And so it came to pass that the gastropub, that once-mighty bringer of semi-decent pub grub throughout the land, was no more. Or so The Good Food Guide says. It claims that the term is no longer relevant; once used to distinguish pubs serving food from pubs serving crisps and pork scratchings, now the gastropub label is actually deriding that which it once elevated.
The concept of the gastropub arrived on the foodie scene with the launch of The Eagle in East London in the mid-1990s. Suddenly their casual, Med-inspired dishes served alongside elevated pub booze became, quite literally, the talk of the town and the pub was reinvented. Boozers, to differentiate, were for old men; everyone, darling, was eating out in gastropubs – they were cheaper, more ‘real’ and often offered more eclectic choice and quality than many restaurants.
But the gastropub became a cliché and The GFG has it quite right when it says that the term has become meaningless. As the concept spread, young chefs and would-be restaurateurs took over traditional boozers to gain experience and independence without the necessary concomitant high spending and ramped the menu prices up in the process. Within a decade, it became hard to distinguish between gastropubs and restaurants. The stalwart drinkers were shoved to one side, the smokers outside as the law changed and as the concept of a pub changed entirely, from a quiet place to drink of an evening to a crowded place to eat, the quality plummeted – serve cheap food, call yourself a ‘gastropub’ and they will come.
The label did serve to bring about some change in the industry and bring money through the door of formerly-struggling drinking pubs. When a pub gets it right, it’s worth giving it some loyalty. However, not all ‘gastropubs’ serve good food, just as not all restaurants do and The GFG is peering through the bottom of a rosé-tinted wine glass if it thinks that the term can be eradicated because – in its view – most pubs now serve “casual, keenly-priced” food with “all the old favourites back in favour”. It’s somewhat of a bucolic idyll it paints: the rosy-cheeked landlord doling out own-made Scotch eggs from behind the bar as he pulls a pint of CAMRA-recommended local beer.
We would argue that actually, that’s still not widely the case. Sure there are some good pubs around serving good food, some of it even home-grown or locally sourced, but is it really the majority? To claim that ‘gastropub’ has served its purpose and now pubs everywhere serve both the drinker and the diner alike is a little sweeping, to say the least. Many remain hardened drinkers’ dens, swirly carpets and all, because the locals and the landlord like it like that. Some choose to offer food and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad, and like all eating establishments, it’s quite often pot luck. Don’t we, the customer, still use it as a term of definition of quality?
It’s also worth examining its statement that “demand is for imaginative food, one-dish grazing, as well as three-course blow outs.” Well, isn’t that what restaurants do? The statement raises questions about what a pub is. What kind of food does it serve? If we carry on down this road, we’ll need to wipe out ‘pub’ and ‘restaurant’ and come up with something else: ‘grub station’ anyone? We do agree, up to a point, about flexible dining hours – there’s nothing more annoying than arriving at 2.05pm for a late lunch to a much-hyped pub only to find it serving food between 12pm and 2pm and that’s your lot, matey – but that’s just a case of wider advertising and the management managing customer expectations.
As ever, we turn it over to you. What do you think a pub should be? Do you think ‘gastropub’ remains a concrete definition any longer or is it indeed obsolete? Would you like your local pub to serve ‘proper’ food or are you happy with the crisps? Or are you just a drinker and want your pub back?