Published on February 5th, 2014 | by Alastair Gilmour


The food revolution

Food in pubs is becoming more adventurous with real quality as a side-order, but do we really have to describe them with such an ugly name, asks Alastair Gilmour

What do you first think of when you hear the word “gastropub”? Is it a pub that makes a little bit more effort when it comes to food? A restaurant that happens to sell beer? Or a pub that long ago ceased to operate as such but now reels them in with triple-cooked chips and monkfish cheeks?

We can’t argue with any of that – we’d rather see a pub kept alive than watch it wither and eventually transform into a Tesco Express – but it’s the all-inclusive term that sticks in the craw. “Gastropub” is far too close to “gastroenteritis” for some of us to stomach, and would we welcome a gastropod – all slime and antennae – lurking in our lettuce?

Gastric bands are a last resort and, admittedly, gastronomes know their food, but it’s really difficult to think of a catchy, embrace-all word or phrase to describe a pub that offers great beer, serious wine and classic spirits alongside well-considered food prepared by a trained chef with lofty aspirations.

The term “gastropub” was coined in 1991 when businessmen David Eyre and Mike Belben took over The Eagle in Clerkenwell, London. The concept of a restaurant in a pub reinvigorated both pub culture and British dining, though it has occasionally attracted criticism for potentially removing the character of the traditional boozer.

David Eyre has since said: “I am always and continually bemused as to why The Eagle was regarded as a radical idea. We took an obvious idea and gave it a twist.”

The Good Food Guide, which has chronicled the nation’s best restaurants for 60 years, eventually found the g-word unpalatable and banned it from its 2012 collection and all future editions. Elizabeth Carter, its consultant editor, believed that the term had become a byword for an establishment’s ambitions and, at a time when pubs have been hit hard by the recession, this inflexible attitude was becoming a thing of the past.

“Our feeling with the gastropub was that it was a bit of a bandwagon that a lot of people have jumped on to,” she said at the time. “A lot of chains have taken that gastropub style. I think customers are getting bored with it. Pubs have to be socially diverse, they have to offer many things whether you pop in for a drink and a snack or you want a proper meal.”

So-called celebrity chefs have added their weight to the gastropub debate – what it is and what it isn’t. For example, chef Antony Worrall Thompson, owner of the Greyhound pub near Henley-on-Thames in Surrey, approves of the move away from the term.

“I hate that word,” he said. “I think all pubs should avoid the word gastropub. To me it’s a bit like all the critics giving a film a triple-A rating. You go and you think, ‘What did they see in that?’ It sets you up for disappointment. If you label yourself gastropub you’re asking for trouble, that’s for sure.”

Tom Aikens, the Michelin-starred chef and owner of Tom Aikens Restaurant in Chelsea, disagrees however, believing that demand will always be there for gastropubs.

He said: “I think the gastropub does target a wider audience than a traditional pub or other restaurants and they are pretty flexible in what they serve.”

But there’s life in the sector yet, even if the name causes division. Raymond Blanc’s White Brasserie company is planning to launch a series of new pubs over the coming year, although particular venues haven’t yet been disclosed.

“Pubs are a great British institution,” he told the Daily Telegraph in November 2013. “Like opera for the few and rock’n’roll for the many.”

Politicians also know the value of a good pub menu. Prime minister David Cameron took French president François Hollande to Oxfordshire pub, The Swan Inn, for lunch recently following a summit meeting. The pair enjoyed a meal of locally-sourced potted shrimps, rainbow trout and bramley apple crumble, with two halves of Hook Norton ale and not-so-local French wine.

“So many pubs have gone bankrupt in the last few years. It was a nightmare, a slaughter. I want to see a food revolution in pubs across the country.”

Food revolution, mmm, that’s getting somewhere close, though a tad clumsy for a labelling.

So what should we call a pub that offers great food, then? Foodie pub? A touch disparaging. Gourmet pub? Trying too hard. Bon vivant? Too French. Epicurean? Not slick enough.

Some of our North East pubs have good reason to enjoy the gastropub description, so let’s stick with it for now. The Broad Chare, just off Newcastle’s Quayside, and The Feathers Inn at Hedley on the Hill, near Stocksfield in Northumberland were late last year both voted among the top 20 gastropubs in the country by The Times. The Bridge Tavern in Newcastle won a “best newcomer” award for its food from The Journal, though it would probably run a mile from being known as gastro.

The Rat Inn, Anick, near Hexham, is an absolute gem for dining well and drinking in some of the best local beers around, while Battlesteads at Wark, Northumberland, has not only won awards for its food and eco-friendly focus, it grows most of what goes onto the plate in its extensive gardens.

“The Feathers also made it into the Sunday Times list of Britain’s top 130 restaurants under £50,” says the pub’s co-owner Helen Greer. “We were the only pub in the North East to make this particular list and we were so very proud of our achievement.”

So, how do you get a reputation for offering a “different” menu combined with a thought-provoking drinks range without shouting “gastropub” at every opportunity? It would seem all it takes is a little imagination, a little courage and a little evangelism. The customer is ready, but as always, they need to be enticed into taking the leap.

Pubs can really score since they serve cask-conditioned ales and craft beers (another much-abused descriptor that now even has its keenest devotees running from it) but they need to crusade for the virtues of these more and also serve them better – in nice glasses – and in varying quantities other than a pint. Restaurants, though, should also be serving a far better range of beers than they do at present and offering beers on the wine list or even a separate beer list.

And with the supermarket revolution in bottled beers, nothing could be easier. But it’s got to be done with enthusiasm, passion and commitment.

We might have to live with gastropub portrayal for a little while longer, until pubs such as The Feathers, Broad Chare and Bridge Tavern become mainstream. Let’s simply enjoy the innovations in food and beer and wallow in the ambience and not worry too much about semantics or creatures with antennae.

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Alastair Gilmour

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