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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