BOOK EXTRACT: The Birth of the Gastropub, 1990

A meal at the Eagle in 2016.

In the summer of 1991 The Times’s food critic, Jonathan Meades, took a break from visiting upmarket restaurants to investigate a new eatery that was generating a strange amount of buzz.

He found it ‘chaotic-looking and very noisy’ and was lukewarm about the informal set-up: no bookings, order at the bar, lunge for any available seat before anyone else took it. The customers around him were young, though, and seemed to like this kind of thing. The food wasn’t refined but it was good value, generously portioned, very much in line with the ‘rustic’ style then in fashion. He duly filed a review of the Eagle in Farringdon Road, North London, which was not far from glowing. [1] Something interesting was afoot but, for the moment, the language lacked a word to describe this collision of gastronomy and the public house.

* * *

The above is a condensed version of the opening to the chapter on gastropubs from our book 20th Century Pub which came out last autumn. We’re sharing it, along with the extract below, because it was announced today that we’ve made the shortlist for best drinks book at the 2018 Fortnum & Mason Food and Drink Awards. The results are announced on 10 May which means we get a month to bask in the glory whether we win or not. The book is available in all the usual places at a recommended retail price of £16.99 and is on a 31-strong streak of 5-star reviews at Amazon, so please do buy a copy if you haven’t already.

The Eagle in 2016.

The founders of what is generally recognised as the first gastropub were Michael Belben and David Eyre. They had worked together at several restaurants, mostly recently Mélange in Covent Garden, Eyre as a cook, Belben in management. In a portrait photo taken in 1990 they look like members of a synth pop group – slim, moody, Belben in a dark suit, Eyre in cotton shirtsleeves. [2] Belben is older, born in 1952, while Eyre, born in 1961, grew up largely in Mozambique and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), moving to Britain to attend university. [3]

They were both keen to start out on their own but, in the meantime, absorbed culinary influences, struggling to reconcile their taste in fine food with their limited funds. Eyre got married in 1989, but came out of that short-lived relationship after 20 months with very little except an idea, given to him by his ex-wife’s aunt: with a recession imminent, opening a restaurant would be foolish, she argued, so why not run a pub? She hadn’t meant a pub with food, but it was the spark Eyre and Belben needed. Why not open a pub with decent food, catering to people like them who longed, but couldn’t afford, to eat at places like the then super-hip River Café?

Fortunately for them, a catastrophic change to the British pub ownership model was underway. In 1989 the UK government passed a bill which meant that breweries owning more than 2,000 pubs would be required to dispose of half of the excess. This act, known informally as the Beer Orders, meant in the first instance that the largest brewers had no choice but to dump a large number of their worst-performing pubs on to the open market, or sell them en bloc to other firms. In this respect, as food critic Jay Rayner has said, ‘the gastro pub movement is a pure product of Thatcherism’.

The Eagle was an unremarkable Victorian corner pub in Farringdon, then a rather unfashionable part of London, and was owned by the astonishingly unfashionable brewery Watney’s. For a brief time in the 1980s it was a freakish hangover from the theme pub era – a ‘fun pub’ decorated with metal furniture, exposed pipes and bare breeze-blocking so as to resemble a nuclear bunker. [4] (Fun indeed.) When it was unloaded by the brewery in response to the Beer Orders, Belben and Eyre took it on, describing it as ‘the first and cheapest dead pub we found… But beneath the sad grime we could see an attractive, if small, room with huge windows and maple floor’. [5]

Portrait shot of a man with beard and white shirt.
Michael Belben at The Eagle, 2016.

They paid for it with a combination of bank loans and money borrowed from family, got the keys on 18 December 1990, and undertook renovation work themselves, scrubbing it back to an almost bare minimalism and letting the light flood in. Michael Belben fitted it out with, as food writer Diana Henry recalled in 2003, ‘mismatched china, battered furniture, sagging sofas and a few lamps with wobbly shades’. [6] They operated at first, from 16 January 1991, with an 8 by 5 foot kitchen containing a microwave, fridge, grill, two burners and a sink, none of professional standard. In the flat above the pub, where Eyre also lived, they used an oven to prepare one or two shareable dishes in pots, such as casseroles. Twenty years on, Eyre recalled their working relationship:

Mad Mike. Mike was prone to be a bit crazed at any time. But you see, he did get it and he was very good at… [pause] I got all the glory, but he was very good at trudging down to the bank and getting the float and spending hours and hours in the office… Not the best people person sometimes. Infuriating sometimes. I mean, we did have some blinding arguments… But we were good. It was that kind of opposites thing.

Belben and Eyre have always emphasised their democratic intentions, underlining what to them were key signs that the Eagle was still a pub:

It was important that a table could be used by people in muddy boots drinking lager as much as by people who’d come to the best place to eat ribollita. It was very egalitarian – a great leveller. You’d have the editor of the Guardian next to a builder, next to a fresh-out-of-school graphic designer. [7]

There were no reservations for tables, no dress code and, they insisted when challenged, customers could just turn up for a drink – dining was not compulsory. ‘It was the Anti-Restaurant Thing that we sort of embraced wholeheartedly,’ Eyre would recall in a series of recordings made in 2011 by Niamh Dillon for an oral history project:

No uniforms, chefs wore fisherman’s smocks… Mismatched plates, the no starters, the no desserts, the one-course eating, the old fashioned portions of the food, the fact that there was no service – if you wanted to tip a member of staff you bought them a drink. [8]

The comedian and broadcaster Graham Norton worked with Eyre and Belben at Mélange and considered Belben ‘one of the most heterosexual men I had ever come across’ but ‘impossible to work for’,411 a friend and a mentor. He joined the waiting staff at the Eagle where, freed from the obligation to kiss-up to earn tips, he enjoyed being rude to customers:

‘A smile costs nothing,’ a customer who’d been ordering in dribs and drabs and therefore irritating me would say.

‘And intelligence can’t be bought,’ I’d retort. Why nobody rabbit-punched me I don’t know. [9]

From the customers’ perspective this kind of thing meant that the Eagle could sometimes be faintly intimidating, despite its founders’ avowed desire to create warmth and conviviality.

The dark interior of the Eagle.

In the same 2011 recording Eyre explained that the Eagle was able to operate with a lower mark-up on food than restaurants proper – 60 per cent gross profit rather than 70 or 75 – because there was no air-conditioning, no linen, and the kitchen staff, having less formal training, would work for less. Until 1997 even the most expensive items on the menu cost no more than £10 (about £20 in today’s money) and, Eyre said, students or younger office workers could go to the Eagle and have something substantial and well-made for only ‘twice the price of a sandwich in a sandwich shop’.

At its best, the atmosphere was lively and, at its worst, when hype brought crowds of would-be diners into a venue with no table bookings, it could be loud and chaotic. The background music was directed by Eyre’s older brother Robert, who worked there for a time and had a large, quirky record collection: ‘I really do believe my brother was the first person to buy Buena Vista Social Club.’ There was world music, jazz, blues, but definitely, pointedly, no guitar-heavy classic rock.

There was a problem with all this. In a January 2016 interview with Susie Mesure marking the 25th anniversary of the Eagle’s opening Eyre said: ‘We weren’t really pub-going people, because pubs didn’t seem to answer our needs’. [10] And therein perhaps lies the source of much of the irritation that gastropubs would go on to generate in the decade that followed among those who were dedicated ‘pub-going people’: they were seen by many as middle- class colonisers taking over pubs and, in the process, denuding them of their essential ‘pubness’. In practice, to drinkers, the Eagle looked like an informal restaurant rather than a pub with food and, even if it was theoretically possible to turn up and just have a drink, the pub soon became so hip it was impossible to get in the door anyway.

Jay Rayner, reflecting on gastropubs in 2001, said, ‘It is hard to overstate the importance of The Eagle… When it launched in the early 90s, the idea was extraordinary, if not bizarre.’ He also pointed out that, though much of what the Eagle did had by then become to seem clichéd, in 1991 it seemed ‘nigh on revolutionary’, inspiring many imitators, often founded by people who had themselves worked at the Eagle. [11]

Sources

[1] ‘Popped in, pigged out’, The Times, 3 August 1991, Saturday Review supplement, p.27.
[2] Reproduced in the Independent, 9 January 2016, pp.20-21.
[3] Biographical details for Mike Belben from Debrett’s, retrieved 26 May 2016; and for David Eyre from 2011 oral history recordings, ‘Eyre, David (1 of 10)’, Niamh Dillon, Food: From Source to Salespoint, British Library.
[4] Correspondence with veteran pub-goer Ian Worden, 14 June 2016.
[5] Big Flavours, Rough Edges, David Eyre, 2001, p.8.
[6] The Gastro Pub Cookbook, p.6.
[7] ‘20 Years of the Eagle Interview’, Liz Edwards, Clerkenwell Post, 2011.
[8] ‘Eyre, David (6 of 10)’, Food: From Source to Salespoint, British Library.
[9] So Me, 2004, pp.74-75.
[10] ‘The Eagle: Britain’s first gastropub celebrates its 25th birthday’, Susie Mesure, Independent, 9 January 2016, retrieved 17 March 2016.
[11] ‘Fox Hunting’, Observer Magazine, 22 July 2001, p.49.

10 thoughts on “BOOK EXTRACT: The Birth of the Gastropub, 1990”

  1. “got the keys on 18 December 1990, and … operated at first, from 16 January 1990 ”

    Oops!

    Otherwise, a very interesting piece. Thanks. I might even buy the book one day.

    Congratulations on the shortlisting, by the way.

    1. You are the first to spot this, despite multiple editors and copy editors. Will get that errata page set up and include it. (Wish you’d emailed us, though…)

  2. There was a brief period when The Eagle was the sole Banks & Taylor’s Shefford Ale’s outlet in London, this part of the Farringdon Rd. being a little real ale mecca as there was a Shepherd Neame pub on the other side of the road – both brewers who were hard to find in the capital. I remember that the house beer when the Eagle re-opened was Banks & Taylor’s bitter which was an ideal accompaniment to the steak & ciabatta sandwich which I think was priced at £6. What impressed me was the quality of the food coming from such a simple kitchen – this was the era of the big brewers spending tens of thousands of pounds fitting out extensive pub kitchens as stainless steel temples to the microwave

  3. Hard to imagine a time before gastropubs. Thank you for the time travel, and congratulations on the nomination.

    1. Come with me to a time before gastropubs!

      In about 1972 we had a celebratory family meal at the Sporting Chance in Red Roses, near Whitland (Carmarthenshire). It was ‘Sunday roast’ stuff – meat, two veg and gravy; the dining room was full, and we all thought it was very sophisticated; there was that slight sense of gratitude to the head waiter for seating you without making a fuss, even thought it was a pub dining room. The detail that sticks in my mind is my father taking it into his head that the peas were fresh and complimenting the manager, who rather carefully avoided confirming it (“we do try and serve fresh vegetables whenever we can”). Dad was happy with that as an answer, but Mum and I both noticed. (There’s a recipe for making frozen peas taste like fresh in Jocasta Innes’s Pauper’s Cookbook; I’m sure restaurateurs were wise to techniques like that as well.)

      On my 14th birthday, a couple of years later, my older sister and her husband announced that – instead of a boring ordinary birthday present – they were going to treat me to a meal out, at a Berni Inn! As social occasions go this was pretty awful, as you can imagine. Of course we all had steak – you had to, really. My sister had hers medium, mine was rare, but the brother-in-law insisted on having his ‘blue’ – something that furnished a good ten minutes’ worth of conversation. I sneaked a look at their steaks when they arrived; they were identical to mine, i.e. brown on the outside and very pale pink inside.

      So it wasn’t just capital-R Restaurants on one side and pubs serving ham rolls on the other – there were ‘dining pubs’ and even chains like Berni, where you could get a reliable (if not brilliant) meal and a pint to go with it (not to mention Harvesters, Cavalier Steak Bars, Angus Steakhouses…). Pub dining As We Know It is a post-90s thing, but a lot of the differences are more about style than substance. Quality, too, now I think of it – style and quality. And a fanatical loyalty to… never mind.

      1. Great stuff! We’ve been thinking about writing something a bit more substantial on Berni Inns as they were big in Bristol and material keeps falling into our laps.

        (And, the danger of extracting: I should probably emphasise that the first half of this chapter, before we get to The Eagle, is about the ups and downs and comings and goings of pub grub throughout the 20th century.)

  4. Good read (he says, having just finished the book…)

    I’ve always thought that the rise of the gastropub must say more about what people don’t like about restaurants than what they were missing from pubs. I don’t really know enough about 90s restaurants to say what exactly what they were missing, but I’d guess blindly that it’s about a growing mistrust of ceremony plus the increasing status of beer as a genteel drink that you might want over dinner?

    1. This from Zoe Williams is good:

      Restaurants may have already been edging away from elaborate napery and Rules-ishness, but only superficially and, God, so slowly. There was so much formality, which is really just a cover for condescension (“we’re telling you what to do because we don’t want you to get anything wrong, not because we’re upselling control freaks”). The whole starter issue was a swamp. You don’t want a starter? Is that because you haven’t got enough money? Are you paying in cash? Might you do a runner? You want two starters and no main course? Is that because you’re poor? Why are you looking at what is clearly the cheap bit of the wine list, can’t you buy proper wine?

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