BOOK EXTRACT: The Birth of the Gastropub, 1990

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.

Motel #1, 1953

This isn’t about pubs, or maybe it is: in June 1953 Britain gained its first American-style motel, The Royal Oak, at Newingreen outside Dover, Kent.

The Royal Oak was, as the name suggests, an old inn, apparently established in 1560 and rebuilt in the 18th century. It was around this core that the new motel was constructed by entrepreneur Graham Lyon.

Lyon was born in London in 1889 and worked with early automobiles as a youth. In the 1920s he was a pioneer of coach trips to the Continent, driving tourists around in a 10-seater Ford Model T charabanc. After World War II he entered the hotel business, starting with The White Cliffs in Dover. Something of an Americophile, his dealings with Americans during and after the war gave him the idea that Britain was deficient in hotels designed specifically for motorists and so, in 1952, approaching pensionable age, he set off to tour the US visiting more than 2,000 motels on an epic road-trip. He picked the brains of American moteliers and came back ready to implement his own take in the British market.

Aerial view of the Inn and Motel.

Each room in The Royal Oak motel had its own private garage and en suite bathroom. The larger suites had their own sitting rooms. For between 21s and 27s 6d per person (about £30 in today’s money) you got a Continental breakfast, a radio, a tea-making machine, telephone, a water dispenser, and your car washed and valeted.

Sitting room at the motel.

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News, Nuggets & Longreads 7 April 2018: Tap Rooms, Masculinity, The Luppit

Here’s all the writing and news about beer and pubs that grabbed our attention in the past week, from Chicago to Rochdale. But we’ll start with some bits of news.


Detail from an advert for Skol, 1960.

For Punch Gray Chapman takes a deep look into attitudes around gender in relation to beer, inspired by Helana Darwin’s research that we mentioned in one of these round-ups a few weeks ago. The article is called ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About “Bitch Beer”’:

Beer is inextricably tangled up in gender, and no one understands this better than the women who choose to drink it. Much of its history is rooted in a blue-collar, canvas coveralls-tinged vision of masculinity that’s still evident in almost every aspect of its supply chain; label art commonly recalls Axe Body Spray at best, cartoon porn at worst. Less aggressive but more ubiquitous is the practically algorithmic aesthetic of craft beer bars, with their warehouse-industrial interiors and a Ron Swanson-esque penchant for rough-hewn wood and leather, evoking a nostalgia for a time and place where Real Men and their work-calloused hands made things.

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Session #134: Zum Biergarten

For the 134th edition of The Session, in which beer bloggers around the world write on the same topic, Tom Cizauskas has asked us to think about beer gardens.

A good beer garden is a kind of fairy tale that allows you to wallow in summer, and to imagine yourself above or outside the modern world.

We first became aware of how magical a German beer garden could be after Jessica went to the World Cup in 2006 and came back in love with the Englischer Garten in Munich where she saw thousands of football fans served litre after litre of Helles with unruffled efficiency.

A sunny beer garden.

When we think of Germany, we think of beer gardens: the high altitude majesty of the garden at the top of the Staffelberg; the backup garden of Würzburger Hofbräu we found by accident, which feels as if it’s deep in a forest despite the ring road on the other side of the hedge; or the riverside idyll of the Spitalbrauerei in Regensburg where this blog was born.

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QUICK ONE: An Unexpected Beer in an Unexpected Pub

The Beaufort Arms, off Durdham Down.

Trying to visit every pub in Bristol takes us out of our way sometimes, as on Saturday when the mission nudged us up a side street towards The Beaufort Arms.

It’s on a steep, narrow lane called, oddly, High Street, which feels more like part of some windswept coastal village than somewhere two minutes walk from Whiteladies Road. Backstreet pubs are an endangered species in general which made this one seem all the more noteworthy.

“It’ll be poshed up,” we thought, but as we approached we saw plastic patio chairs lined up on the pavement outside, signalling otherwise. A young man was sat on one of them eating a Miss Millie’s fried chicken meal from a box nesting in a carrier bag, swigging from a can of energy drink.

Inside we found a single large room psychically divided into public bar vs. games-room/deadzone. Everything was brown and warm, dim and well-worn, the walls covered in nick-nacks and in-jokes, photographs cut from newspapers and holiday postcards from regulars. The accents were West Country, not west London. Most people seemed to be drinking cider, including cans of Natch, the availability of which divides a certain type of serious, old-fashioned Bristol boozer from the designer-gin and craft-beer lifestyle exhibitions.

In this context we were rather startled to see Theakston Vanilla Stout on offer. No, scratch that: we rather startled to discover the existence of Theakston Vanilla Stout, and even more startled to find it here. Not as startled as the woman behind the bar seemed when we ordered a pint of it, though, along with a half of St Austell Tribute as a safe fallback.

Our astonishment intensified further when it turned out not only to be in good condition, but also a quite brilliant beer. We (Jessica especially) have been fascinated by Tiny Rebel’s Stay Puft Marshmallow Porter for the past few months, half-repelled by its kitsch, artificial character, but unable to stop dipping back in. This Theakston beer was in remarkably similar territory, loaded high with sickly candy-bar flavouring, but somehow also irresistible — full of beans if you like, ho ho. But also cleaner than the Tiny Rebel beer, and without any pretence of being hoppy. If Young’s Double Chocolate is to your taste, or those Saltaire beers that seem like they’ve had Nesquik syrup squirted into them, then you’ll enjoy this one, too.

That’s two impressive “cask craft” (their phrase, not ours) beers from Theakston in the past year, for those who are keeping count. And another pub for our growing list of The Proper Pubs of Bristol.