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The Secret Drinker reviews the Conon Hotel

By Secret Drinker

Conon Hotel.Picture Gary Anthony..
Conon Hotel.Picture Gary Anthony..

Conon Bridge – once home of the proud Drouthy Duck and my oh my was it drouthy and my it was good. This Secret Drinker spent many, many happy evenings in the Duck in his younger days. The conviviality was intense, the company outstanding and no little romance was found.

I fiercely recall the fierce hangovers – I learned after a few years that treble vodkas mixed with orange Hooch (remember that?) washed down with 70 Shilling will create something of a hangover though at the time I wondered why.

But it is no more. With it a large part of the heart of Conon left too, a place to congregate, a focal point but the Conon Hotel persisted though but did it match the high standards or low (depending on your perspective) standards of the Duck?

The Conon got a major no-expenses-spared-reboot from the new owners – did it pay off? Because I hate the false drama of making people wait like the opening of an envelope on daytime TV, I will tell you straight: totally.

Conon Hotel.Staff team with owners David and Joseph Whiteford (centre).Picture Gary Anthony..
Conon Hotel.Staff team with owners David and Joseph Whiteford (centre).Picture Gary Anthony..

Hidden gem

Not only did it pay off but it has until now been something of a hidden gem that deserves to be known by all, it clears by miles any standard I could possibly dream up from food to booze to service to comfort.

And for once I can be more comprehensive than normal because until recently I had only dined in the restaurant, not drank in the pub, I am not going to stay the night but I am actually considering it now.

I am happy to say its gastro-pub leanings, much touted when the new owners David Whiteford (not to be confused with another hotelier) and partner Joseph took over the premises built in 1780 in September 2020, are not too pronounced.

I spoke elsewhere of how I hate gastro-pubs, for me they carry an air of pretension and promising far more than they ever deliver and that is why I say the gastro-pub leanings are not too pronounced because the Conon delivers.

I don’t pay much attention to blurbs on websites but the Conon’s statement of intent very much chimed with my experience: “We happily host locals, day-trippers, holiday-makers, tourists, business travellers – in fact, anyone who enjoys the good things in life – especially fine food and drink. Pop into the pub for a pint or a wee dram.”

The main bar in the Conon Hotel.
The main bar in the Conon Hotel.

A well-loved place

This place feels like it is loved by the owners, that they care not just about the place but about the people who come here – they don’t just want your cash, they want you to have a genuinely good time. That is also the feeling you get when you walk in.

The old place was very traditional in a good way and that seems to have been preserved but refreshed, the first time I wandered through I got an impression that it was a little overdone but that was not the case when I actually spent some time there.

It has a nice homely and warm atmosphere and the bar top itself is magnificent – I don’t spend that much time considering bar tops, which given the amount of time I spend leaning on them perhaps is a mistake – but this one is a beaut.

One of the owners was in and that is always good to see and the staff were friendly. But my goodness – is there something about Conon which gets the drinks moving quick? I was grateful for the hometime but not happy to leave.

One reason for the swiftness of consumption was the two lads who were mostly behind the bar worked fast, they probably wouldn’t give it much of a thought but their efficiency was appreciated by me.

Conon Hotel.Terraced garden.Picture Gary Anthony..
Conon Hotel.Terraced garden.Picture Gary Anthony..

Beer gardens

At a certain point I needed to go out for a breath of fresh air because there was an 85th birthday under way – I think it was an 85th, maybe it was a 90th – and the dancing sapped my moral strength.

I sat in the main terraced beer garden and I have to say it was lovely, it has a real quiet countryside feel to it and I honestly considered having a power nap but fortunately I am too vigorous a man to indulge in such luxuries.

But the whole outside seating area was magnificent. The lucky people of Conon have a top spot for a quiet drink on a sunny afternoon and for those not in Conon, it is well worth a wee detour.

The food should be mentioned – if you go there on a Sunday you will very likely see the same faces as you saw before, at least one or two and that return custom says more than I can about the quality of food.

“Never had a bad meal” is Highland for “the food is always excellent” and it is – I was particularly taken by the enormous Sunday roasts, the fish and a burger I had there once too.

Conon Hotel restaurant. Picture Gary Anthony..
Conon Hotel restaurant. Picture Gary Anthony..

Reasonable prices and high standards

The prices are not coarse either, which comes as a welcome surprise and it is extremely heartening to find a place of this quality open and encouraging of locals to come there.

I recently got horrendous service at a pub in Ullapool because of my Highland accent – as compared to a visitor who came in after me had rose petals thrown at their feet – to the point of having to go elsewhere.

That will be subject of a review in the future, incidentally, and I intend to be very, very frank because though my experiences so far have been positive there can be no credibility if all you are is brainlessly applauding.

I mention the Ullapool pub because the Conon is the diametric opposite when it comes to a genuine welcome, genuine quality, genuine standards – I loved it. Go there. You won’t be disappointed.

It cruises on to the top shelf of pubs in the north that I have visited, in fact it even tops the Castle Tavern when it comes to upper market watering holes – long may it continue.

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