Before he discusses pies, burgers and the evolution of the Riverside pub under his tenure, Matt Quinlan broaches the topic he is asked about more than anything else first.
“It’s great,” laughs general manager Matt, of the huge neon beacon on the side of his Riverside pub in Sheffield’s Kelham Island district.
“A really unique thing that means people can see us from afar and we’ve become known for it. Instead of saying ‘The Riverside’ and ending up at the wrong one, people can tell taxi drivers to head to ‘the pub with the big neon sign on the side’ and end up here.
“So many people come in and ask about it, and it means so much to so many people, so we’re happy to have it.”
The story isn’t altogether a happy one, however. Reading ‘Don’t do all the talking, let love speak up itself’ - lyrics from the Beautiful South song of the early 1990s - it was purchased by a bloke as part of his marriage proposal to a fellow fan of Paul Heaton and Co.
He wired it up in his garden, prepared the proposal and as he was about to go on one knee, she told him she was breaking up with him and moved out.
The previous owner was understandably keen to see the back of the sign and it ended up on the Riverside’s outside wall, after it was acquired by the True North Brew Co.
A happy ending. For the Riverside, at least.
“Luckily, the guy isn’t from Sheffield so doesn’t have to drive past it every day on his way home from work or anything,” smiles Matt.
“Can you imagine that?”
Instead, the poor bloke has now become something of an unnamed cult hero in Sheffield with his story of romantic misfortune now known all over the Steel City.
But the sign is just one quirky and interesting facet of the charming Riverside, acquired by True North in 2015 and sitting, funnily enough, on the banks of the River Don on Mowbray Street.
Formerly a well-known music venue, Matt set about changing the culture of the place shortly after arriving in March 2016 and although live DJs still offer a live music element, much more emphasis has been placed on their food offerings; a proposition too good to turn down, especially after head of logistics [and foodie girlfriend] Natalie discovered the True North link with another of our favourite haunts, The Broadfield on Abbeydale Road.
We visit on a cool Thursday evening with the Sheffield wind biting at our ears, but the welcome is warm. Sitting equally between the huge block of student housing across the river and the real-ale haven of Kelham Island, the Riverside is almost a halfway house for both demographics (and those, like me, who belong to neither).
We’re greeted at the bar by a pleasant young woman with an obvious love for tattoos, and another member of staff later appears wearing a beanie hat hiding a man bun. Indie and alternative rock music plays at just the right volume to feel cool, but not overpower conversations.
Another neon sign over our heads champions ‘sex, drugs and bacon rolls’ while other sections of the pub boast a roaring fire, authentic stain-glass windows and modern pop-art. The feeling is casual and friendly. So far, so good.
We’re given free run of the place to pick our table - although there are only 14 in the whole place - and order at the bar, a slight deviation from the other places in the True North stable. Unsurprisingly there’s a good selection of beers to choose from, and the Dark Star Crème Brûlée - ‘a dessert in a glass’ according to the label - doesn’t disappoint.
Jointly by accident and design, because of the place’s tiny kitchen, the menu is similarly compact, although it still offers a decent amount of choice with traditional pub food and a few twists on the classic. One is the sausage of the day, a pork and haggis offering which seemed appropriate for Burns Night [not one of the party was remotely Scottish, but when in Rome...]
Served with rumbledethump mash - another delicacy from north of the border, apparently - the dish easily defied expectations and the mash complemented the additional veg excellently, and was decent value for £9 because of the portion size.
The same was true of the cider braised pork belly (£9.50), which arrived in two huge chunks with mash and every type of seasonal green imaginable to man, and a few more for good measure.
The pork itself was a perfect blend between meat and fat without too much of either, but the pièce de résistance was, as expected, the steak and potato pie - proclaimed as the best in Sheffield by the expert in the group, on a level with that of The Broadfield - a fine compliment indeed.
The meat, in plentiful supply, was perfectly tender and encased fully in pastry - apparently something of a rarity nowadays, but the best way. Plenty of gravy, a solid helping of mushy peas and excellent chunky chips, fluffy yet still crispy.
“We’re blessed to have such a big demographic, and we do get everyone in,” Matt tells us later.
“It’s the best of all worlds for us. We do have a big beer garden and some people see us as a sunshine venue, but we’re busy all year round because we don’t rely on one group.
“Initially we opened up a bar/tapas kind of offering, but we felt it was a bit restrictive so changed it to a more traditional pub food menu. It’s quite small but it was important to us to stick with the classics, do them really well and make sure the food was good value, too.”
Mains, drinks and desserts for three people came to £66.30. A place highly recommended to anyone; except, maybe, the former owner of the big neon sign.