The Publican House is something of a torchbearer for Peterborough culture. The craft brewery recently celebrated its tenth year in business, but its name is so familiar many locals will tell you it feels like it’s always been there. With Publican taps and cans popping up at restaurants, stores, and festivals all over the province, that recognition seems to be spreading. It’s fitting the Publican House’s latest initiative, a brew pub serving local food and in-house pints, has taken up residence in a 170-year-old building with its own longstanding reputation on the Peterborough scene.
The Peterborough Arms predates my time in town, though I’d heard the name mentioned as an old downtown favourite. My ears really perked up back in 2017 when I heard the new Publican House Brew Pub was moving into the former Arms location at 294 Charlotte St. The stately building had sat empty for several years, and seemed like a logical extension for the brewery just next door. I followed the renos as they progressed — word was the owners were preserving much of the historical character, along with some exciting new developments. First a 6500 pound wood-fired oven arrived from Italy, and a few tantalizing progress pics appeared online. The development was easy to track even from the outside, as the exterior was painstakingly repainted to restore the look of natural brick.
When the Publican House Brew Pub finally opened its doors in 2017, I was happy to see the same careful attention had been paid to the menu. An eclectic mix of comfort foods like fried chicken sandwiches, gourmet options like tuna poke, and novelties like “Kawartha Fried Cauliflower” seemed to cater to diverse tastes, and reward multiple trips. The integration of the brewery and pub provided unique opportunities as well. Suggested pairing options appear beside most menu items, and the beer-battered fish and chips is made, naturally, with the Publican’s High Noon wheat ale. These days the pub seems to have become an institution of its own. I spoke to Brad Watt, owner and executive chef, about how he and his co-workers made it happen.
“I always had my eye on this building. When we had the opportunity to come in and open a restaurant we jumped at it pretty quickly,” he told me. “The Arms was a great neighbourhood pub. It was known to have the best patio in Peterborough, it was busy, it had a great atmosphere for live music. We’ve kept a lot of the original pieces.” He pointed out a few of the preserved features that give an impression of age and solidity, like an original bannister and ornate restored window frame. At the same time, he didn’t want to feel constrained by tradition. “We weren’t trying to re-open the Arms, we were trying to do our own thing,” he said. The menu started with a craving for a simple smash burger, grilled in a style that makes for a flavourful browned crust. “Then we decided to ship in a wood oven from Italy. We just started to piece together what we wanted to eat at a pub.”
Brad is a veteran of the restaurant scene, bringing his experience as owner-operator of Rare Grill House on Brock St. Joining him in developing the Publican House menu is chef Becca Burke. She called my attention to the Stefano Ferrara pizza oven from Naples. “It’s a treat to work with,” she said. “Probably my favourite piece of equipment in the kitchen.” I sampled one of her creations: a veg pizza with a caramel squash purée base topped with cheese curds from Campbellford’s Empire Cheese, cabbage microgreens from Cavan’s Littleleaf Farms, spiced honey, toasted pumpkin seeds and pickled ginger. The ingredients sounded disparate enough I wouldn’t have ordered it on my own, but on the palate they were harmonious, bright, and surprising. Tasting the local ingredients led me to ask what else I should try for a taste of place.
The Publican House Brew Pub is a Feast On-certified restaurant, meaning at least 25% of its annual food and beverage purchases are made within Ontario. Although the exact percentage fluctuates seasonally, Brad told me their kitchen is usually well above that. “It’s common sense for us now,” he said. “We just integrate as much local stuff as we can.” Apart from buying produce from in-region farms wherever possible, the Publican’s approach to sourcing meat ethically is particularly impressive: after brewing, spent grains from the beer-making process are sent to Millbrook’s Silver Creek Farms to feed the livestock. When meat is served in the restaurant with a pint, you can be confident you’re eating as wholistic a local meal as possible.
Brad and Becca continue to experiment with new dishes, keeping the old standbys but switching out portions of the menu four times a year. “We’re just a big giant playground. We have a full kitchen in the basement here and we test stuff all the time,” Brad told me. Becca’s latest example was corned beef prepared with the Publican’s O’Leerie stout and served with a High Noon kraut. When the recipes are ready, she plans to pair her ingredients with sourdough from South Pond Farms for a unique reuben.
I told Brad and Becca how I’d watched their restaurant’s progress and then tried to get in for a month after they opened. They weren’t surprised, recalling the half-exhilarating, half-exhausting rush of the Grand Opening. It’s a bit easier to get a table these days, and with a reservation the brew pub can easily accommodate large groups — when both floors and the patio are open it can seat 250. Brad and Becca recommended visiting on a Friday or Saturday to catch some live music. It was nice to hear the handsome upright piano in the corner wasn’t just for show. I noticed that on my way in, but Brad kept pointing out more details I’d missed: artwork by noted painter Peer Christensen, light fixtures salvaged from an old church, a vanity built from restored wood. “We really tried to make it feel homey, right off the bat,” he said. “We built this to be a hundred-year pub. We want this around for a century, and we’ll keep on adding characteristics as it grows… I’ve just begun.”