Could this be Norfolk's sexiest pub?
PUBLISHED: 06:00 20 July 2019 | UPDATED: 14:24 20 July 2019
Copyright: Archant 2019
Owner and art dealer Ivor Braka certainly hopes so. A restaurant, he says, is much more to do with sex than any of us had perhaps realised! Ahead of the Gunton Arms festival, Steve Anglesey met him.
"A restaurant should be somewhere you take someone you want to sleep with!" Ivor Braka, owner of the Gunton Arms, is explaining his theory of where dining out has gone wrong.
"There used to be a romantic side to eating out. Restaurants were originally designed so you could have a tète a tète, with private booths where you could draw the curtain across, with candlelight which would make even the ugliest partner, male or female, seem sexually desirable at the end of the evening," he says. "Now they're designed by people who are only thinking of their own design, who show you everything in the room immediately.
"Our restaurants are either a pale pastiche of a French brasserie or they have a white-tiled, slightly lavatorial Italian look. That's nice but it doesn't make you want to sleep with the person you're with! It's all too open and brightly-lit! You don't go there to get laid! The magic, the charm, the mystique of taking someone special somewhere romantic is f*****!"
He stops for a moment and looks around him. "I hope this place isn't like that," he says. "I hope it's sexy. Sexy and mysterious."
This is quite the mission statement from the wealthy and wild-haired art dealer - especially as we're supposed to be discussing the third annual Gunton Arms Festival of Food and Music, to be held in the grounds of his pub on Saturday August 3. But the unexpected is typical of this splendid surprise of a place out on Cromer Road near Thorpe Market, part of a 1,000-acre estate Braka has spent much of the last 30 years restoring in his downtime from selling works by Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud for millions.
The Gunton has a pool table and a TV showing Sky Sports, but it also has a raft of outstanding works from Braka's collection, including Tracey Emin neons, Damien Hirst butterflies and a David Bailey print of the Krays, which hangs in the gents and has survived an attempted theft by an ambitious customer. In the impressive Elk Room there's a huge open fireplace on which hunks of prime rib are seared and teased to perfection by Stuart Tattersall, a former head chef at Mark Hix. So is this cosy local, an art gallery, a fancy gastropub, a modern country house hotel, or, as Tracey Macleod wrote in The Independent shortly after its opening in 2012, "a kind of rock'n'roll hunting lodge"?
Whatever it is, says manager Simone Tattersall, a partner in the business along with her chef husband, "it's a bit unorthodox, but it works." So when the crowds come on August 3, "it won't be your traditional country pub fete. It's something representative of the quality of what we're trying to do here, with like-minded individuals cooking great street food, all vetted by Stu and with great bands like Hollie Cook and Daddy Long Legs, chosen by our friend Rupert Orton, who used to come here to decompress when he finished tours with his band The Jim Jones Revue. This is our way of showing people who we are and what we do."
The Gunton Arms hasn't always been so unconventional. Before Braka bought it in 2009, says Stuart, "it was the Elderton Lodge, a twee two-star hotel - pink napkins, pink tablecloths, afternoon teas in the conservatory." Even then, the place had it secrets too. "When Edward VII was Prince of Wales, he carried on with his mistress Lillie Langtry here. A lot of people seem to have had affairs here. I meet a lot of older gentlemen who tell me it was renowned as a place to carry on those sorts of activities."
When Braka, who lives in a nearby gatehouse, bought the place he says, "it took two years to strip it back to its bones. I wanted to recreate an illusion that you could be walking into another world, another century.
"We rubbed dirt into the paintwork - some people complain and say, 'why is that wall dirty?' It's actually fake grime! Now, if we have a genuine leak, we leave the mark. A certain sort of person likes everything squeaky-clean. We didn't want to cater to that kind of person, we wanted it to feel comfortable and not intimidating, very inclusive."
His next move was hiring Simone and Stuart, who had been working for Braka's close friend, the chef restaurateur Mark Hix at his celebrated Oyster And Chop House in Smithfield Market. "Mark is my guru, a pioneer in championing British seasonal food," says Stuart. "When I grew up in Rochdale, which was not a culinary Mecca, British food was the laughing stock of the world, something to be sidestepped. Overcooked roast beef and fish and chips. When I was learning my trade, Mark was the first to dig into the archives and start redelivering classic British dishes. Many have followed him.
"Mark was a big part of the Modern British Artist movement; he was very good friends with Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas - a wealth of talent - as well as with Ivor. He would put on these high-spend dinners at Ivor's house, and Simone and I noticed Ivor would often spend more time in the kitchen talking to us than he would with his guests. We shared a vision: bringing back the great English traditional pub, offering the punters reasonably-priced food and good ale in an environment which doesn't take itself too seriously."
So the Tattersalls packed up from bleeding-edge Stoke Newington to, some said, the middle of bleeding nowhere. Says Stuart, "A lot of doubters thought 'what the hell are you playing at?' And it was a culture shock. But I felt like this was something to get our teeth into, and I felt about London a sense of 'can I go now?' You really don't want to be in a West End kitchen in your sixties with young scamps running around you."
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While Simone and Stuart planned food and the vibe of the reworked pub, Braka brought his own talents and finance to the project. Inspired by family friend Andras Kalman, he's been an art world fixture for the past four decades, becoming noted as an early adopter of Francis Bacon before prices for the British artist went stratospheric.
"When I started my first Francis Bacon cost me £26,000," he says. "I sold the same picture for $1.5million maybe 15 years ago. Today that picture is worth about $15million. The most expensive picture I've sold is a Bacon, one of his Popes, for $50million
"But the biggest sense of exhilaration - panic and fear, really - was buying a Bacon at auction for half a million dollars and I hadn't got the money to pay for it. And my friend John Erle-Drax, who runs the Marlborough Gallery, rang and said 'have you heard, some fool has just paid half a million for a Bacon', and I said 'John, it was me'. And I thought, 'oh my God'. That was 1984 and I sold the painting about 15 years ago for $5million. Today that picture is south of about $40million."
Braka says he doesn't mind the huge profits his buyers often make from reselling paintings he once owned. "Some people can't bear other people making money from them; I'm delighted by it. You shouldn't try to bleed your buyers. A friend of mine says, and it's a good philosophy to have, 'always leave something for the cat'.
"In the early days I used to dislike making a profit at all, I felt weird and wrong buying something for one price and selling it for another. It took me years to get over that feeling. Even now I am far more enjoy buying than selling, I love what I deal in too much."
Part of Braka's collection is now installed at the Gunton Arms, though walk through the front door and you're in what looks like the fairly conventional hallway of a fairly conventional country pub. "I wanted it to dawn on you gradually that the artwork is maybe not what you expect," says Braka. "So when you walk in the first pictures you see are 18th century prints of livestock and family paintings of the Suffield family, who owned the estate. I'm lulling you a false sense of security. Then you notice there's an old portrait of an 18th woman, but it's been doctored to make it look like it she has a black eye. And then we get into the bar, where there's a print of Landseer's Monarch Of The Glen, a p***take because here you are probably going to eat our venison. And gradually you see the little bondage whip in the window…"
There's more challenging stuff - including provocative photographs of the American supermodel Kristen McMenamy, who Braka married in 2016 - throughout the Gunton Arms and he accepts that not all of it will be to everyone's taste. "You can't please them all," Braka says. "I didn't want the art here to be anodyne, I didn't want too many still lifes; bits of fruit on a plate or pretty girls romping through the Cromer sands, or views of Cley windmill. That's boring as hell. I didn't want cheesy pictures, I wanted pictures which would make people think."
"The big themes are life, death, sex," says Simone. "At first we were a bit frightened about negative reaction to some of the art but now we realise so many people accept it and like and the minority of people who do protest, we just let it wash over us."
Despite all of it - the huge photorealist imagining of dinosaurs copulating, the 10,000-year-old elk skull, the fake 'moving painting' of Venice by Monet which turns out to be a TV screen on a loop - the Gunton Arms is playful rather than pretentious. "We don't take ourselves too seriously," Stuart says. "From the start we all shared the belief that a pub should be for everybody to enjoy, not just the landed gentry but the guy who's just finished his shift down the road. That we could have a vibrant locals bar next to a successful restaurant delivering top-notch seasonal food from our doorstep in an environment with incredible art. No fancy fine dining. When we opened the doors we had no idea how successful it would be. We did it just wanting to create the kind of pub we would all like to go to."
In some ways, Simone thinks, the Gunton's art operates on a similarly subversive level to the pool table in its bar, or the fact that none of its 16 rooms comes with a television. "We deliberately do things to quash expectations. Sometimes people want this to be a country house hotel. I've been called up to somebody's bedroom at 11pm and they can't believe there is no television and they're threatening to leave. And I say, 'it's too late to go anywhere else, how about you sleep on it, have breakfast, go to the coast in the morning and then come back and tell me how you feel'.
"The vast majority of the time people come back and say, 'we've had a great night's sleep and we get it, we're staying'. We had one man who said the next morning, 'do you know that last night, my wife and I did a jigsaw together for the first time in 30 years'. And I thought, 'oh, is that what you call it?'"
Ivor Braka listens to this and with the satisfaction of a job well done, the advocate of sexy food laughs and laughs.
More about the Gunton Festival:
The Gunton Festival of Food & Music is on Saturday 3 August 11am-11pm & features DADDY LONG LEGS, Hollie Cook, Jarrod Dickenson, The Arlenes, Sister Cookie, Son of Dave and lots more. Festival tickets and bus tickets running from Norwich to The Gunton Arms are available from www.theguntonarms.co.uk/festival or by clicking here.