No visit to Lancaster is complete without experiencing the charms of the Merchants 1688.
Set in a 300-year-old converted wine merchants and cellars, the pub restaurant is just a short stroll down the road from the famous Lancaster Castle gates, and a few minutes from the railway station.
The restaurant areas are quite literally underground.
The main entrance doors lead into a dark yet inviting foyer, before you enter the bar proper.
On the left hand side, three stone archways reveal “tunnels” with vaulted stone ceilings, soft lighting, and relaxed seating for diners.
Each tunnel has a varying degree of formality, depending on whether you’re out for a few drinks, or want something a little more intimate.
We booked a table for around 6pm on a Saturday evening, and the pub was already pretty busy, quietly buzzing with shoppers finishing their day and couples and groups of friends kicking off their evening.
My wife and I were seated by a member of staff in the second tunnel, towards the far end, on a table for two.
Service was immediately attentive, friendly, relaxed and prompt, and came with a jug of tap water, and we soon settled into the menu with a glass of white wine and a pint of Hawkshead Brewery’s finest Cumbrian Five Hop.
One of the great things about the Merchants is they know how to keep their beer.
The menu features autumn/winter seasonal dishes, with appetisers like honey and wholegrain mustard sausages (£4), marinated olives (£3), and hummus dip and rosemary focaccia (£4).
Starters include the local legend that is Morecambe Bay potted shrimps (£8.50), chef’s soups of the day (£5), seared scallops and king prawns (£8.50), and wild mushroom and pecan risotto strudel (£7.50).
Having gone potty over local shrimps on numerous previous occasions, I went for the chicken, bacon and vegetable soup, while Liz went to town and ordered the scallops and prawns.
This was one of those rare occasions where I was glad I went for the soup.
Large chunks of chicken, bacon, and veggies including peas set in a deliciously thick and creamy sauce, with warm, crusty bread and chive butter.
Really, really good.
The scallops and prawns came in an unusual deep bowl set in the style of a plate and included apple batons, pancetta, chestnut velouté and maple syrup.
I was informed this was very good.
There are plenty of mains to choose from, including five dedicated vegetarian options, fish dishes (cod loin, seabass and ‘catch of the day’), and meat dishes such as 6oz Cumbrian fillet of beef (£21), venison haunch (£17), Gressingham duck breast (£17), and steak and ale pot pie and Lancashire Hotpot (£12 each).
For me, it had to be the pan-roasted pork tenderloin served with black pudding bon bons, buttered kale, herbed mashed potato and a wholegrain mustard, fennel and cream sauce (£16).
Liz chose the pan-fried seabass fillet served with a Thai noodle broth (£14).
Whilst waiting for our mains, it was nice to immerse ourselves in the atmosphere of the restaurant, the low hum of conversation, the lighting, and the history of the space.
There are rumours and suppositions that each of the tunnels are connected to a wider network of underground passages that lead all the way up to the castle.
At least, it’s interesting to imagine what might be beyond the now blocked off passages.
Our mains arrived within around 20 minutes, a suitable pause, and we were not disappointed by either the presentation or quantity of the dishes that arrived.
The pork tenderloins came in upright slabs of succulent, juicy meat, surrounded by swirls of mash and spherical black pudding “bon bons”.
This was an excellent meal, that also came with an extra serving of cream sauce and more than satisfied my appetite.
Liz reported similar excellence with her sea bass dish, appropriately spiced and seasoned, and plenty of fish and noodles.
The downside of all this was that neither of us wanted, or needed, a dessert. Jokes aside, there really was nothing to fault here.
The bill came to around £50, which in this day and age, and for the quality of the food on offer, was an easy sum to part with.
It’s fair to say that The Merchants is one of Lancaster’s historic jewels.
In summer, the beer garden at the front is bustling, and on Saturday nights, live music plays out from the far tunnel. Well worth a visit, and it’s family friendly too.