Why is a gastropub great?

Behind the counter of his bar, The Hinds Head is Heston Blumenthal. Featured Image: Karen Robinson

The current edition of Restaurant Magazine—for which, full disclosure, I write—carries the strapline “Can food still save the British pub? “and features a thorough examination of the gastropub business. Despite being a question that has been asked many times before, it is now more critical than ever.

We all know why pubs’ wet sales are declining (smoking prohibition, credit crunch, cheap alcohol from supermarkets). However, as they do so, the large pub corporations are further muddying the gastropub waters by investing in food — Mitchells & Butlers’ pubs now sell over 110 million meals annually. There are now hundreds of pubs hopping on the food bandwagon, presenting themselves as terrific places to dine for every model independent like the Anchor & Hope.

Which raises the question, what exactly constitutes a fantastic gastropub?

I believe that the gastropub should primarily do and be sure of things. The Cheese ‘n’ Biscuits blog makes it plain that there are rules. For example, the menu could have dishes like Lancashire hotpot, potted beef, oxtail pudding, and Scotch eggs, akin to those at The Narrow or the seriously excellent Hind’s Head.

However, not at a pub table. Souffles, skate wings, and sous vide cooking all have their place. Food should have a broad appeal and intense flavors and go well with beer. The selection of ales should be vast enough to make any CAMRA member’s liver warm, and this is where actual free houses have a clear advantage over pubs connected to breweries or massive pubco. Additionally, there should be adequate space rather than a few token bar chairs for those who merely want to drink and possibly get wasted.

Besides these fundamentals

Which, for better or worse, distinguish restaurants from bars; the more variety and originality, the better. One dismal aspect of gastropubs is the industry’s lack of inventiveness; as ideas, they consistently follow a formulaic kind of low-key, small urban gentrification. People naturally have various preferences based on who they are with and the day of the week. Where, though, is the variety?

For instance, 99.9% of chef-owners remove the pool table, the fruit machine, and anything else they deem to be a little too shabby as soon as they take over a pub. Why? Why eliminate entirely innocuous attractions that many locals enjoy if, as many owners argue, their gastropubs are not just businesses but social hubs for the neighborhood? Can delicious food be served in a space that also has a fruit machine, TV, or pool table? Or perhaps in a bar that also organizes weekly quiz nights or lives music?