin star to his name since becoming the youngest recipient ever in 2013 at the age of 24.
Secondly, it’s not really a pub anymore. Like many rural UK hostelries, the Black Swan had been in decline for many years before 2006, when Banks’ family took over. After their attempts to run it as a pub struggled, they decided to make it a dining destination.
They never looked back.
It now operates as both restaurant and upscale accommodation, offering food-and-stay packages that help lure customers to its truly remote location. It’s usually booked up well in advance.
That’s not to say that the Black Swan doesn’t feel like a pub. Walk through its front doors and you’re greeted by a wood-burning fire, a bar, tables, bookshelves crammed with old tomes and, likely as not, a friendly hound.
Says Banks’ older brother James, who runs front-of-house, at least one local treats it like a pub, popping in daily for a drink at the bar, although he has to choose from a cocktail, wine or a bottled beer list rather than a traditional hand-drawn ale.
Upstairs is where the culinary magic happens. After enjoying an aperitif such as a tangerine marigold martini, guests are led to their tables to get stuck into Banks’ 11-course tasting menu.
The restaurant is a simple space. There are two rooms of tables under low-beamed ceilings. Wooden floors are covered with oriental rugs. At one end, a chest-height wall separates the dining room from an open stainless steel kitchen prep area.
Dinner and a show.
Before getting to the food, it’s worth talking about the area, since that’s where most of the menu is sourced from. Oldstead lies roughly 20 miles north of the ancient city of York, where a large flat vale meets the rising gradients of the heather-covered North York Moors.
It’s a gentle, idyllic spot, far removed from the rough, windswept hillsides that make up much of the countryside of the surrounding English region of Yorkshire.
Old tracks and narrow lanes
A mile or so down the road in one direction stands the 12th-century ruins of Byland Abbey. In the other, carved into the slope of Sutton Bank, lies the White Horse of Kilburn, a landscaping folly created in Victorian times that can be seen for miles.
It’s a beautiful terrain of old tracks and narrow roads to lose yourself in either on foot, bicycle or by car. It’s also a fertile source of beets, damsons, beef, lamb and other ingredients that regularly find themselves on the Black Swan’s seasonally shifting menu.
The food is worth making the journey for. Only one tasting menu is offered (at £95 — roughly $125), but it’s rammed with extraordinarily clever creations that rate off the scale for looks and flavor.
There’s Banks’ signature Crapaudine Beetroot — a slice of beet from the Black Swan gardens that’s been cooked for hours in beef fat before being delicately decorated with piped goat curd and linseed crackers.
There’s venison, glazed with black garlic that’s been baked for six (yes six) weeks, raw Dexter beef from local cows reputedly fed on four pints of beer a day and, amid the dessert rundown, a terrific ice cream sandwich made with both the fruit and stones of local damsons.
One unexpected highlight is a dish of just bread and butter — or sourdough bread served with a sour butter that has been pushed to the limits of its lifetime and tastes so good a smear of it could render the napkins edible.
The dishes are brought to the table by James and his team of friendly wait staff or by Tommy’s sous chefs, all happy to relate the intricate ingredients and their back stories. There’s a relaxed ambiance with an air of theater and excitement.
Diners come from near and far. During CNN’s visit, neighboring tables included a couple on an overnight break from their kids. Another hosted two of the Banks brothers’ old school teachers, on a trip up from York.
Precisely the kind of crowd that have helped lift the Black Swan to TripAdvisor glory.
“We’re looking to create a down-to-earth and Yorkshire experience, something that’s really high quality but for normal people,” James tells CNN as an evening’s service is drawing to a close.
“I guess this award recognizes that real people come in here and enjoy what they’re having, so much that they write a review, which is wonderful.”
But is it really the best restaurant in the world?
It’s definitely a contender, even if James isn’t so sure.
“It’s an amazing thing to say about us,” he adds. “But I feel like we’ve still got a lot of things we can improve and do better, to be honest. We’re quite young as a team, we feel there’s loads more things we want to do.”
The Black Swan, Olstead, York; +44 1347 868387