4th September 2011
Pub, inn, tavern, hostelry, boozer, local, alehouse, whatever you call it the English public house is unique. Descended from the ancient Saxon alehouse where beer was brewed on the premises, passing centuries have seen the pub display a canny ability to adapt to the mood of the times, making star appearances across the centuries in books such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Samuel Pepys diaries and the novels of Charles Dickens. It is due to this flexibility that the pub has survived.
When David Eyre and Mike Belben took over The Eagle next door to the old Guardian offices in London’s Farringdon Road in 1991, late 20th-century pubs were stuck in the doldrums, certainly not noted for good food or good wine, though a vigorous campaign by CAMRA had improved the beer. Impressed by The Eagle’s laid-back vibes, shoe-string décor, decent wine, good beer and a short menu of fresh, Med-inspired dishes bashed out from a tiny space behind the bar, someone came up with the description ‘gastropub’ – and a movement was born.
While the word ‘gastropub’ may have worked its way into our vocabulary, it never won our hearts; yet despite numerous attempts to find a more palatable replacement, we’ve been stuck with it ever since. The movement it described, however, swept the country, with restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, top chefs, even chains jumping onto the bandwagon, alongside young chefs looking to build their solo careers in the more affordable option of a pub. But many turned these pubs into restaurants, charging restaurant prices and ignoring the needs of drinkers: ‘have you booked?’ is not the sort of greeting you expect in a pub. The tag ‘gastropub’ became confused.
Now there’s a change taking place once again. The current recession is hitting pubs hard with the number of closures alarmingly high. To survive, pubs can no longer ignore drinkers and must be switched on to their needs, as well as to the needs of diners wanting value for money. Demand is for imaginative food, one-dish grazing, as well as three-course blow outs, and flexible opening hours for food as well as drink. Quality is important, not only for food and drink, but also for quality of atmosphere and service. The pub has to be a place you want to spend time in, whether as a drinker or a diner.
Most pubs are now more flexible. Proper pub bar lunches are casual, keenly-priced, with all the old favourites back in favour – though nowadays pork pies, scotch eggs, and pork scratchings are made in house – and with fish and chips, meat pies or puddings and ham, egg and chips typical choices along with faggots, pork cheeks and pork belly. Often, there’s a simple all-day menu with sharing plates of charcuterie and cheese, and good homemade bread. Many pubs are growing their own vegetables and/or raising their own hens and pigs, reflecting our concern for provenance. It is in the evening when the chefs can show off, and their cooking becomes more ambitious with seasonal fresh fish, game and the like, although larger pubs with good drinking space still offer bar food in the evenings.
In the second decade of the 21st century it’s the time of the pub again. The Good Food Guide believes the tag ‘gastropub’ is no longer relevant and will no longer use it, preferring to call a pub a pub, with all that the word implies – good old-fashioned hospitality with good value food and drink.
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