BETHEL — Entering the Jolly Drayman Pub is a bit like walking into a teleportation device. All of its features, from the heavy wooden bar to the decorations on the wall and the toucan in the corner, suggest to the traveler or diner that they have hopped the pond, so to speak. Even the close, warm atmosphere in the 160-year-old structure adds to the illusion.
Also deceiving the local (or foreigner) who fancies himself on an overseas getaway: the food and drink.
The Jolly Drayman sits in the Briar Lee Inn — a neat, six-suite amalgamation of European and New England styles and furnishings. And what is an inn without hearty fare to nourish and spirits to revive road-warn travelers?
The Jolly Drayman serves traditional British dishes as well as British Indian meals, a modern-day staple in British cuisine. Owners Cindy Coughenour and Fred Seibert, along with their two chefs, also concoct some unique, often American-style infusions, such as their New England chowder seasoned with a touch of curry or their “Banger Bites” — slices of English bangers (sausage) deep fired and served with hot mustard and chili sauce. The expansive menu, which changes twice a year, even has room for particularly American dishes, like the “West Country Ploughman” (a chunk of Vermont cheddar cheese with a baguette and salad) or old-fashioned macaroni and cheese.
“Our themes are really around Indian dishes and British dishes,” said Coughenour. “We have our British specialties: Wellies, a type of beef Wellington, bangers and mash . . . fish and chips, we have probably among the best in the state. British people love to come here, and they’ll say it’s better than what they’ve had over there.”
“Heavier dishes that we had in the winter were like our Guinness-braised ribs,” she said, “but come summer time, we’re going to be putting on our crab cakes and also a whiskey grilled salmon, so we’ll be shaking up the menu.”
The Jolly Drayman is not only an Anglophile’s paradise, but a beer snob’s as well, serving about 40 bottled beers and another nine on tap. The pub serves large-bottle formats, ales, porters, stouts, ciders and lagers from the U.S., United Kingdom, Belgium, Holland and France. “There’s nothing wrong with Bud or Corona,” said Coughenour, but “we like to keep more specialty beer on tap. We keep four taps rotating at all times . . . so people can come in and always try something new that’s on tap.”
The menu at the Jolly Drayman is at the same time creative, traditional, local, foreign and flavorful. But do not take my word for it. The pub was recognized by Yankee Magazine in their Best of New England 2010 edition for its food, selection of beer and wines, and its ambiance, and it is also rated a three diamond restaurant by AAA.
The Jolly Drayman opens every evening at 5 o'clock, and in the busy season, running from mid-spring to mid-autumn, it can get quite crowded. The pub consists of a double bar, opening on one side to a small room with booths and stools and on the other side to the main dining room. The dining room can seat about 20 people and adjoins a smaller dining room that fits about 10 diners and can be used for private parties. Somehow, among the signs and advertisements, decorations and bric-a-brac from the realm, they can squeeze 45 people into this cozy space. But it can fill up very quickly at meal time, Coughenour said.
In days of old, the inns were the places where locals convened and gathered. The pub, a contraction of the term "public house," was a place for communities to meet. The Drayman occupies much the same function today.
“We are a conversationalist’s bar. People come in and they like to talk to people and meet people,” said Coughenour. “If you come in by yourself . . . you’re going to find someone to have fun with.”
And though locals like to gather at the Drayman for important causes, like Wednesday-night trivia contests that have raised more than $2,000 for local charities, travelers too enjoy the comforts and hospitality of the cozy inn and enjoy the company and fare inside the pub. “It may not be new, but the fish and chips here is incredible; it’s fried in a very light beer batter,” said Coughenour.
Some visitors from the mother country have remarked on the spirit and authenticity of the pub. Coughenour relayed the story of a British couple who were visiting Bethel last month. The couple, while on their way to the states, had mentioned their destination to another couple while waiting for their flight at Heathrow airport. They were told that they had to visit the Jolly Drayman. Apparently the people who gave the advice were aware of the Drayman’s reputation as the only place around to get British food and “actual good beer,” according to Coughenour.
Bethel, located in the Mahoosuc Mountains, is a friendly, eclectic town in the heart of remote natural beauty. Just east of the White Mountain National Forest, the area offers travelers many recreational activities, from hiking and camping in the summer to snowshoeing and skiing in the winter. The Briar Lea and the Jolly Drayman are open year-round for excursions, short-term getaways or just dinner, in what you will think is a foreign country. For more information, visit the inn’s website at www.briarleainn.com.