20th Century Pub beer and food pubs

Pub carveries: another slice, madam?

For a couple of decades in Britain, there was no greater treat than a trip to a pub with a carvery – like Christmas dinner any day of the year.

The concept is this: customers line up and file past a hot counter where various joints of roasted meat are on display. Slices are carved on request, often by someone in an apron and a tall chef’s hat. You might have one meat, two, or even three.

Then you shuffle along and are either served, or serve yourself, roast potatoes, vegetables, Yorkshire puddings, and any other ‘trimmings’ that might have been supplied.

“I think I remember my first carvery,” says Ray. “My Uncle Norman got excited about the concept and insisted we all had to go to The Brent House. Me, my brother, my parents, and my grandparents. As a ‘growing lad’ the idea that you could have as much food on your plate as you wanted seemed so cool.”

In a comment on Patreon Tania McMillan said:

“I think perhaps there’s a certain generation that lived through rationing who saw carveries as the ultimate indulgence and celebration… the very fact you could have more than one roast meat on the same plate was such a novelty. The only other time anyone would generally experience that I guess would be the traditional Christmas dinner where there might be turkey and ham on the same plate! So going to the carvery was like it was Christmas and a celebratory meal, for a fixed price.”

The format is supposed to suggest the bountiful plenty of a mythical medieval banqueting hall, or a Pickwickian country inn.

The most famous branded version was the Toby Carvery chain, which span out of Bass Charrington’s Toby Inn in the 1980s. Its name and logo evoked the Toby jug, a symbol of traditional British pub culture – a rotund Falstaffian figure.

“Greed is good”

The 1990s was the heyday of the carvery, at least according to a rough tot up of the number of times the word appeared in British newspapers over the course of the later 20th century. From 60 mentions in the 1950s, it was up to 60,000 by the last decade of the century.

But of course there are those early outliers. An early report of something called a carvery, albeit not in a pub, appears in a 1959 newspaper story about the popularity of self-service all-you-can-eat “Billy Bunter restaurants”. It includes this anecdote:

“There was a man in here the other day who calmly slipped all but a complementary fragment of a joint Into his newspaper and transferred it to his briefcase. I must have flickered an eyelid because he came up to me and said: ‘lt tells you to eat all you can for 12s. 6d. – right? It does not tell you to eat it on the premises – right?’”

Coventry Evening Telegraph, 31 December 1959

Self-service was an important part of the carvery offer when it was a new idea.

The kind of behaviour described above perhaps put paid to that.

Certainly by the time we ever got to visit one, there was someone at the counter wielding the blade, keeping things civilised.

Illusions of plenty aside, like so many British experiences, it often feels more like a school canteen: “Move along, don’t be greedy, follow the rules.”

It’s a perfect setting for passive-aggression: you can ask for more, and we’ll keep serving you, but we’ll let you know when you’ve asked for just a little too much. And do you really want to hold up these nice people in the queue behind you?

But if, like Ray’s Uncle, you are confident and without shame, you might walk away with a mound of food bigger than you have any reasonable hope of eating.

In a comment thread on Patreon Michael Young discussed his tactical approach in the carveries that can still be found around Newport in Wales:

“I’ve learned to just pile your plate as high as possible and polish it off in one sitting as opposed to going up for seconds.”

Eyes bigger than your belly

It feels as if the high point of the carvery is over and they’re much rarer nowadays than 30 years ago.

So much so that we couldn’t decide whether to talk about them in the present or past tense for this piece.

Tania McMillan has noticed the same, with Birmingham in mind:

“I remember when they were more common. There used to be one in Selly Oak that students would go to for a massive feed when their relatives came to visit. That pub then changed over the years, to become a ‘sizzling steakhouse’, then one of those yellow student pubs. I think it’s now been demolished… There was another carvery-focused pub up the road too which again has ended up being demolished.”

As with many pub-related trends, we suspect there are various challenges contributing to this decline.

First, fashion, of course. Doesn’t a carvery feel old hat, like Spud-u-Like or a prawn cocktail?

Then there’s the openness of it all. How do people feel about all-you-can-eat displays post-COVID-19?

And have people perhaps become fussier about the quality of their food?

Perhaps they’re less willing to pay for potatoes cooked hours or even days before, or for damp cabbage kept warm under a heat lamp.

It might be fair to say that as the gastropub rose, the carvery fell.

But it’s no doubt the margin that’s the biggest problem.

How much would you expect to pay for a carvery meal?

In the mid-1980s it would have been around £4, which is £18 or so in today’s money. It wasn’t cheap, but it felt like good value.

Now, in 2023, our nearest Toby offers a midweek meal for £9.79, with the option to ‘go large’ for another £1.99.

And Brent House, which is still trading, and still popular, charges a bold £12.99 for a midweek carvery.

Back in Cornwall, we remember talking to people in our local pub who were outraged when a local pub put the price of its carvery above £10 for the first time. Suddenly, they felt it was a “rip off”.

How do you deliver a carvery at around the £10 price that feels right and natural to customers, in a long period of wage suppression, topped with a cost of living crisis?

By skimping on the offer, of course, and by counting the pennies.

“Feel free to go back” says the Toby Carvery menu carefully, “for more vegetables.”

11 replies on “Pub carveries: another slice, madam?”

Ha, on early trips to UK, 80s-90s, I used to think carvery was among the canons of English cookery, immemorial under the very name. I’m not sure I knew any different until now.

And then across the street you would see that chain of vegetarian restaurants, what was the name…?

To be fair to you, Gary, that’s very much the impression they sought to convey. See also: Ye Olde Ploughman’s Lunch.

Not to mention all those ‘basket’ meals, that are still with us in some more ‘traditional’ pubs …. almost anything with chips – invariably all deep-fried ‘natch out of the freezer – anyone for soup in the basket?

There was only about seven or eight of them, and apparently a franchised outlier in Denmark. The one I/we knew, in the 1970s when my mother, younger sister and I lived in Covent Garden was the one in Marshall Street, next door to one of the two laundrettes in Soho. I had the job of taking the week’s laundry to either that one (and would have a bite – more coffee and snack I suppose – in Cranks; sometimes I might be trated by an elder sibling when in town to a meal, there – lotsa macrobiotic brown rice, salads, veggie lasagne, that sort of thing), or the one in Little Newport Street. The latter was near one or two good pubs, and if you were a bit late back some of the ‘ladies’ would have obliged by putting your washing into the dryer(s) for you.

I remember the carveries, particularly the SPBW dinners we used to have in London. Campden Hill branch were very dinner orientated. Even today I think they have an official Branch Eater which started with the proliferation of carveries offering eat as much as you like, meat included. Of course, there were the odd formalities such as being escorted to the loos in case of eating too much and having to let some out! For the record, neither ‘Arry nor myself were ever in the running.

I went to one after a funeral the other week. The school canteen analogy is very apt. With a lot of people queuing behind you, it does feel a bit like you’re on a conveyor belt that you don’t want to hold up. The size of the self service items also seems to have become much smaller, a reflection of rising costs I suppose. Definitely a place with unwritten rules where asking or going back for more would almost certainly have raised eyebrows, although with someone else paying you end up thinking it’s just about OK really.

Stonehouse Pizza and Carvery (formerly Crown Carvery), £7.99 excepts Sundays. Three meats. Or a vegan chicken. The pizzas and burgers are considerably dearer.

Cant decide between a pizza and the carvery? Well …

Enjoy the best of both worlds in this carvery meets pizza calzone. We pack all your favourite meats from the carvery into a folded dough base with mozzarella and red onions. Then, we brush with garlic, before serving with a mini jug of gravy on the side and a Yorkshire pudding on top.

Carveries were quite widespread ….. I remember the one in the Strand Palace Hotel (London), around 1969/70, probably because it was the first one I ever got taken to. My elder sister’s godfather, Guy Latourelle, from Quebec, was in town, perhaps on business, and took my mother and I out …. in the hotel he used when in London. The next time was possibly the Berni Inn phenomenon, but not quite a carvery, I think. And then when first working back in London, based in Finsbury Circus, in the early 1980s, colleagues in one department favoured the self-serve (all you can get on one plate and also go back for seconds blow-out style) carvery in the Barbican Centre restaurant for say the team Christmas lunch. I don’t recall many if any stops or outings to Toby Inns, and the like, Certainly not back then, but on a fairly recent day walk,on the London LOOP ……. Having walked it clockwise with friends we’re now doing it anti-clockwise – this brief report from January 23rd notes our lunchstop at the Hogsmill, a Toby Carvery

“Last Tuesday was a very frosty and icy 8 miles from Kingston to Ewell West on the LOOP. In the end I seem to have got quite chilled in the frost and ice, despite being multi-layered etc., and well prepared it was a lot colder than I expected …. Cedric came along, as well as Bjorn.

Still, it was the main part of a glorious day despite being prevailed upon for a late lunch stop – The Hoggsmill, a Toby Inn with not a bad hot food menu (and keenly ‘value’ priced even without a 20% off shareholder voucher) – although the only ale was keg Pride (fortunately not particularly fizzy though much too cold).

Not a greatly demanding walk, and there seems to be zilch in the way of handy hostelries when we got to Ewell – at least not within 5 minutes of the station …. “

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