Gastropubs RIP?

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?

  • Donald Fraser

    Gastro Pub Food is a term I researched thoroughly before registering it as a domain 2 years ago. The KOI ratio (Keyword Opportunity Index) is similar to the KEI (Keyword Efficiency Ratio) but pays special attention to the use of the phrase in anchor text. I found the KOI ratio was highly negative, dramatically standing out from like terms such as “best food pubs” or “good pub food”. You can download my comparison table as PDF: http://www.gastropubfood.co.uk/koi

    So the KOI says do not register this domain! Since the number of Google searchers for “gastro pub food” is very low and the number of webmasters/bloggers using it is as “anchor text” is high, the opportunity to rank high for it in Google is poor. However as the KOI ratio was so highly negative I was intrigued and went ahead anyway.

    My insight to add to this article is that gastro pub food has yet to enter everyday language. So I think talk of its death very premature. With a smoking ban looking permanent and locally sourced food needing new markets, gastro pubs have perhaps yet to hit mainstream? While the economic recession will slow growth for a while, gastro pubs will benefit from becoming less elitist. The elite can rediscover pricey restaurants!

    For the industry such as CAMRA and the Good Food Guide to almost celebrate the death of gastro pubs is ridiculous. The question is why (as my KOI ratio analysis shows) is this term so important to the industry but so little used by the general public? Afterall “gastro” is an easy term to remember and spell (unlike gastronomique!) So I would suggest the majority have yet to appreciate the benefits of good pub food. I would argue the coined phrase “gastro pub” has a long and healthy future ahead, but what it actually means is anyones’s guess. Indeed it will only have real meaning once the KOI ratio for it is more normal, meaning punters are searching and the industry pundits are elsewhere.

  • Alkospice

    I hope the Gastropub in its true sense really has had its day. I prefer to be able to enjoy a nice glass of wine or pint of well kept cider in a clean, friendly environment and maybe also have a nice meal – but being in a pub rather than a restaurant, I mean a decent burger/steak & chips type of meal, not something that;s going to cost an arm and a leg and come served with jus & smears of stuff. Its such a shame when you visit a lovely country pub, which will often be the only pub for miles and instead of local colour and characters you are presented with an almost Michelin star menu at an equally unaffordable price. Yes the “pub” might be open now, but for how long? And when its just another restaurant for city weekenders and not the hub of the community what’s the point in being there? I support & enjoy locally sourced and well treated ingredients and see no reason why a pub that serves food, can’t just be that. Bath Ales have got this just right – my local, the Wellington is a great pub that serves great food at a reasonable price, and caters well for its drinkers on match days. The White Hart at Littleton-on-Severn is another pub that gets this right – its definitely a great pub, that just happens to also serve great food – and long may they reign.

  • John

    Pub’s selling good food is great. BUT Why-Oh-Why must we be subject to loud awful music and wall -to wall football on big TV’s.
    I shall not be going to pub’s again unless they bring back the ‘snug ‘ concept.

  • Vinnie Stockton Heath

    I’ve been to the Chetwode Arms recently in Lower Whitley. I’ve been visiting the pub for over two decades now and despite its latest attempts to be a “Gastro Pub” the food has never been more adverage. The beers good but your not welcome as an outsider if not dining. The current tennants are dog friendly but sadly they themselves are dirty owners (dont pick up after their own dogs) Its a great shame as the pub has been hugeley succsesfull in the past and am sure it will again one day.

  • Seasider

    some pubs call themselves gastropubs but still serve up the same boil in the bag rubbish we see in most pubs nowadays, they just charge you more for it. Do people think they can have two meals for less than a tenner and get quality food! I would like to see the return of “proper” pubs with good beer, great atmosphere and a few traditional well prepared dishes ( plus perhaps a few pickled eggs and pork scratchings!)

  • Mookie

    There’s no doubt pubs are leaping on to the foodie bandwagon. One near me which shall remain nameless — OK, it’s The Bull — is your average boozer full of youngsters on the lash at the weekend serving bog-standard ‘hearty’ pub grub. It’s now promoting a ‘food festival’ in October which is basically discounts on their standard sausage and mash and burgers etc etc. The gastropub is dead, long live the gastropub…