By Martin Sayers
Once upon a time in Britain, pubs and good food were not terms that were readily associated. Most pubs offered nothing more than packets of chips and pork scratchings—a snack that consists of cold, deep-fried pork fat—or at best some dried out shepherd’s pie or day old sandwiches. Yet times have changed and now pubs are home to some of the most innovative cooking in the country thanks to a culinary revolution that has swept across Britain—the gastropub phenomenon.
The roots of this movement go back to the early 1990s when many pubs began to serve strong, unpretentious home cooking. This was partly in response to the appalling food that was generally available in pubs but also a reaction against fussy and elitist restaurants that many people felt were taking the fun out of dining. These places soon came to be known as ‘gastropubs’ and have quickly developed into a fully fledged British dining institution. The result is that across the country you can now eat fantastic food in the relaxed and cheery atmosphere of a local pub.
Gastropubs have filled a gap in the eating-out market. They are often informal, homely and cozy and the food ranges from the adequate to the scintillating. Some gastropubs have even won Michelin stars and the late restaurateur and food critic Egon Ronay once remarked that they served better food than many traditional bistros in France and that their emergence was the “biggest change” he had seen during 50 years in the business.
It’s no doubt that gastropubs have completely changed the food scene in the UK yet their rise has also caused considerable controversy, particularly amongst beer drinkers and pub lovers who feel that the gastropub movement is ripping the soul out of the British public house and turning once beloved inns into nothing more than restaurants with a pub sign swinging outside. It can certainly be a depressing experience to walk into what was once a traditional pub serving nothing more than good beer and conversation, only to find a sea of white tablecloths and stripped pine, with pan-seared tuna and polenta on the menu rather than fish and chips and not a bar stool or a darts board in sight.
Yet not all are like this and the best gastropubs have steered clear of wholesale changes and exist as proper pubs that also happen to serve great food, where it is possible to enjoy a few drinks, a fantastic meal or both. A good gastropub offers the best of both worlds—excellent beer in a traditional setting where drinkers are welcome, combined with affordable food of a quality that would put many restaurants to shame.
Whatever the arguments for or against, the benefits of the gastropub movement are hard to ignore. The fact is that the British pub is in crisis, with around twenty closures being reported each week, and the traditional “wet-led” pub—one that relies on selling drink rather than food—is finding it increasingly hard to survive. Providing restaurant-style food is one way of diversifying and increasing footfall and many would argue that a pub that concentrates on food is better than no pub at all.
Here are six British gastropubs to visit.
240 St John Street, Clerkenwell, London, EC1V 4PH
Set in the heart of London’s trendy Clerkenwell district, The Peasant is one gastropub that is just as serious about its beer as its food. It specializes in British ales and a magnificent selection includes such gems as Brewer’s Gold from the Crouch Vale brewery, which was voted Supreme Champion Beer of Britain in 2005 and 2006, and the excellent Truman’s Runner from the recently re-established Truman Brewery in London’s East End.
The pub is divided into two; with a traditional pub layout downstairs for drinkers and a dining room upstairs that serves excellent food. Alongside its regular menu, which is based around modern British cooking, The Peasant also offers a feasting menu, with vast sharing dishes that include roast suckling pig, huge legs of lamb, giant pies and whole roast salmon.
168 Highgate Road, London, NW5 1QS
Like many gastropubs, this North London hostelry has revitalised what was once a failing and largely deserted pub and turned it into a popular destination for an evening out.
The Bull & Last is another excellent example of how a gastropub can cater for drinkers and diners alike, who are both equally welcome. The food on offer is excellent and specialities such as beer battered haddock with pea puree have won favorable reviews from The Times of London amongst others, but beer is also treated very seriously here. The pub features an ever-changing range of brews from local micro-breweries such as East London Brewery, Dark Star and Hackney Brewery and if you just want a quick bite with your pint a range of classic British snacks, such as Scotch eggs and sausage rolls, are available from behind the bar.
76 Mitcham Road, London SW17 9NG
This sprawling property in southwest London is a characterful mixture of bar, dining room, games room and garden and offers a seriously good range of beers that always includes a wide variety from British microbreweries, as well as international favourites such as Budvar, Brooklyn Lager and Steigl.
The ever-changing menu uses whatever is in season to provide dishes ranging from monkfish stew to guinea fowl and ham hock terrine, while the pub also cooks a traditional British roast dinner every Sunday, with a range of meats on offer.
Titley, Kington, Herefordshire, HR5 3RL
London may be the centre of the gastropub revolution but there are plenty of fine examples outside the capital, such as The Stagg, which is nestled in the heart of the Herefordshire countryside in England’s West Country. Walk through the door and you could be forgiven for thinking that you were in a British country pub like any other—the small bar is frequented by a friendly bunch of locals who are there for the beer and the gossip in a hostelry that is unashamedly a good, honest local inn.
Yet all is not as it seems as The Stagg also happens to hold a prestigious Michelin star for the quality of its food—having become the first pub in the UK to win one back in 2001. The food is excellent and startlingly cheap given the pub’s gastronomic status, with diners able to choose from dishes such as pumpkin and cashew nut risotto and pan-fried foie gras. Drinkers are also well catered for and a good range of beer always includes one from the nearby Hobson’s Brewery in Cleobury Mortimer, while local cider and perry is also on offer.
107 Water Lane, Leeds, LS11 5WD
The Cross Keys is another excellent regional gastropub. The two-hundred year old inn is in Leeds, one the biggest and most vibrant cities in the north of England, and has all the olde worlde charm one associates with the British pub, including beamed ceilings, open fires and lots of nooks and crannies, together with a modern and eclectic outlook when it comes to both food and beer.
Foreign brews such as Duvel from Belgium are available together with a range of local Yorkshire-brewed ales, while food lovers can choose from a range of dishes including slow-cooked duck leg and oven baked salt cod.
The Street, Walberswick, IP18 6UA
This delightful pub is perched on England’s eastern tip in the little village of Walberswick and owners Sophie and Mark Dorber have created a family-friendly local that is a welcome retreat for anyone that loves good beer, good food or both.
An innovative menu is available that pairs cuisine with some of the world’s greatest beers. Oysters with red onion and sherry vinegar, for example, is paired with the great Belgian trappist beer Orval, while a hearty steak and mushroom pie is matched up with the equally robust Adnams Broadside, which is brewed just along the coast. For those that over-indulge and feel the need to sleep it off, there is a selection of large and stylishly furnished bedrooms available.