Former wine vaults make for great dining

The Merchants. Pub and Restaurant, Lancaster.
The Merchants. Pub and Restaurant, Lancaster.

Whilst out and about in the city at the weekend for the Lancaster Music Festival, we booked a table at The Merchants 1688.

Arguably one of the city’s most interesting and unique buildings, the pub is steeped in history, and features Lancaster Castle as a backdrop. It has a part enclosed beer garden at the front and inviting entranceway covered in colourful flowers and hanging baskets.

Inside, the bar runs along the right hand side and on the left, three stone archways lead into the pub’s famous vaults.

I’d heard the tale about the pub being the castle’s wine store, but I’ve been reliably informed that the premises was originally a wine merchant’s cellars for wine imported into Lancaster at St George’s Quay.

The wine was held behind iron gates in each of the vaults, with an iron gate where the front glass doors are now.

The vaults were bricked up at some stage and the building above became part of the Lancaster Rubber company.

During the mid 1980s the owner of the by then vacant building was looking around the junk filled cellar, noticed the bricked up doors and decided to see what was behind them.

Finding the vaults, he decided to turn it into a pub.

What a great idea!

It’s had another refurb recently under owner Tim Tomlinson, which has given the vaults a modern, cosy feel.

The pub was very busy when we arrived, but our table was ready despite us arriving 45 minutes early.

There were 10 of us eating, and while we had a drink to wait for latecomers, the staff made themselves available without us feeling pressured into ordering.

The menu is also new, and features a combination of “pub classics” alongside more detailed recipes.

I opened the menu on the page that said belly pork and didn’t need to look any further. My wife Liz chose the same, and the kids had a chicken baguette, chips and salad to share.

Other orders from our table were for the Lancashire Hotpot, fish and hand cut chips, and chicken caesar salad.

There is also salt cod and venison on the new menu.

I think it took about half an hour for the food to arrive, but it was one of those occasions when it was nice just to relax and spend time catching up with friends, so there was no issue here.

Even less so when the belly pork arrived. It was a good chunk that fell apart with the fork, and the fat was crispy and tasty. It came on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes and onions with a tangy jus that gave the dish a nice kick.

I wasn’t sure whether it came with vegetables, and we weren’t offered them, which was the only slight disappointment with what was otherwise a very good dish.

Reports from the rest of the table were positive as well.

The kids enjoyed ice cream for dessert, and Liz and I shared a very good sticky toffee pudding with cream.

The bill came to around £36 for the two belly pork dishes (£9.50 each), the baguette to share, two child’s ice creams and the pudding. The ale was great too!

The Merchants is a place to go to relax and soak up the history, while also feeling a little bit hidden, the kind of place where plans get hatched, secrets get shared. I’d definitely recommend the experience.

By Nick Lakin