The British have always had a strong love affair with pubs. There are over 50,000 in the UK and they are often worshipped as the focal point of a community; a place to celebrate and mourn in equal measure.
The regular pub was once a place for a man to sink 8 pints with a pork pie and a bag of dry roasted peanuts before heading home, late of course, for dinner prepared by his wife. Like society itself, the traditional pub has since evolved; indeed, evolution is inherent to the success of any creation, however much we long to hold on to our traditions.
In the late 1980s, heavily in the throes of a Conservative government, the UK’s pub scene witnessed its biggest upheaval in decades, with the large breweries being forced to sell some of their properties, making way for improved competition and fewer barriers to entry; and thus many believe that, from the jaws of Thatcherism, the gastropub was born.
The Eagle, in Clerkenwell, is attributed with being the pioneer of the gastropub movement in the early 90s and it remains at the top of its field with a daily changing, if somewhat limited, pub menu with Spanish influences.
The Eagle strikes the right balance between a pub and a restaurant, and therein lies the problem for most. (Note: Read our guide to the best restaurants in Clerkenwell.)
A gastropub is not simply a restaurant that has beer on tap; nor is it an ale house that serves a ploughman’s lunch as a side thought; it is, by definition, a place where good food and drink sit seamlessly side by side, where the whole is just as good as the sum of its constituent ingredients.
The gastropub movement has been widely attributed to the rise to prominence of British cuisine, which has allowed us to embrace our heritage and traditions, but with a modern twist. We venture out for ‘an Indian’ or ‘an Italian’, but never ‘a British’; we go the pub for dinner when we talk of ‘a British’.
Its antagonists, however, of which there are many, argue that a pub should stick to serving ale, with no greater culinary aspirations than a bought-in pork pie or a pasty.
Whilst I agree that an amuse bouche emulsion with foie gras jus has no place on a pub menu, there are few things more pleasing than the fusion of good food and beer, both under the same roof.
Few of us would expect every pizzeria to have the perfect toppings or for every Michelin star to dazzle as bright as each other; yet many will take a defiant stance against the notion of a gastropub if they have come across one or two that fall short.
We learn from an early age that not everything can be perfect, something that we’re reminded of all too often with regard to restaurants, but it may be that, as a nation, we are too protective of the traditional notion of the pub and that any unsuccessful detour is considered sacrilege.
The Harwood Arms, in Fulham, has raised the gastro bar by being the first pub in London to be awarded a Michelin star earlier this year. Others, like hungry wolves, will now surely try to raise their game to join them in their glory, which can only be a good thing for British pubs and for British cuisine in general.
With its simple and rustic interior and distinctly British cooking, including favourites such as venison scotch egg, The Harwood Arms is every inch the modern gastropub, but for me, a gastropub needs an equal measure of food and drink. There should be sufficient space for beer drinkers, otherwise it is merely a restaurant serving beer under the guise and pretty décor of the gastropub phenomenon.
One that gets it right is The Drapers Arms, in Islington, which was lovingly restored to its former glory in 2008. At the entrance, it is immediately bustling and welcoming, with ample beers, ales and ciders on tap for the drinkers, which stand lovingly alongside, but not encroaching on, the diners to the sides and upstairs.
The aspiration for most is The Sportsman in Kent, which uses fresh, sustainable and locally sourced ingredients to create simple, honest and, above all, incredible dishes in a traditional pub setting, a model upon which all gastropub should be based – it’s rustic but homely, charming but rough around the edges, and gives food and alcohol equal thought.
This is how a gastropub should be – a place that brings our two loves, food and booze, together in relaxed, unpretentious surroundings. On a lazy Sunday, a restaurant setting just won’t cut the mustard; the hangover demands wholesome, homely and well cooked classics to accompany a bloody mary or a lager shandy, and where else can you sit at your leisure with the papers, slouched in your chair without worrying too much about being ‘proper’?
A true gastropub should not be defined by its ubiquitous design, its wooden floors or its black chalk board menu, but by the quality of the food and alcohol it serves in its genre – in this case simple, rustic dishes with robust flavours, lovingly prepared. Any establishment serving food should be judged a similar basis, however it is defined.
With nostalgic, hearty, British fare currently making a welcome return to our plates, the gastropub should lie at the heart of the movement as we reconnect with our traditions and heritage whilst simultaneously embracing change.