Near the end of the evening recently, the staff at the White Lion joined a stout Scotsman at a table in the bar for a pint or two and a glass of wine.
The wine drinker was 86-year-old Betty Southard, who operates the restaurant-pub with her son, John, and still mingles with the crowd throughout the evening.
She has been doing this almost every night the pub has been open for 20 years.
“When we opened, we knew nothing about the restaurant business,” Southard said. “John was in the bar, a daughter (Lesa) waited tables and another lady and I did most of the cooking.”
Though it wasn’t the easiest place in town to find, the White Lion soon became a popular gathering spot for British ex-pats, Anglophiles, tourists and those who had heard there was an authentic English pub in town.
It was a rowdy spot, in a good sense of the word. It wasn’t unusual for Betty and the crowd to break out in a sing-along during the evening.
“We’ve never tried to turn tables,” John said. “If people come in at 5 and stay to 10, that’s fine with us.”
Betty is a native of Liverpool, where she met her husband, Kenneth, when he was serving there in the U.S. Air Force. They moved to the U.S. in 1957, and Betty operated toy and clothing stores and a travel agency before opening the restaurant.
John was in the antiques business and is responsible for the five cozy dining spaces being filled to the brim with all things British, including a 200-year-old White Lion pub sign. It originally sat outside but has been brought inside for safe keeping.
The main menu has remained constant throughout.
“I always wanted to keep it authentic,” Betty said. “By American standards, our food is bland, but my thought is, you can add to something but you can’t take it away.”
Everyone is different, but I find it rather comforting knowing what I had and enjoyed 10 or 15 years ago still is going to be there today. We have tried most of the 14 main dishes over the years.
This time, we went with traditional fish and chips ($11.75) and the Lancashire Feast ($12.25). While waiting on the entrees, we shared the baked Brie ($10.95) and crab dip ($7.95).
The Brie featured one of the largest chunks of cheese I ever have seen with this appetizer. It was hot and gooey and came with green apple slices and crackers. The savory, rich crab also came with Ritz-style crackers.
Fish and chips included two sizable cod fillets, lightly breaded and fried. The fish had a clean, fresh taste. The fries were short and thick and were good with the traditional British pairing of malt vinegar. The tartar sauce that came with the fish tasted as though it was made with dill pickles instead of sweet pickles, and I liked it.
The Lancashire Feast was a steak and mushroom pie baked in a dark gravy, all topped with a flaky pastry. There was little seasoning, but it still was delicious.
We ordered both dishes with mushy peas instead of regular peas. Betty said peas are soaked in bicarbonate of soda overnight then cooked and smashed. The flavor is lighter than regular peas. Not everyone is drawn to them, but we are.
Other menu choices include items such as cottage pie, chicken and mushroom pie, steak and kidney pie, Cornish pasty, chicken sandwich and a burger. One of the appetizers, Aunty Marg’s Famous Sausage Rolls, a sausage wrapped in a delicate pastry, has been hugely popular over the years.
White Lion also offers private formal dinners for groups of up to 10 that feature a menu from the 1840s Buckingham Palace. The table service includes silver, china, crystal, silver goblets, silver candlesticks, fish knives, dessert forks, cheese knives, melon spoons and wine served in a silver decanter. Call the restaurant for prices and details.
The dining areas are named and themed. For instance, the ornate Churchill Room has a large portrait of Sir Winston over the fireplace. The Harvest Mouse, a small area near the entrance, has doors from an old English pub with that name.
Our service was warm and special from the whole staff, including Betty, Linda, Peter (a Liverpool native) and Mia.
John recently was honored with membership in the British Institute of Innkeepers, something seldom available to anyone outside of Britain.
“Because we are authentic and I was still a citizen, they accepted him,” Betty said.
Though the White Lion is two decades old and some of its regulars have been fading away, Betty sees positive signs for the future.
“You know, luv, we are getting more and more young people, which is interesting,” she said. “The other night, we had six girls from different universities home for the summer. They left a sweet note to Peter.”
The White Lion is two blocks east of Yale Avenue and a block north of 71st Street. Turn at the QuikTrip on 71st Street.