Meet the men behind the country’s starriest pub

Olivier van Themsche, James Gunner & Phil Wisner, owners of The Hero pub in Maida Vale
Public House Group trio Phil Wisner, James Gunner and Olivier van Themsche have opened The Hero in London's Maida Vale - Andrew Crowley

A difficult second album is one thing. But what about a difficult third pub? “Don’t jinx it, whatever you do,” says Phil Winser, one third of the trio behind the Public House Group, as we sit upstairs at The Hero in London’s Maida Vale, their newest opening.

Winser reaches out to pat some wood for luck but doesn’t have to reach far. The room itself, and the entire four-storey building, in fact, is a riot of natural materials and tactile surfaces — a decor that’s part of the runaway appeal of the group’s ventures so far, and part of the reason why the superstition doesn’t feel quite necessary.

There’s raw, pale pitch pine on the walls; dark woods peeking out behind brown leather banquettes; natural floorboards stripped of their ghastly old linoleum and still spattered with paint from decorators past; and at the heart of it all a blonde, broad staircase that winds enticingly up to the first floor and the fun beyond. It would break a fire warden out in cold sweats.

The Hero pub in Maida Vale
Inside The Hero: pale pitch pine and brown leather banquettes
The Hero pub
Bullmore: 'A broad staircase winds enticingly up to the first floor and the fun beyond'

It appears to do something similarly visceral to the punters, too. James Gummer, Phil Winser and Olivier van Themsche are hit-makers. They are very much the Stock Aitken Waterman of pints, to use a creaking analogy their sleek, chic clientele would almost certainly shrug at.

First came The Pelican at the start of 2021 — a handsome neighbourhood corner pub, sitting high and proud above the Portobello Road in Notting Hill, and restored to some former glory in a slather of exposed plaster walls and brown chore jackets. (“We have a bit of a phobia of colour,” says Winser, who is in charge of the design and the experience at the pubs.)

The menu at The Pelican is written on the mirror like an old butcher’s (a design feature replicated at The Hero). A real fire smoulders deliciously, unexpectedly in the corner — a cuban cigar in the age of tutti-frutti vapes. The pavements are packed nine-deep on any given Saturday, and tables for the excellent — and often starry — dining room are reserved months in advance. We’re talking two pints of lager and a couple of Beckhams.

The Pelican pub 45 All Saints Rd, London W11
The Pelican is the go-to pub in Notting Hill

Next came The Bull in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, which opened last summer — the latest darling in the Cotswold Scenester Matrix but one with an understatement that puts the bougier heights of Daylesford and Soho Farmhouse to shame. Winser and Gummer knew the pub — a low-slung 16th-century coaching inn — very well, having grown up in villages just around the corner.

“Whenever you’d miss the train to London from Charlbury, you’d pop up to the Bull for a drink while you waited for the next one,” says Gummer. Winser remembers having his first-ever pint at the pub during its former life. He rode on horseback to get it.

The Bull in Charlbury, Oxfordshire
The Bull in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, soon gained a stellar following

Last August, during Wilderness Festival on the abutting Cornbury Estate, some friends and I ducked into The Bull to escape the rain and the Old Radleians on the hip-hop karaoke stage, and were dazzled by what we found inside. Yes, the glowing brigade of candles and the throng of whippets and exquisitely mannered toddlers — but also the names and faces.

There was a Clarkson and a Johnson by the braziers. Jemima Khan near a fire pit. Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie in the dining room. All circulating happily among the regulars who have been coming here for years, in one form or another, and who seemed far more interested in the local ales than the national treasures.

Princess Beatrice of York attends the Art of Wishes Gala 2023 at Raffles on October 09, 2023 in London, England
Princess Beatrice has been known to frequent The Bull - Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

The Bull’s food, delivered from a kitchen helmed by chef George Williams, is brilliant and garlanded. The pub was announced as one of the 20 new bib Gourmands in the 2024 Michelin list (an award that recognises good food at moderate prices), and named in Estrella Damm’s Top 50 Gastropubs in the World list.

The Hero, the trio say, will be an even more “nostalgic” pub. The menu evokes “pub classics through rose-tinted glasses”, says Gummer, who oversees the day-to-day running of things, and who previously ran the popular 7 Saints bistro in Notting Hill. “So it’s ham, egg and chips — but hopefully the best ham, egg and chips you’ve ever had.” The Grill dining room, meanwhile, will open on the first floor of the pub from June 3, serving plates of whole roast duck, lamb chops with mint sauce, and pork loin with spring leeks.

Theirs is an empire of nostalgia, in a way. Winser was one of the founders of The Fat Radish, a fashionable, defiantly British bistro on the Lower East Side of Manhattan — a city he might have stayed in forever, he says, if it weren’t for both the pandemic and the lack of any decent pubs. (The Fat Radish shut suddenly in March 2020, following a decade of apple crumbles.) During lockdown, when the question of whether a Scotch egg qualified as a substantial meal seemed a matter of national importance, perhaps even national identity, Winser and Gummer — who had long hoped to work together on a project — wandered into the empty site of The Pelican and thought: if not now, then when?

The Hero's downstairs area
The Hero's downstairs area

The Pelican and The Bull seem to hit on some sort of rosy ideal of reformed pubbiness — no longer damp peanuts and clanging fruit machines, but unbranded glassware, smiling service, decent pies. The Hero will be even pubbier than The Pelican, they hope, with its bright, warm downstairs area given over to little stools and a hodge-podge of small round drinking tables.

Being in New York for so long, Winser says, made him realise how stark the contrast is between a “transactional” restaurant or a bar, say, and a pub. “Pubs were literally built for entertaining; they were built for welcoming people in, and giving them a great time — built for purpose.” In The Hero, Winser says, they have very much constructed the “set” — but they hope that the punters will create the action, using it in their own, unexpected ways, and feeling as if it is theirs again. “You’re not in control of that. It comes down to the people and the customers and how they want to use it, particularly people who live locally,” says Van Themsche, who oversees the business and finance side of things.

Phil Winser, Olivier van Themsche, James Gummer at the The Hero in W9
Heroes: Phil Winser, Olivier van Themsche and James Gummer at their new boozer in Maida Vale

His is a quiet display of first-night nerves, as we meander through the four airy, elegant floors, past a host of workmen on stepladders and people with paint brushes and measuring tapes. “You open the door, people walk into that ground floor — and there’s a really defining moment when people decide: ‘Is this place for me or not?’”

During The Hero’s soft opening, I spoke to a couple of locals who seemed genuinely thrilled to have a decent pub back on this spot, in the middle of a little strip that includes a corner shop, a hair salon, and a dry cleaners. At some point during the revamp, someone dropped by and reminded the new owners that the place had long ago been a haven for artists (and the colourful types that artists like to hang around with) and showed them an 18th-century etching of the grand bar-room staircase almost exactly as it is today.

Inspired by the rakish past and local folklore of the place, Laetitia, one of the trio’s team members, wrote a poem that served as mood music during the renovation — a rompy tale about a “tramp and a lady” who “dance merrily on tables” and “canoodle in a room” where “fires glow”. Later on, her accompanying illustrations of the tryst were used by Winser as little blue motifs across the chic white tiles that line The Grill — ensuring that there will always be something disreputable and disorderly among the expensive woods and the beautiful people.

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