In the last twenty years, British drinkers may have noticed a reinvention of the ‘traditional’ pub. Gone are the nicotine yellow painted walls. Gone too, is the reason for that specialised colour of paint. The disappearance of the nicotine and the smokers has brought new opportunities for the publican, in the form of open plan, light coloured interiors, with solid wooden tables and floors, and mis-matched, beautifully upholstered chairs. And without the smoke, a new smell has emerged. The aroma of fabulous, unfussy food, locally produced and proudly presented alongside much lauded real ales and respectable Belgian lagers. The Gastropub has come to light.
Now the smokers only vanished five years ago, but the Gastropub as we know it is largely accepted to have begun in 1991, with The Eagle, in Clerkenwell, a classic (and original) rendition of the concept. To an extent, its central London location is likely to have aided its success, but the model took hold and spread through the country over the following years. After all, why shouldn’t pubs produce great food with great beer?
By 1991, according to the British Beer and Pub Association, there were only 62,200 pubs in Britain, with 6,800 establishments having disappeared since 1980. The fall of the popularity of the pub was already beginning to threaten the industry, and innovation was required to improve the situation.
The innovation wasn’t in the good food, or the real ale. It was in the understanding that the market needed to open up to include everyone and with that, the re-branding of a well known adage: the way to a man’s heart leads through his stomach. The drinkers, the restaurant goers, and the families, all are as important as each other when it comes to vying for popularity of custom. The British pub, traditional or otherwise, is firmly placed in the British heart, so what better way to keep it there than to feed it wonderful grub?
The provision of a luxury, yet unpretentious meal at a reasonable price with an atmosphere (and facilities) appropriate for young children as well as the elderly, and all of those in between, must surely be the perfect way to please everyone. No alienating foams and jus. Chicken pie with thick chips and gravy in a dipping bowl (so the chips don’t get soggy). Well hung, local steak, accompanied by beer battered onion rings and grilled flat field mushrooms. Lager for its popularity; real ale for the connoisseurs; draught cider from English apples for those who can’t take beer; and well-chosen wine for everyone else. These, both food and drink, are the staples of the Gastropub.
So, if your run your own pub, or are thinking about doing so, even if it doesn’t hold the moniker of ‘Gastropub’, the food offer can be all important. Not just an afterthought of ‘pub-grub’, but to entice the drinkers into eating a reasonably priced, good value meal. Not every pub is located in the best place for posh-nosh and petit fours, but few customers are immune to the smell of genuine home cooked pie and chips after a couple of pints and a chinwag. While visits to pubs for drinking purposes only have continued to drop to 4.3 or less, per month, restaurants still remain the most popular national leisure activity and it is just as important now as ever for pubs to keep up with the competition.
Written by Michael Palmer a blogger in the hospitality industry