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.”
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.)