The George in Rye: Identity crisis (July 2014)

L. P. Hartley’s famous line, ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ sprang to mind when my comrade and I recently visited The George on a Saturday night. It was roughly four years since we had last dined here and during this time, while the restaurant has doubled in size (via the nifty conversion of a former car parking area), it has probably halved in terms of quality. Located in the quaint cobbled-streeted town of Rye, The George may be the best dining option that there is (the pricier Mermaid Hotel being stuffy, formal, over-priced and underwhelming), but it has a serious identity problem, being unsure whether to position itself as a modern restaurant or as a gastro-pub. All-day dining may be all the rage, but surely on a Saturday night, the same diner who may want to order a £20+ main with a wine costing up to £80 is not going to want to have a club sandwich? To begin at the beginning though, we were not only disappointed by the expansion of The George (admittedly not their fault, although the place has lost some of its former intimacy), but by the mix-up they made with our booking. We were told there were no tables in the main dining area available and offered a table in the bar area instead, wedged between ice cream-covered children and a drunken group of post-wedding goers, hardly what we had expected for a Saturday night. After some remonstrating (and free aperitifs, to the credit of The George), we got our place in the restaurant proper, which in fact seemed much quieter than we had been led to believe. Our next surprise was the waiter, who explained the menu to us. The local speciality, we were informed, was Romney Marsh lamb. However, curiously, our server went on to state, there were ‘not enough’ lambs on Romney Marsh and so the meat actually came from elsewhere. Surely a case of trade descriptions? Furthermore, sea bream (which I selected), had been replaced by sea bass, a somewhat different fish. Vegetarians also got a raw deal, a mezze platter being the only main available, hardly ground-breaking or celebratory for a Saturday night. We were told that several of the dishes could be ‘converted’ into veggie versions, but spaghetti with tomato sauce (and without ham and other adornments, for example) is, surely, more a mid-week at home dish than what to expect from a decent restaurant? Our food, when it did arrive, was pretty good: my juicy scallops were enhanced by chilli but undermined slightly by the accompaniment of unripe avocado; my comrade also rated her watermelon and feta starter, highlighting that the inventive combination worked well. These were followed by the sea bass (again, innovatively prepared, grilled on one side and steamed on the other) and mezze (acceptable, but certainly not amazing). We enjoyed all this with a good bottle of Gavi, chosen from a fairly decent list. We passed on puddings, although it would be fair to say that by this time, the place had emptied substantially and so was lacking atmosphere. The price: close on £100. Not cheap for an out-of-London gastro-pub masquerading as a restaurant.