Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Gastropubs save the Universe

Geoff, my correspondent in Hounlsow, has e-mailed to me an article in The Guardian written by Zoe Williams: "Twenty-five years of the gastropub - a revolution that saved British boozers". I'm always wary of such sweeping statements that are no more than hype about the topic in question rather than any general reality. Similarly irritating are articles and books with silly titles like "X number of things to do/eat/drink before you die".

Ms Williams writes: "Before the Eagle opened on a corner in Farringdon, London, a quarter of a century ago this month, eating was different and drinking was different. The gastropub revolution has been chiefly held to have improved pubs, rescued us from a life of pork scratchings and wet sandwiches toasted in their bags, but it was of immeasurable benefit, too, to gastronomy." The question arises: "chiefly held" by whom, precisely?

So food in pubs other than crisps and butties began in 1991, did it? Ms Williams wouldn't know as she would have been 17 at the time and if she were going to pubs then, I seriously doubt it would be to sample the food. I can assure her that pub food beyond pork scratchings existed a long time before 1991. Her article includes other sweeping generalisations that I don't intend to refute point by point, but suffice to say it does not present the knowledgeable broad overview of pub life that she attempts to affect. Her hypothesis is undermined by the survival of many pubs that either don't serve food at all, or offer no more than traditional snacks. While the numbers of wet-led outlets has declined, were she right, these would have mostly vanished after 25 years of the gastropub 'revolution'.

I am currently writing pub reviews for the local paper (you may also have noticed them on this blog), and food is an important part of the business of many of these pubs, but I would describe none of those I've visited as gastropubs. All have been anxious to emphasise their pub credentials, with customers welcome to sit and drink without being hovered over, or even displaced, by diners. Some may have parts of the pub that are reserved for diners when meals are being served, but always retain areas for drinkers.

Ms Williams goes on to give a list of the "The top 10 UK gastropubs", derived from a survey across the country sponsored by the Morning Advertiser. It is clear from the methodology that it is "The Industry's Choice" (their phrase), so a place on the list is not unlike an industry award. While it may be of interest to gastropub enthusiasts, it should be taken no more seriously than any other gongs that insiders award to their own.

Some local papers around here have published lists of "the best local pubs" based on Trip Advisor reports. While Trip Advisor has a broader base, most of its reports are written by visitors, not locals. Ordinary drinkers wandering around their local pubs won't usually go tapping on-line when they get home after a night on the ale. Like it or not, the only selective guide to pubs of any kind that is based the views of thousands of ordinary customers across the whole country remains the CAMRA Good Beer Guide. 

So does Ms Williams have a point about boozers being saved by the gastropub? In my opinion, no. I assume she was given X number of words to write on the topic and doubtless she did her best, but I don't get the impression she really knew what she was writing about.


  1. The Eagle isn't even in Farringdon - it's on Farringdon Road, but *in* Clerkenwell (the road leads to the area, which is down by the river in the City).

    And it didn't *open* at the time described: it's been there for a very long time, long before the gastropub thing took it over.

    As it happens the Eagle has stayed pretty consistently good for all these years. As a place it doesn't suit everyone, but the food's stayed good since the 90s despite changes of chef and ownership.

    Incidentally the next two Clerkenwell pubs to also go "gastro" in imitation of their neighbour the Eagle were the Coach & Horses (closed for good last year) and the Gunmakers (no longer owned by me but still very much alive).

  2. Thanks, Stonch, you've just confirmed what I wrote in my final sentence.

  3. Certainly a lot of the big old boozers in London have been saved and thrive only because they have turned gastro.

  4. I'm not familiar with London pubs; assuming you're right, then the article shows the London-centric bias of the writer. I'd also make the point, which may or may not be relevant to your point Jocko, that not every pub that serves food is a gastropub.

  5. The Eagle was probably the nearest pub to the Guardian offices when they were in Farringdon Road. It was one of Watney's ill-fated 'fun pub' conversions in the late 80s and the date may refer to when it was converted back into a 'proper' pub.

  6. I saw that a while back but didn't actually write a blog on it, although I did mention it on Twitter. It struck me as very ill-informed and basically wrong in pretty much every respect.


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