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The Portland Arms is a small but smart independent pub (Image: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER)

PORTLAND ROAD in Croydon is a monopoly board of pub success and failure. For every four boarded-up shells, there’s one “Passing Go” for another year, lights twinkling and very much open. The area is what its many estate agents call “up and coming” – a mix of art galleries at one end and bookies and kebab houses at the other. A wave of fancy coffee shops and delis is rolling down from the adjoining high street and a smart three-bed terrace with garden costs around £460,000.

But many of its former pubs haven’t survived to see the boom. You can count 10 closed ones in a 20-minute walk, many worth more as housing than they are as watering holes. The Portmanor closed more than four years ago and is now on the way to becoming eight luxury flats.

On the hoarding outside the long shut Two Bobbies pub someone has painted a mural commemorating a knife-crime victim. Just off the main strip, another pub has become J R Immigration Solicitors. Halfway up Portland Road, surviving pub armageddon like a well-heeled Terminator, is The Portland Arms.

Landlord Colin Todd, 41, from Belfast, knows what it takes to roll with pub land’s punches ? every one of his five former pubs is still alive and trading under the name he left them with.

“Any good pub has to have the ‘Cheers’ effect – where everyone knows your name,” he says as he opens up at midday on a grey December Tuesday. “I can train a monkey to pour a pint. I can’t train a monkey to hold a conversation and make people feel welcome. You have to get people out of the house, to do that you need to give them something extra.”

All of his bar staff are hired on the basis they can hold a conversation or share a joke, be it about house prices or the travails of nearby Crystal Palace FC. The Portland Arms has upped its game to attract newly arriving, well-heeled professionals.

They sweep in over artfully sanded floors and sup craft beers from £4.10. But the classic pub fixtures remain – the blue lights of Sky Sports hum from three screens and a fruit machine blinks in the corner. A well-kept beer garden is the place for gossip and a fag as much as for smarter al fresco dining.

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Landlord Colin Todd is defying the odds (Image: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER)

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Writer being served a refreshing pint of beer (Image: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER)

Pub chef Katie McCann, 35, is the ultimate caterer for London’s changing climate. As a longtime vegan she can go animal-free, but also rustles up pub favourites like a fancy chicken and ham pie and chips with thyme sauce (£11.75). “We sell good, uncomplicated food done very well,” says Colin, as I tuck it into a delicious sausage and egg brioche roll (£4.95) and a latte the size of a fruit bowl (£2.50).

The key, he says, is using good ingredients across many dishes. “Our fresh chicken goujons – three for £4 – fly out the door here on Monday quiz night. They are the fillets from a fresh chicken, where the rest then goes in homemade chicken burgers.

A lot of pubs try to do too many different, uneconomical dishes.” Around 12.30pm, local Khris Raistrick is one of the first in. He’s seen plenty of local pubs sink. “Another pub round here, The Ship, always ran out of beer,” he says. “That’s never good for a pub. It’s closed now.” Khris welcomes gentrification and smarter pubs, though he can see why people stay in. “Off-licences sell beer for £1 a can. This is a nice pub, but it’s £4.60 a cider.”

He adds: “A good pub is like a living Google. You wanted to know something local, you just asked the person next to you. It’s sad that, when a pub closes, all of those people just drift away.” Mums’ Hour swings by about 1pm. The smoking ban and a good range of coffees and snacks make this an oasis for overworked mums keen for a moment’s peace and gossip.

On cue, Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fun warbles over the speaker system. The key thing here is the parking – not for cars, but for buggies and many take in the giant afternoon tea for sharers at £14.95.

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Proud chef Katie McCann (Image: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER)

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Chef Katie says the key for a good dinner is using good ingredients across many dishes (Image: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER)

Liz Rankin, 33, knows where best to take six-month-old Orla. “There’s 10 high chairs in here, the Shelverdine Goat House has only four. Also, the runways give more room for the buggy.”

Her friends nod in agreement, as if every mum in this postcode knows the high-chair count. Ruth de Sainte Croix, 31, is having a spot of lunch with her partner, mum and four-month-old Theadora. They have just had three lunches, a dessert and drinks for £40, using the pub’s free members’ card system.

Every member gets a free meal on their birthday plus a list of daily offers – 20 per cent off all food today; free pint with a pie on Monday Quiz Night; free pint with a burger on Wednesday, two steaks and a bottle of wine for £35 on Thursday and £10 off a bottle of prosecco on Friday, which Colin says is the most popular of all.

“Of all the pubs in the area, this one is the only one with good food and a nice vibe,” says Ruth. The Portland Arms has had its share of facelifts. It was formerly The Prince Of Denmark before having a spell as Oceans Apart, an odd, fusion nightspot with live music.

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The vital ingredients – topping up the cellar (Image: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER)

IT CLOSED for years, before reopening as The Portland Arms two years ago. Colin has abandoned live music here. “It costs about £1,200 a month and any good live pub has to have good acoustics,” he says. “We don’t.” I inquire if they kept any of the previous regulars. “I haven’t seen Albert in here for a while,” Colin says, concerned. I ask if this is an old regular who’s in ill health. “Oh no,” Colin says, “Albert’s a dog.

He likes a splash of cola in a dog bowl and a few dog biscuits.” Like all good proprietors, Colin knows the dogs’ names as well as he knows the owners. This includes the pub’s local celebrity, Bailey, a characterful shitzu with a pronounced underbite, once featured on Paul O’Grady’s For The Love Of Dogs after being abandoned twice in a poor state.

His owners, Paul and Sarah Carragher, sip drinks as Bailey stares intently at the kitchen. Paul says: “All the pubs round here nosedived in the 1990s. The Gladstone was horrible. Lot of drugs and fights. But this pub is wonderful. Great food, staff and a proper welcome. Great pubs always survive.”

Everything in The Portland Arms is bespoke and local. Staff spent a day adding a marquee, fur rugs and Christmas candles to the beer garden and the pub has its own Portland Premium Bitter, at 4.5 per cent and £4.10 a pint, that shifts 18 gallons per week.

The deal with the devil, says Colin, is Sky Sports. “You have to have it, but’s £1,200 a month, which means – in order to make it work – it needs to pull in £3,600 worth of business. I doubt we ever get that from football alone, but you’d hope football fans come back later for a dinner.” On a normal Sunday they shift 60 roasts (£12.50 for a beef or chicken roast with the works), but last weekend’s north London and Merseyside derbies changed that. “We sold only 32 roasts,” says Colin.

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Khris enjoys a cider (Image: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER)

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Liz and Orla like the facilities (Image: JONATHAN BUCKMASTER)

“When it is a big football weekend, you sell less food typically. Groups come in and drink a few pints and a snack but – if they’re sat there for five hours – you could sell more roasts in the same space.” In between taking bookings for 25-person birthday parties, Colin, trawls social media sites for feedback on the food. Page after page scrolls by with four and five-star reviews. Comments such as “Great service, friendly staff” are typical. But one reviewer called Lorraine wrote, “two stars, disappointing for the price”.

A mini inquest begins between Colin and the kitchen as to what they did differently that day they can do better in future. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say Colin is obsessed with the pub’s social media. “We advertised a pink gin with strawberries and prosecco over the summer, we took a picture of the glass with the sun going down behind it. We sold out.”

Around 3pm, Tony, the overworked delivery driver from the local Canopy Beer Company gallops up the drive, drops the barrels down the store hatch and leaves, as if in the midst of an army fitness exercise. It’s a Tuesday and come the evening I reckon there are never more than nine people in at any one time and the pub noticeably lacks many millennial drinkers ? 18-25 year olds.

Finally, near closing time, some teenagers appear outside, but they’re not coming in. “It’s too expensive,” says one behind a scarf who gives his age as 19. They are getting chicken in a box for £1.50 on the way to a friend’s house instead.

See portlandarmspub.co.uk

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