The gastropub is dead – official

The gastropub is no more – its death officially declared this week by the Good Food Guide, which has banned the term from the pages of its 2012 edition and all subsequent editions.

According to the Independent on Sunday, quoting Elizabeth Carter, consultant editor for the guide,

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. 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. Pubs realise that your local business is very important, as is hospitality. It’s getting away from being like a restaurant and going back to being a pub.”

The Eagle: self-conscious

Well, yes. My feeling about the Eagle in Clerkenwell, London, generally accepted as the first “gastropub” when it opened exactly 20 years ago, and which effectively defined the “gastropub vibe” of blackboard menus, bare floors, non-matching furniture and ostensibly unfussed food, was that it was always much more like a restaurant that wouldn’t actually object if you only wanted a drink, rather than a pub with food.

The Eagle worked, however, in large part because of its location, just up from the then-offices of the Guardian newspaper: it was surrounded by people who loved the gastropub’s air of self-conscious “unpretention”, and couldn’t recognise the self-conscious part. The take-off of the concept was slow: the Oxford English Dictionary only records the actual word “gastropub” from 1996, and the vast Lexis-Nexis database doesn’t find any examples in magazines or newspapers until the following year, six years after the Eagle had landed. But the Farringdon Road original eventually spawned literally thousands of imitators: according to the Independent there were 5,000 “gastropubs” in the UK by 2003, one in 12 of the nation’s pub stock. The next year, 2004, Marks & Spencer launched a “Gastropub” ready meals range of “modern British classics”: proof, perhaps, that the term “gastropub” had by then jumped the shark.

However the arrival of the gastropub in the 1990s raised everybody’s expectations about the food that pubs could and should be expected to supply: for those of you too young to remember what “pub food” was like in the 1970s and 1980s (let alone before), the word “grim” barely covers it. You couldn’t be certain if you would find any food, of any sort, on sale in a strange pub, certainly after the lunchtime session, and if there was food it was likely to be dire. The OED’s first recorded mention of the term gastropub actually comes from the London Evening Standard, which said, in April 1996:

“Will stale pork pies and reheated bangers ever be axed from pub menus? The rise of the gastro-pub suggests that, one day, they might.”

Fifteen years later, I’d say the Evening Standard’s prediction was spot-on: in my corner of suburban West London (admittedly a pretty middle-class corner) you probably couldn’t find a pork pie in a pub today if you wanted to, but perhaps a third of the local pubs have areas for diners and several have substantial food operations: my second-closest pub, the Old Goat, effectively has a Belgian restaurant rammed into the back half, while still managing to be a two-bar pub in the front (with a very good beer range, British and Belgian). Would – could – that have happened without the Eagle?

Of course, the big problem with the gastropub concept as it spread was that those who still wanted to use their pub purely as a place to drink and meet their mates sometimes felt pushed out by the changes: too much “gastro” and not enough “pub”. But while the British have been lifting their eating-out spend over the past few years, the recession is hammering the pub: a report last week suggested that the average number of pub visits per person a month in the UK had dropped from five to four in the past year, while the average spend per visit was down by almost a fifth, to £15.08. Combine those two, and while the number of individuals visiting pubs has risen slightly, it still suggests total pub turnover has dropped on average by around a third in 12 months.

Clearly, when that’s going on, what you don’t want to be doing is putting off those who have been previously coming to your pub regularly: you need all the spend you can grab. One man who seems to have recognised this is Simon Goodman, head chef and co-owner of the Duke of Cumberland Arms in Henley, West Sussex, the 2012 Good Food Guide Pub of the Year. Goodman told the Independent that when he took over the pub he sought to maintain the pubby atmosphere by keeping the bar element and adding a new dining space:

“When I was younger, I wanted a more restaurant-style pub, I was aiming for the very gastro end of the market and fighting for rosettes and prizes; but now I just try to feed people what they want. To keep the drinkers happy is as much of a mission for me as keeping the restaurant full.”

And yet I suggest the Duke of Cumberland Arms is still not a “true” pub when even ham, egg and chips will cost you £13 a plate, and if you want the Sunday roast you have to pre-book by Thursday evening at the latest, guarantee at least four people will turn up and pay £18 a head.

What seems to me to be the direction the 21st century pub should be going is to be found in the newly reopened Sussex Arms just off Twickenham Green, previously a run-down and smelly Edwardian-era boozer completely overshadowed by two very good nearby Fuller’s outlets. A magic wand has been waved, which has sympathetically restored what always had the potential to be a very attractive interior (lovely old stained glass armorial decorations in the windows), and a huge bank of handpumps installed, serving an eclectic and ever-changing range of cask ales and ciders: the two pints I tried (Red Squirrel and Ilkley Black) were both more than good. The food was, as it would have to be to compete, fresh, well-cooked and well-presented (a mini-bowl of gravy to dip my chips in? Yes, thanks!), and (currently) very cheap. The 30-somethings behind the bar know enough to ask old gits like me: “Straight or handle?”, a question I haven’t heard for years. (The answer is: “I genuinely don’t mind.”)

But what put the creamy head on the pint for me, you may be surprised, was the background music. It was clearly something chosen by the man in charge and put on because he liked it, not because he thought it might be popular (something obscure by Three Dog Night, it transpired). While I admired that, what I loved, which became obvious when the music started to stutter, was that it was vinyl. The retro-idiosyncracy of refurbishing a pub in 2011 and installing a sound system that can play 12-inch LPs appeals to me greatly: corporate conformity is fine in coffee shops, but I like my pubs to be individualistic, and I suspect many others who visit pubs regularly do too.

(Incidentally, journo-friends who tutted at the headline, yes, I know “X is Y – official” is a dreadful tabloid cliché – sometimes clichés are the most effective way to impart a message.)

33 thoughts on “The gastropub is dead – official

  1. Perhaps it is more a case of “we are all gastropubs now” and so the term is no longer needed to distinguish some pubs from the general herd. I certainly don’t see any sign of a swing back towards a more drink-focused offer. If anything the pendulum is still very much swinging the other way.

    I would also question whether pub food thirty years ago was as bad as you make out. I have been regularly eating in pubs since then and recall that in those days, while maybe fewer pubs overall offered food, there was often a sense of innovation and experimentation that is lacking nowadays when so many pubs offer basically the same predictable, market research driven menu.

    1. You must have been luckier in your food pubs than I ever was – I don’t remember any sort of innovation or experimentation in pub food in 1981. I’m not saying it didn’t exist, but those very few pubs that provided decent food, in my experience, had menus that were much the same as a High Street restaurant’s then would have been.

  2. I’m with Jeff on this, though the word I hear is “gastropod” but without the garlic butter connotations. “Ghastly” is in there too.

    I don’t really understand why the Good Food Guide needed the term in the first place. Isn’t a pub which appears in the Good Food Guide a gastropub by default? There’s no need to separate gastro- from nongastro- in that context.

  3. The term gastropub is awful, and good to see that at least one publication is not in favour of it. I suspect, though, that the term is here to stay for a while longer – it’s catchy, and people (and the media) like it as an easy shorthand for a pub which has turned into a restaurant.

    The Eagle, though it was the first, as far as anyone can work out, that had the catchy and awful term “gastropub” attached to it, was part of a general move toward food focus in pubs, rather than being solely responsible for it. Pubs had been moving more and more into food for some time. Sunday lunch especially! And there had been plenty of food ideas tried out in pubs – anyone else remember chicken in a basket? Scamp and chips? And the ploughman’s lunch was a pub food innovation – one that dates from the 1960s. If there was any real significant influence, it would be Tim Martin’s Wetherspoon chain which showed on a massive scale that it could be profitable to serve food all day long, and to have menus left on tables all the time.

    I suppose the difference is in the attitude of the pub. If the pub no longer allows casual drinking it is a restaurant conversion; if it has a square of newspaper in the corner on which a drinker can stand it is a gastropub, if there is a special pub room then it is a “family pub” such as a Brewers Fayre, if you can sit anywhere to drink, then it is a pub that serves food.

  4. Another shark-jumping moment for the term: Two years ago, two restaurants opened in Copenhagen, calling themselves gastro-pub. I suppose they tried to have a down-to-earth athmosphere. There drinks were a couple of Carlsberg varieties and a wine list…

  5. I think the ‘ban on ordinary drinkers’ in gastropubs is partly imagined. God knows I’m easily spooked and socially awkward, but I’ve never had any problem going into a pub/gastropub and having just a drink, even if the bar staff and manager are giving me the stink-eye.

    I also find it baffling that people object to decent food being on offer *at all*. I often want to eat when I’m drinking and am usually pleased to find that a pub offers food, as long as it’s not compulsory. (Although I agree that a pork pie/decent sandwich does the job nicely.)

    You know what I don’t miss? “Ham rolls” in a mountain behind the counter: soft sugary white roll, Stork margarine, “ham” and clingfilm. Yum.

    1. Sounds like you’re more thick-skinned than you imagine! There are fewer pubs that could be described as ‘gastro’ in my neck of the woods, Northumberland and Tyneside, but the better ones are simply restaurants in former pubs that sell a cask ale or two to supplement their draught offer to diners, and their extensive wine lists. It’s frankly not possible just to pitch up for a couple of pints. The best ‘food’ pubs are those that strike a good balance and often entice the drinker into eating without pressure, purely by the sight and smell of the food.

  6. I see it as Curmudgeon does, most pubs I’ve seen in London and the regional cities offer a good menu and have absorbed the gastro-pub concept, to the point where the name is otiose. I do accept that the fancier flourishes of some aspirants in the past are being dispensed with, probably a good thing. But the food pub seems here to stay.

    I think it had a few progenitors. One was a restaurant in East London whose name I can’t recall, it had hard pew-like wooden seats and focused on a resolutely British menu – simple good food well-prepared. It wasn’t a pub, but it had an excellent bottled beer list and draught beer too I think. It had existed for many decades but the beer theme was added on in the 80’s, In my view, it helped spur the gastropub concept. So did pubs like the Churchill Arms on Kensington Church Street, which had (and may still) an excellent Thai restaurant. Finally, a few pubs even in the old days always had excellent food, and they formed a model too, e.g., the pub in Narrow Street, Limehouse which was in Dickens and served – and may still again – excellent fish meals. The Grapes.

    I’ve always been of two minds about this in the sense that when trying to savour good beer, food sometimes gets in the way. A smell of chips or curry often is just what you don’t want when trying to enjoy a beer…

    But I think we have to accept the old days of the strictly beer boozer with a packet of chips (crisps I mean) and the odd cold pie are probably gone. Maybe in the country and small towns you can still find them and I hope so, I’d visit one in a moment. But today given the drink and driving laws and peoples’ work and commuting habits, the modern pub which does a good food business seems here to stay. And it is a good thing for the industry because it is a draw for some people who might otherwise drink beer at home. It helps “bring them in”, and doesn’t hurt in that you can still offer as the newly opened place you mentioned, Martyn, excellent real beer with a good food menu.


  7. It reminds me of an Irish pub in Japan once where the owner had a TV that just constantly played “Irish Stuff.” One day we told him “Hey man, you should just put on stuff you want to watch…..and sports…we’ll watch and drink with you.” People try to hard to fit molds these days or create an atmosphere via a “paint by numbers” scheme.

    Also, “straight and handle?”

    1. “Straight or handle?” means “Would you like your pint served in a handleless, smooth-sided glass, eg a Nonic, or a dimpled jug with a handle?” Some have a strong preference, I really don’t mind.

  8. I’ve noticed a similar trend with brew-pubs in the U.S, at least in my area.

    During the mid 1990s, Albany’s capitol region, used to have a good number of brew pubs, five or six by my count—most of which had pretty lousy food and marginal beer. By 2004-ish, only two of those businesses were still operating, both of which have excellent beer and food. It’s obvious, just as Carter points out, that these brewpubs were the result of a bit of bandwagoning. I’m not saying that the brewpub in the U.S. is dead by any means, but they did take a heavy hit in my area. I think what both brewpub and gastropub owners forget is, regardless of beer selection or even beer quality, if the food you serve isn’t very good, you’re not going to make it. A pub or bar can succeed, just as it is without the addition of food, but when you add food into the mix—and it’s not very good—people are more likely not to return to your establishment just for the beer. Shiny copper brew kettles, blackboard menus and mis-matched couches are no substitutes, in the long run for decent product—not matter what the “trends” say.

    By the way, you’ve got to love the Craig² posts!

  9. Fifteen quid? Per person? I don’t think I’ve ever spent that much in a pub. (I reckon on 6-8 pub visits per month, average spend £7 at most. But I almost never eat in pubs – except when I’m away from home – so maybe there’s a point there about how the ‘average’ pub experience is changing.)

  10. @ Craig regarding US Brewpubs

    From my research I have found that It is “common wisdom” that US brewpubs must be successful restaurants in their own right. In some places this “wisdom” actually has force of law. Texas brewpubs must derive 51% of their income from food sales in order to maintain their brewpub license. I assume this was pushed by “big beer” in order to limit potential competitors.

    1. I’m not sure if it’s big beer or just a stupid blue law. Some states have pretty bizarre laws regarding alcohol. A good number of U.S. alcohol laws were put on the books, just after the repeal of Prohibition, as a “lesser” method of alcohol control. As a result, when brewpubs really started popping up in the early 1990s, they were subject to laws that were written fifty or sixty years earlier for an industry that was significantly different. I don’t know this for sure, but I would speculate that all establishments, in Texas, that serve alcohol also are required to serve some kind of food. Maybe not, but it wouldn’t surprise me. It might also be a taxation issue. Breweries may get taxed differently than brewpubs, so requiring a larger portion of food rather than beer sales may help define the line between a full-fledged brewery and a brewpub. Again this is all speculation, but I’m not sure AB or Miller would have been all that threatened, twenty years ago, by a relatively few brew pubs.

      1. Big Beer and the distributors have been playing a very transparent hand over the last few years. Craft brewers have been pushing for several new laws in Texas over the past few legislative sessions and the little guys have been fought tooth and nail by the big guys. Especially after this last session, it is very clear to craft brewers which state politicians have been bought off by the big guys.

        Also, I can assure you that bars do not have to serve food, as a general rule 🙂 I would not doubt that an establishments revenue breakdown determine what kind of license it needs (bar or restaurant).

  11. Er – sorry to ruin the fairly positive atmosphere here folks but 1) I have never eaten decent restaurant type food in a pub (despite eating with British collegues & customers all over the UK in pubs they have chosen) & 2) When I lived full time in UK, the lunchtime simple “ploughman’s” was a chunk of good bread fresh that day & a lovely bit of stilton, just right. All the meals I’ve had in the 30 years since, the last being 6 months ago in Essex, have been very similar : the chips are soggy, the waitress/waiter had no idea about what she/he was offering & could give no advice as to which food with which beer, meat overcooked whether you ask for it blue or well done, etc, etc. i have no doubt that there are some very “high end” establishments out there, but, as you say Martyn, I’d call them restaurants which serve beer. No, give me my bread & stilton any day !

  12. Although the term ‘Gastropub’ seems to be deeply unfashionable now, i think many good pubs that offer good food are survuiving where many that serve attrocious microwave lasagne and a dreary ploughmans have had a much tougher time of it. Surely these pubs can maintain the feel of a good traditional pub and serve well made simple food with well sourced ingredients.

  13. I think that like anything we do, we sometimes tend to take things to an extreme. The bad thing about Gastropubs – and maybe thier ultimate downfall – was concentrating too much on ‘gastro’, and thus neglecting a whole tranche of drinkers who are just as important as people who want to eat. It’s simple really – all pubs need to do is serve good food with good beer, and people will come to do both. Perfect examples of this would be The Marble Arch in Manchester, or The Dean Swift. It can be as complex (full menus) or as simple (good pies and rolls) and they want to make it, as long as its inclusive.

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