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.

Nineteen-Seventy-Four: Birth of the Beer Guide

In 1974 the first edition of the CAMRA Good Beer Guide was published. We spoke to those who were involved in its genesis to find out how it came to be. Here is the story in the words of those who were there, a version of which first appeared in the summer 2017 edition of BEER magazine.

John Hanscomb
Early CAMRA member, and first editor of the Good Beer Guide
We all knew we liked proper beer but the problem was, we didn’t know where to drink – we didn’t know where the pubs were. There was Frank Baillie’s Beer Drinker’s Companion but that was all about the breweries, not the pubs, although it did give you an idea of their trading areas. And the brewers… The brewers wouldn’t give me any information! I rang up one and asked them which were their pubs and which sold proper beer and they wouldn’t tell me because they thought I was from Watney’s or Whitbread: ‘We don’t know who you are.’

Michael Hardman
Co-founder and first chair of CAMRA
John Young [of Young’s brewery] was championing cask ale in a very serious way, and had been holding out for a decade before CAMRA came along. He thought of himself as the only one left. Young’s had never been a particularly profitable company. They had some pretty dingy pubs, and a very ‘bitter’ bitter that was going out of fashion. In 1963, he’d been approached by Derek Peebles, a former naval officer, who said: ‘What you need is a PR campaign, and I’m the man to do it!’ What he did was put together the first ever comprehensive list of Young’s pubs under the title ‘Real Draught Beer and Where to Find It’.

Real Draught Beer and Where to Find It

John Hanscomb
The Young’s guide was undoubtedly an influence, very much so. With Young’s you could guarantee that all their pubs would have proper beer. John Young deserves a lot of credit.

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BOOKS: A Scrapbook of Inns, 1949

The cover of A Scrapbook of Inns.

A Scrapbook of Inns by Rowland Watson, published in 1949, is a cut above the usual ‘quaint old inns’ hack job, its snippets of old books and articles acting as an effective index to beer and pub writing from public domain sources.

It’s not rare. We picked our copy up for £3.99 in a charity shop, still in its dust jacket, and with a dedication to ‘Sydney, with best wishes from Rhode & all at Bedford, Christmas 1954’. There are plenty of copies for sale online at around the same price and we’ve seen multiple copies in secondhand bookshops in the past year.

We think — assume — the author is the same Rowland Watson best known as a literary editor, born in 1890, and who died in 1968. He doesn’t have much to say about himself in the foreword, using those two brief paragraphs to hammer an important point: this anthology is not a collection of the usual quotations from Pepys, Dr Johnson and Dickens, but rather of obscurities bookmarked during decades of reading, mostly from the 18th and early 19th centuries.

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Complete Guide to Bristol’s Pubs, 1975

Cover of The Complete Guide to Bristol's Pubs.

Fred Pearce wrote a series of paperback pub guides in the 1970s including this 52 page run around the pubs of Bristol.

We first heard of it when we were researching Brew Britannia and Robin Allender (@robinallender) kindly sent us a scan of the section referring to the Royal Navy Volunteer. Then, in January, Garvan Hickey, one of the landlords of our local, The Draper’s Arms, kindly let us borrow his copy.

We’ve now scanned it and took the PDF out for a test drive around Redcliffe last Friday night. It was great to be able to look up the pubs we were in and see how, if at all, they might have changed.

We’re still not 100 per cent sure when it was published but we know from Andrew Swift that a partner volume covering Bath came out in 1976 so that seems like a reasonable assumption and is consistent with the contents. (Update 05/06/2018: Having acquired our own copy we found inside it a sheet of revisions from April 1976 which confirms the publication date of the guide as September 1975, per Sue Hart’s suggestion in the comment below.)

Now we want to share a few nuggets that highlight what we’ve lost, and perhaps gained, as pub culture has changed in the past 40-odd years.

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Further Reading #3: Boddies and Opening Times at Manchester Library

Researching 20th Century Pub we spent time in some great libraries and archives with rich collections of pub- and beer-related material. This is the third in a series of blog posts intended to highlight great resources we hope you’ll go an look up yourself.

Manchester’s Central Library feat. Archives+, as we think it is formally called, is on St Peter’s Square opposite the famous Midland Hotel. It’s a grand building constructed in the 1930s but in classical style and is round with a dome. You’ll find most of the important stuff on the ground floor — not only reference material on open access but also the archive reading room.

We found accessing the archives a bit of a bureaucratic ordeal, if we’re honest. Newspapers on microfiche are available on site along with a certain number of reference texts but the stuff we were after — brewery records, local planning documents — had to be ordered well in advance, a few at at ime. That’s fine if you happen to live in Manchester but travelling from Penzance as we were at the time it was rather limiting. Still, the library staff could not have been more helpful, not least in pointing us to alternative sources for some documents such as this online archive of historic planning publications.

City of Manchester Plan, 1945

Via those off-site stacks we did manage to get access to some beautiful hand-drawn and coloured city planning maps the size of bedspreads, their text applied with stencils or rub-down lettering. They were a nightmare to handle and not actually all that much use in the end though there was certainly a thrill attached to seeing PUBLIC HOUSE or PH marked here or there. (See main picture, above.)

The best things we looked at — again, not much of which actually informed 20th Century Pub — were records from Boddington’s Brewery. Of course we looked up recipes in the brewing logs, though Ron Pattinson has done a much more thorough job of processing those since we tipped him off to their renewed availability. We also ploughed through board minute books which were crammed with fascinating details — notes on specific pubs and publicans, industrial accidents, local politicking and the birth of the national Beer is Best campaign in the 1930s, to name but a few. There are also lots of inserts like this:

Report on the 1966 hop crop.

Outside in the main reference library, into which you can wander from the street more or less whenever you like, for as long as you like, and help yourself to material from the shelves, there is a real treasure trove of useful stuff.

First there’s what would seem to be a complete set of the beer and pub history pamphlets published by Neil Richardson. Most are about the size and weight of a standard magazine and have the appearance of fanzines with coloured card covers, roughly reproduced photographs and word-processor-formatted text. The quality of the contents varies too but the best among them, e.g. The Old Pubs of Chorlton-upon-Medlock, are treasure troves of oral history and foraged fact. (Some are now available for Kindle at reasonable prices if you fancy a quick taster without travelling to Manchester.)

The Old Pubs of Ancoats

Then there’s the bound set of editions of the local Campaign for Real Ale magazine Opening Times running from 1994 to (we think) the present day. Manchester was an interesting place on the beer front in the 1990s with Brendan Dobbin’s pioneering experiments with New World hops, the birth and evolution of Marble, the coming of Mash & Air, and the arrival of the biggest pub in Britain. Opening Times recorded all this as it unfolded so that over the course of a few issues you can see, for example, advertisements for Dobbin’s ales followed by worrying reports of the health of the business and, finally, a notice of its closure. It was also rather startling to come across the article below among the pub crawl reports and tasting notes:

Headline: "THE BOMB".

Finally, there are numerous local history books and memoirs which, though not exclusively about pubs or beer, touch upon them at various points, often at length. We were particularly interested to discover Jeremy Seabrook’s 1971 book City Close Up which was based on interviews and conversations with people in Blackburn, Lancashire, during the summer of 1969. There are several sections touching on pubs and drink including one chapter called ‘Evening in the Wheatsheaf’ in which three young men, engineering apprentices, discuss ‘going out’:

ALAN: You start drinking when you’re about fifteen, pubs around [the centre of Blackburn], nobody stops you. There’s nowt else to do. When you first start drinking, you sup a right lot of shit, you don’t know what a good pint is. They’ll serve you anything, they’re just making their money out of you when you start.

And once you’re done with Manchester there’s always Bolton a short train ride away where you can find copies of the raw notes from the Mass Observation pub observation project of the late 1930s, or the Greenall Whitley papers at Chester.