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There is no bigger fan of a good gastropub than Matthew Fort but, he argues, too many wannabes are jumping on the bandwagon and getting it wrong
The pub is to Britain what the brasserie or bistro is to France – ubiquitous, informal, relatively cheap and a democratic place of refreshment. Traditionally, the refreshment in pubs, to all intents and purposes, was liquid, and almost exclusively beer and spirits. Wine in the past was very much the poor relation and food a secondary, if not cursory, consideration.
Those of us with long memories can recall the vile gastronomic tortures that were inflicted on the unwary would-be luncher in pubs of yore: chicken ‘n’ chips, quite possibly in a basket, that managed to be both desiccated and greasy; cardboard pies; bready sausages; industrial-quality baked beans; acidic salads; any number of viscous goos passed off as homemade steak’n’kidney/lasagne/hotpot/moussaka; sandwiches made with bread that you could use for sandpapering the walls; and soup of the day that would be tinned tomato soup that day and every day.
Menus were either very short and very boring, featuring nothing you could trust to eat with pleasure, or very long and very eclectic with, similarly, nothing you could trust to eat with pleasure.
And then there were those places whose idea of a three-course meal was a bag of crisps followed by a bag of dry-roasted peanuts followed by another bag of crisps. To which, for variety, you could add a bag of pork scratchings.
But at least the beer was usually reliable. Let’s face it, these were boozers and they had their rightful place in the scheme of things. When you entered the best of them, you stepped out of time into a space where there was no time, only to re-emerge into the world a few hours later with blinking eyes and a rather fuzzy head.
And then along came the gastropub, which changed all of that, mostly for the better. Gastropubs were a breath of fresh air, a crusading new wing of the restaurant sector, bringing decent grub at decent prices to decent people. All jolly good. And very welcome.
But that was then. These days, the gastropub is in danger of going the way of the British town centre: cloned, characterless, soulless, lifeless, heartless, boring, boring, boring. Increasingly, the gastropub is becoming just another commercial opportunity for organisations that routinely talk of ‘marketing imperatives’, ‘buying power’ and ‘economies of scale’.
Gastropub ‘concepts’ are being rolled out all over our green and pleasant land, complete with carefully stylised and mismatched (and deeply uncomfortable) furniture, an artfully achieved scruffy look, shiny-eyed managers, inadequately trained (and paid) waiters and waitresses, absurdly priced wine lists that ramble all over the New World, badly kept beers, and food that … well, where do I start?
God preserve me from another bit of roasted cod, any more pan-bloody-fried sea bass, grilled squid with chilli, grilled tuna, wild mushroom risotto, goats’ cheese starters and another Gloucester Old Spot anything – sausage, belly pork, whatever.
Have you noticed that Gloucester Old Spot pigs now rule the porcine world? You wouldn’t credit that once we had a pig culture of incomparable richness: Lops, Saddlebacks, Little Whites, Curly Coats, Yorkshire Blue and Whites and Middle Whites. Indeed, Middle Whites – the pride of Yorkshire – became the porker of choice for Londoners and even for the emperor of Japan, who still has a herd of them somewhere in his backyard.
But, as far as modern gastropub culture is concerned, there is no pig but the Gloucester Old Spot. It has become the Prada handbag of the pig world: no gastropub wants to be seen without one.
The concept of real food cooked by real chefs who have real skills is fast disappearing. In have come cloned dishes from identikit menus, produced to a formula by scarcely trained staff. Cooking has been reduced to the lowest common denominator. Technology, centralised production and commercial homogenisation have taken over from style, class, taste and personality.
Notions of personal cooking skills and individual dishes based on local ingredients have all but disappeared, as have the price advantages that eating in a gastropub originally promised. These days, the difference between eating in a pub and eating in a restaurant have just about vanished, which means gastro democracy is once again defined by income rather than taste. In fact, the very word ‘gastropub’ has become a marketing tool.
There seem to be precious few out-and-out restaurants in the country any more. They have to subscribe to the gastropub formula to have any chance of survival – although the ‘pub’ part of the word is, in many cases, redundant. The idea of many venues having eating space cluttered with yokels in search of a refreshing pint is anathema. No, it’s those folk who see food as a fashion accessory – and who are prepared to pay any price for it – that these places really want.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a good gastropub. Send me to The Three Fishes at Mitton in Lancashire, The Star Inn at Harome in Yorkshire, The Swan at Southrop in Gloucestershire, The Hinds Head in Bray, Berkshire, or the Anchor & Hope in London, and I am a very happy man. There’s a spring in my step and a song in my heart because I know that in my tummy I will soon have good food cooked by skilled chefs who have gone to the trouble of sourcing the best local ingredients. Joy lies in variety, not in homogeneity; in personality, not in marketing constructs; and in individuality, not in chains.
PS: Sod the whale and the giant panda. Save the unreconstructed boozer, where the beer runs clear from the handpump, the Sporting Life lies folded on the bar and time stands still.
Oh yes, and where you can also find a reliable choice of plain, cheese-and-onion or salt-and-vinegar crisps.
36 The Cut, London SE1. Tel: 020 7928 9898
27 Coldharbour, Docklands, London E14. Tel: 020 7515 5222
High Street, Bray, Berkshire. Tel: 01628 626151
11-13 Churchfield Road, London W3. Tel: 020 8993 6123
Titley, Nr Kington, Herefordshire. Tel: 01544 230221
Harome, nr Helmsley, North Yorkshire. Tel: 01439 770397
Southrop, Lechlade, Gloucestershire. Tel: 01367 850205
Knightwick, Worcestershire. Tel: 01886 821235
Mitton Road, Mitton, Lancashire. Tel: 01254 826888
108 Fetter Lane, London EC4. Tel: 020 7242 9696
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Spring 2007