Tell youngsters nowadays how important pubs were to those of us who grew up before the dawn of the 21st century and they will ignore you and concentrate on keeping their streaks going on Snapchat.
It’s true though – think back to the 80s and 90s (and before) when Cornwall’s pubs were thriving and pulsating beacons of life and community. For those of us whose formative years were spent making lifelong friends and more intimate relationships in the smoky surrounds of a favourite inn, it’s sad to see the slow demise of the local.
One such pub in Truro was intrinsic to my teenage years and beyond (I would like to say from 18, but I’d be lying – you could do that back then). Honestly, the Wig & Pen on Frances Street, near the city centre, changed my life.
Growing up just up the road, it became my living room as it did for my whole tribe of friends, while other tribes drank and put the world to rights across the bar. When the groups collided it became a joyous celebration – Christmas Eves in the pub were better than your birthday, New Year’s Eve, everything. After the isolation of Covid, we could do with those packed pub parties again.
It’s hard to imagine now but the 200-year-old pub was a hub of live music in the dying years of the 20th century – you’d happily share a pint with Big Al Hodge after he’d played a rocking set; officially the nicest man in music, bless his soul. The following week you could watch the then one-hit wonder John Otway smash himself over the head with a tea tray (since then he’s become huge – a two-hit wonder), while for the “outsiders” there was the indie swirl of Blair 1523 and the punky festival blast of Moondragon. What days!
Speaking of tribes, I grew up at a time when everyone was distinct in their musical groups – it’s amazing, kids, but not everyone used to wear hoodies and trainers. My gang started Cornwall’s first “indie disco”, Sound of Impact, in the Wig’s basement which attracted all the young punks, grebos, shoegazers and fans of the burgeoning techno scene from across Cornwall. The “townies” used to hate us – one night as I was having my head smashed on the slate bar, a kindly psychobilly intervened just as I was about to get bottled in the face. All because we liked dancing to My Bloody Valentine. What days!
How we do restaurant reviews: This review was written after an unannounced visit. The meal was paid for by ourselves.
The reason the Wig changed my life was due to it being the hallowed place I first gazed adoringly at my wife-to-be. Instead of swiping right on a phone, human beings used to get to know each other in a pub. Crazy, I know. I also fell for one of the Wig’s barmaids but that was shortlived, so we won’t go into that, but I later plucked up the courage to ask out the prettier version of Kate Winslet playing Spoof with her mates. Damn, she was going out with someone else, so I sunk into my Newcastle Brown. I waited… and 26 years later we’re still together. So thank you, Wig & Pen.
Life changes, you move away, get married, have kids and the ability to live every minute in your favourite boozer becomes impossible. I know that the Wig & Pen’s fortunes dipped in the ensuing years, like so many other pubs. The odd time I popped in for a drink it was seldom as busy as during the heady days of old.
Society has changed; people’s leisure habits have changed – you can buy alcohol much cheaper from supermarkets now, so social get togethers at home have affected the pub trade.
Many old favourites have gone under as a result – the Globe next door to the Wig, for instance, which is now Reeds chemist. It looked as though my old favourite was doomed too – it stood empty for two years until Tom and Lara Trubshaw, who also run the Peterville Inn in St Agnes, reopened it in March this year.
A Grade II listed pub, which was a shadow of its glory days before it closed, has been lovingly refurbished back into the characterful venue so many of us used to love – stone walls, leather seats, a roaring fire in winter, a classy bar plus the all-important outside seating areas, which are perfect for Truro people watching.
Of course, if you’re a landlord relying on passing trade, bonhomie and booze alone these days you’re on to a loser. So the Wig has gone down the food route. The vast majority of reviews on TripAdvisor are glowing, so it was time to head back to the old haunt to see what they have done with the place.
It was a Christmas late night shopping night, so the pub was buzzing and there was a lovely warm glow about the place. Staff were friendly, even though they were rushed off their feet, and brought our pints to the table underneath the cigarette machine that is now long gone. I looked wistfully at the rawl plugs in the wall which hinted at unhealthier and naughtier times.
The pub is open from noon and has a range of menus according to the time and day. The evening menu, which runs from 5pm to 9pm, demonstrates a bit of an auteur’s eye when it comes to dishes (by head chef Scott Williams).
There are “beer bites” priced at a fiver each, such as chef’s pork scratchings with sticky toffee apple sauce and Squash and sage tempura served with sesame and soy dip; small plates including the likes of a prawn cocktail with smoked, grilled prawns, braised lettuce, avocado puree, toasted nori powder and Marie Rose emulsion for a tenner, and large plates – everything from a vegan-friendly winter-spiced cauliflower steak, nutmeg spinach, roasted beetroot, mustard emulsion, cauliflower crumb and pickled cranberry sauce for £14.50 to Roast and glazed duck breast, duck fat sprouts with bacon, beetroot & orange puree, candied almond crumb and crispy potato choux buns, priced £22.
As you can see we’re not in lasagne or pie and mash territory here, which will no doubt put some people off. There’s a place for cheap and homely pub grub, but the Wig is obviously trying to do something different to stand out from the crowd, rather like the superb Rising Sun has done on the other side of the city.
I suspect, like many others, my dining partner and I chose a small plate as a starter and a large for a main. And here was the tester for the Wig’s staff and chef. My friend Malcolm – bass player for Grace Jones (CornwallLive interview coming soon on his fascinating life and great new solo album) – has an extreme allergy to egg.
Despite being busy, the barman nipped upstairs to see the chef and came back with the menu, with all the items Malcolm couldn’t eat blacked out. There wasn’t a lot left to be honest, but the soup was safe and the Festive Burger could be deconstructed – that brioche bun could lead to projectile vomiting or worse and no one wanted that, particularly Malcolm. Hats off to the staff for being attentive and making it work.
His Christmassy cauliflower/vegetable soup with homemade foccacia was good and earthy, and there was a lot of it. Good value at £7.50. I went for a sort of Demolition Man job (why not drop in a Grace Jones pun?) on a Christmas dinner – Turkey & cranberry bonbons, chestnut ketchup, honey parsnips and crispy sage, at £8; like posh little Scotch eggs with a fruity dip and the sage adding a textural hit of umami.
There is a good cocktail list here, but we went for Guinness and Korev (it’s a St Austell Brewery pub), as Malcolm told me tales of meeting the likes of Elton John and Halle Berry while touring the world with Grace.
That deconstructed burger was pretty full-on – a steak burger, pigs in blankets, smoked applewood cheese, winter spiced red cabbage, tomato & cranberry chutney, house pickles, triple-cooked chips and onion rings for 16.50. Malcolm pulled up to its bumper and loved it.
If you want a great winter warmer, I can recommend the Roast guinea fowl stew, served with suet & herb dumplings, toasted sourdough topped with crispy guinea fowl skin and “house cultured butter”, priced £19. No skimping on the hunks of guinea fowl in a meaty broth and those dumplings are little balls of loveliness. Dipping the buttered bread into the stew took me back to youthful nights of ecstasy in the pub but oh so differently. The skin wasn’t that crispy but it was still tasty.
It’s good to see my favourite pub back at its best – long may it continue. I may even bring my wife back for old times’ sake.
A meal of two small plates, two main plates and three-and-a-half pints came to £69.40. You can find out more about the Wig & Pen and book online here.