It is commonly accepted that the The Eagle in Clerkenwell, opened in the early 1990s, was the first self-proclaimed “Gastro Pub”. However, it wasn’t until the latter half of the same decade, and early part of the next, that the fad for more sophisticated pubs, serving high quality (and discernibly British) food really gathered momentum.
This gastropub expansion has been chiefly held to have improved pubs, saved them from extinction even. Yet it is the immeasurable contribution to the formation of a domestic gastronomic identity for which we should be truly thankful.
A noteworthy trait was that good pub fare – griddled cornish squid, roast hare saddle with semolina gnocchi (Anchor and Hope SE1) – has always been far more “foodie” than technical. The emphasis was on seasonality, local provenance, foraging - what do I care if my carrots have been prepared paysanne or brunoise! I’d much rather see that they are heirloom, and local, and be able to taste the difference.
Gone too, was the formality and stuffiness of “haute cuisine”; at last we could undo our top buttons and loosen our neck tie without incurring the prudish wrath of some French maitre d’. You now knew that if you had a decent gastropub in your area, you could eat out well, cheaply, and in a cheerful and informal setting. Finally, it seemed we had our answer to the Japanese Izakaya, the French Brasserie, and the Italian Osteria. These afterwork/weekend community hubs were refreshingly down-to-earth. No longer did we have to keep our elbows off the table, and if the service was occasionally a bit laissez faire, at least it was better than the ridiculously regimented pomp and ceremony of the big Mayfair restaurants. As Londoners, thanks in no small part to the emergence of Gastropubs, we now dine out an average of 3.7 times per week!
The ethos of the gastropub has always been further-reaching than its menu: a resolution to substance over style; a ‘no frills’ and unfussy approach to serving people the simple pleasures in life - good food, good beer, and good company. Yet it is the food that has changed everything. Without the emergence of the modest gastropub, which has always highlighted the hitherto ignored domestic culinary traditions, and fantastic produce and ingredients of Britain, would we have been rewarded with seminal institutions such as Tom Kerridge’s Hand and Flowers or Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume?
So, next time you’re striding furiously through the ‘burbs’ trying to find - that which seems to be now almost extinct - a good old fashioned boozer that will show the football, all the while cursing under your breath the proliferation of identikit and subpar “foodie bars”. Stop, pause, and spare a grateful thought for what in my opinion has been Britain’s greatest contribution to gatsronomic culture since pork scratchings: the humble and honest ‘Gastropub’.
Robbie Leahy - Recrutiment Consultant, Permanent Division
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