There was a time when trips to Stokesay Castle and even its more casual dining offshoot, The Knight's Pub, were limited primarily to special occasions.

But while Stokesay remains a beautiful venue for weddings and events, it's an image the pub has been trying to shake since reopening in June.

"We don't want to just be a destination restaurant," said Holly Becker, marketing director for Stokesay Castle and The Knight's Pub. "Yes, we are up on the mountain, but we want to be a place that has regulars."

Tucked away in the hills of Lower Alsace Township, The Knight's Pub still maintains its secluded, upscale feel, almost as if it were detached from the rest of Berks County.

The goal was to create a more inclusive experience, though, from faster table service and an updated menu to a rewards program that showers returning customers with bonuses.

"People can come up for a quick, relaxing dinner, get out and go wherever they need to go," Becker said. "We're able to accommodate more of our guests' needs."

And with its unique open-air concept — three of the four walls are actually sliding doors — The Knight's Pub may strike a balance for would-be diners who aren't quite ready to be seated inside.

Fully outdoor seating was also added, as well as a bevy of new takeout options, further broadening the pub's appeal.

What sparked change?

Naturally, some of the changes can be traced to government restrictions or shifting consumer preferences stemming from COVID-19.

Much of it was planned, however; the timing entirely coincidental.

In March, prior to the pandemic reaching Berks, The Knight's Pub announced it was closing for renovations as part of larger restoration efforts at Stokesay Castle.

Much of the 32,000-square-foot structure — built in 1932 — received a welcome refresher, including new furniture and fixtures. One of the castle's barrooms was also transformed into Lord's Martini Bar, a cocktail lounge that will eventually be open to the public.

"The whole castle just got some attention that it needed," Becker said. "Every room in the castle was painted in a lighter, more neutral color. Everything fits nicer."

Unfortunately, Stokesay has been unable to make full use of its remodeled spaces due to the coronavirus.

The overhaul wasn't strictly for appearances, though. The Knight's Pub also announced the return of Luis Pereira as the facility's general manager, and with him, an enhanced menu and service.

"We streamlined it," Becker said. "Same quality. There's still plenty of options — filet, burgers, wings, the whole gamut — but we trimmed things down so we're able to give our guests the best service possible even quicker.

"We learned from past experiences and asked our guests what they really wanted."

As for the open-air dining room, that was an existing feature of The Knight's Pub, making it one of only a handful of area restaurants equipped to offer normal service rain or shine.

"It's like they're eating in a large, stationary tent in a way because they're getting more fresh air," Becker said. "People feel more comfortable, safe.

"We've been keeping it open every night, even with a little bit of rain, just because of everything going on."

The COVID challenge

Even with open-air dining, The Knight's Pub is working to reach people who are inclined to stay home right now.

For those who prefer to eat without a roof over their head at all, fully outdoor seating is available, arguably enhancing the experience with a better view of the castle and scenery.

"The atmosphere is a big reason why people come," Becker said. "You don't feel like you're sitting in Reading."

As the weather grows colder, The Knight's Pub will consider whether to add heaters and additional coverings based on whatever restrictions are in place at the time.

The pub also offers three separate options for takeout.

There's a lunch menu consisting of lighter fare such as soups, salads and wraps. Standard dinner takeout features most of regular items from The Knight's Pub menu. Then there are also family-style, oven-ready dinners that feed up to six people.

"We've never done takeout before," Becker said. "We're just trying to keep up with the times and get our guests who are leery about coming out some pub food."

Stokesay Castle continues to do its best to work with brides and grooms as well, Becker said. The Knight's Pub will actually be closed on Saturday to help accommodate one such wedding.

It's an unenviable balancing act restaurants and venues are struggling to pull off right now, let alone while making such substantial improvements to the business as a whole.

"We're just trying like everyone else to figure out what we can do," Becker said.

"People got married here, engaged here, have their prom here. We're always going to be that — but we want to be that place where it's Wednesday and people stop by for dinner, too."

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