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.”