The Victoria Inn was always a mystery: how long could it be before someone took on that handsome building and brought the pub back to life?
Unfortunately, it never happened, and now it’s a branch of upmarket sandwich shop Pret a Manger.
We walked past The Victoria , AKA The Queen Vic, every day for three years. It was at the end of our road, more or less, boarded up but intact. Ready to go when the call came.
When we wrote about micropubs for Beer Advocate we focused briefly on The Victoria, because it seemed to represent something:
It closed early in 2017 after a year of competition from the Draper’s. Did the micropub steal the “proper” pub’s customers and contribute to its death? The locals don’t think so. From talking to various fellow drinkers over the months, we’ve established that the Victoria was a fairly rough pub, struggling with public order issues. [Drapers Arms landlord] Garvan Hickey, for his part, expresses distress at the fate of the former neighbor: “I want pubs to do well. I’d like to see the Queen Vic open and trading as a pub again.” Not least, he admits, because he thinks a real run of pubs on that stretch of Gloucester Road might bring in yet more customers.
Pubs in old retail units – small, compact, with limited hours – seem viable today in a way that grand old pub buildings sometimes don’t, especially outside city centres.
And, finally, last year, Pret came into the frame.
Do you remember when Pret was sort of cool? When we both worked in central London in the noughties, it was where you went for a treat at lunch. The sandwiches were expensive but actually, obviously better than you’d get anywhere else.
There was a falafel sandwich dripping with ketchup. Another with crayfish.
The bread tasted fresh and the staff seemed happy to be working there.
In his 2015 autobiography How to Be a Man: (and Other Illusions) Guns N’ Roses bass player Duff McKagan wrote:
[My] favorite place is a chain called Pret A Manger. I know they have some shops in the States, but they started here, it’s where I discovered them, and they’ll always be a London destination for me. Pret has hot and cold wraps of all kinds (try the hot jalapeno chicken!), healthy sandwiches, great salads and soups, and strong espresso. This is always the first place I try to get to when I go to the UK… Cheap, fast, and kick-ass.
Actually, with hindsight, maybe this was a shark-jumping moment.
These days, over-extended and having struggled through COVID, the magic (oh, come off it, you can’t describe a packet sandwich as having ‘magic’!) has gone. And the staff certainly aren’t happy these days.
Seeing that branch on Gloucester Road, a grey corporate-branded blob where there used to be a bit of history, made us feel sad.
Neighbourhood pubs are already prime targets for developers and Tesco. Now they’ve got Pret, Subway and the rest to contend with, too. It doesn’t bode well.
But it certainly makes commercial sense, in an area full of work-from-home types who are more likely these days to want lunch in the suburbs than in town.
And in The Drapers Arms across the road, we noticed a folded Pret sandwich packet on one table, next to a pint of ale.
In Egon Ronay’s 1964 Guide to 600 Pubs we have a snapshot of ‘nice’ boozers in London and the South of England as they were in 1963, from collections of tat to hot pasties.
It’s taken us a little while to pick up a copy of this book, having encountered later editions, grubby and broken-spined, on the bookshelves of pubs. We suppose most copies were thrown away in around 1967, or were left in the glove-boxes of cars sent to the scrapheap.
Guidebooks don’t endure, generally. They’re usually out of date by the time they go to print and generally all but useless within about two years of publication. When it comes to pubs, which can change from manager to manager and season to season, that’s especially true.
Ronay’s pub guides weren’t annual and the title varied, but the idea was always the same: to help well-to-do travellers find something to eat in a pub that wouldn’t offend their sensibilities.
Let’s start with Ronay’s introduction, in which he sets out his belief that ‘atmosphere is, of course, the most important of the factors associated with the word “pub”’:
I insisted. ‘There must be a way,’ I said, ‘in which we can briefly define the atmosphere of pubs and inns.’
We were discussing, my five colleagues of ‘pub testers’ and I, the resume of months of vetting more than a thousand houses. And, as I pressed them and the highlights of their experience unfolded, stories beyond the mine of factual information they had gathered, i dawned on me that such a definition will always elude us. Our impressions were made up of so many factors: individual experiences, historical facts, intriguing figments of imagination, rare moments of warm human communication and, above all, of personalities. Looking back we find that it is the little things that make English pubs and inns inimitable.
It’s hard to argue with that and interesting to think that Ronay didn’t encounter the English pubs until he was in his thirties, having been born in Hungary in 1915 and only arriving in the UK after World War II.
There’s something tickling about the league of gentlemen Ronay assembled, whose blazers and nicotine-tinted moustaches one can’t help but picture: ‘A tobacco blender, a retired naval commander, a chartered accountant, an ex-RAF officer and a businessman…’
Agreeing certain standards and divvying the country up between them, they managed to visit 1,152 pubs, of which 552 had ‘nothing to commend them’. They found 280 pubs in London worth recommending and 320 ‘in the Provinces’ – that is, from Warwickshire to Cornwall. (Sorry, the North.)
The primary value in this relic is that it provides yet more evidence for an argument we’ve been making for years: though the Gastropub™ may have been invented in the 1990s, and Pub Grub™ in the late 1960s, pubs with decent food and ‘dining areas’ had been around for much longer.
Here’s the first entry proper, for The White Hart at Ampthill, Bedfordshire:
At more and more pubs it seems necessary to book a table in advance, particularly in the evening. As eating places, they are getting better and better, yet most of them are maintaining very reasonable prices.
That could have been written at any point in the past 60 years, couldn’t it?
Lots of the pubs listed, especially those further from London, weren’t serving full meals but pasties, rolls and other items of what we’d now recognise as traditional pub snacks. Others had an emphasis on cheese – 20 types here, 36 types there, chosen from cheese menus. Yes, this is due a comeback.
One of our favourite entries, because it rises above the blandness of most and tells a story, is this for The Barnstaple Inn at Burrington, Devon:
Burrington is one of the very few ‘undiscovered’ villages where your car will even excite comment as you park it under the massive oak near the church. One is amazed that such a rural atmosphere still exists. The landlord seemed surprised that we wanted something to eat – he was obviously unused to travelling customers – but his wife rose so nobly to the occasion that we were served with the most enormous plate of ham with a tomato and at least half a loaf of bread, all very nicely served on a tray. A perfect example, this – down to the helpings of ham – of an unspoilt country inn. Don’t spoil it.
Amongst all the talk of shellfish and steak, there are also plenty of dubious ‘it is said that’ stories of murderous landlords and amorous monks. We’ve heard most of these a million times, and generally assume them to have been invented in around 1955, but this one, from The White Lion at Farnborough, Kent, is new to us:
During recent renovations to the pub, the landlord discovered a woman’s skull under the floorboards complete with a bullet hole through the forehead and he has placed it in a niche in the bar, from where it gleams with macabre light!
Ho ho, what fun! The problem is (a) if you find a skull, even an old one, the police get involved, and it’s unlikely they’d let you keep it as a decoration; and (b) we can’t find any mention of this in any other book, newspaper or journal. Ronay and his writers must have known this but when it comes to country pub history bullshit, playing along is all part of the fun.
In London, what’s clear is that the chain pub was beginning to emerge as a concept. For example, there are three Chef & Brewer pubs listed – a joint project between Grand Metropolitan and Levy & Franks. Here’s a description of one, at 60 Edgware Road, London W2:
A brand new pub like this one is a crying need in the Edgware Road. It is built into a new block of shops and offices, and with its clear plate glass window, it is barely distinguishable at first from the shops around it. The single bar is narrow but long, with a bar running the length of the room, and one wall is covered by a coloured mural depicting an aerial panorama of London. Canned music and plastic are inevitable in a modern pub it seems, but it is pleasant and comfortable here, although the roar of traffic is unceasing.
We’re pleased to note, too, that Ronay and his team share our interest in The Samuel Whitbread, the big flagship pub on Leicester Square which is now Burger King:
One of the most fascinating of modern houses with its semi-circular shape and all-glass walls. Take your foreign friends to the basement bars where murals illustrate all the old London Cries, from flower girl to coalman, and enjoy the cosy atmosphere all the more surprising as this is a ‘contemporary’ pub.
We won’t go through every single entry in the book but here’s one more that leapt out, because it seems to describe a pub for mods:
This pub is at the centre of continental and American style clothes, of jazz instruments and the pop-music world. Needless to say, the pub fits like a glove. Modern, go-ahead and young. It is packed with the sort of people whose conversation revolves round pop and jazz, jazz and pop. In the capital of music publishing an ‘olde worlde’ pub would be quite incongruous. As it is, in the world of PVC, it provides the sort of quick lunch that serious talkers need to keep them at it.
We’ll finish with a couple of notes on terminology: in those days before the language of cask and keg firmed up, all sorts of terms were used. Here, we get ‘canister’ for keg and ‘wood bitters’ for cask. And – we sort of like this – ‘landlord’ as a gender neutral term: ‘The landlord is a woman.’
And a footnote: after all this, how did Ronay use the accumulated knowledge of 50 years of pub food? He became a consultant for the Wetherspoon chain, known to ‘turn up unannounced in a chauffeur-driven limousine to check the crispiness of the onion rings and fluffiness of the baked potatoes’.
The January 1965 edition of A Monthly Bulletin, a publication about beer and pubs sponsored by the brewing industry, contained a letter which seems to capture the exact moment the pub ceased to be a working class institution.
Written by one A. Beverley of 55 Harrington Avenue, Blackpool, the letter is actually a response to another item of correspondence that appeared in “a national newspaper”. Though they quote large chunks, Beverley doesn’t give the specific source and we can’t find a match in the Guardian, Times or Mirror.
Here’s Beverley’s summary, though:
In complaining that “our pubs are becoming too posh” [they assert] that it is “virtually impossible for a man in overalls to get a hot dinner in the centre of many a big city”. He mourns, too, because many country public houses are attracting customers from towns at mid-day, offering “business lunches” and providing plenty of space for parking motor cars. Where is the working man in his working clothes to go? Will nobody cater for him?
This line might seem surprising if you’ve bought into the idea that food in pubs is an invention of the 1990s, or are of the view that food in pubs is somehow inherently un-working-class. But if you’ve read the chapter on gastropubs in 20th Century Pub, you’ll know otherwise.
But, anyway, Beverley is having none of it:
This type of comment ignores the realities of 1964 catering. If the character of our pubs is changing with the times, it is reasonable to assume, too, that the same can be said of the customers. The number of customers who go into bars in overalls at any time is dwindling. But the number of customers who, after working hours, change into well-cut suits to go into public houses with their wives or girl friends is increasing. These female companions not unnaturally prefer the comfort and amenities of a modern, tastefully appointed bar rather than surroundings that are dreary and outmoded.
(Isn’t CAMRA’s national inventory essentially the Dreary and Outmoded Pub Guide?)
Beverley’s argument is not only that “men in overalls” in the pub are a dying breed but also that their successors, “who wear… protective clothing at work”, probably earned as much as, or more than, white-collar workers.
With the growth of automation and the shortening of the working week, the overall and boiler suit may disappear entirely, and the well-appointed, well-warmed pub or inn, providing tasty meals and correctly served drinks, should establish itself yet more firmly in the design for a life offering greater period of leisure.
The punchline to all this is, we think, quite funny: the real problem, Beverley writes, isn’t that pubs are being poshed-up but that, as of the end of 1964, the new aspirational working classes hadn’t quite learned how to behave.
It is only hoped that, as higher standards are called for and met, appropriate improvements in human behaviour also will develop. Licensees, proud of their “poshed-up” pubs, have difficulty in believing that change is for the good when expensive carpets and table-tops are damaged by cigarette burns. To be truly beneficial, the winds of change… must blow some instinct of responsibility and sense of values into the minds of those who are usually the most insistent and vocal in their demands for luxury in the “local”.
In 1973 the food critic Henri Gault published ‘The Ten Commandments of Nouvelle Cuisine’, crystallising the new movement then sweeping French gastronomy:
Thou shall not overcook
Thou shall use fresh, quality products
Thou shall lighten thy menu
Thou shall not be systematically modernistic
Thou shall seek out what the new techniques can bring you
Thou shall eliminate brown and white sauces
Thou shall not ignore dietetics
Thou shall not cheat on thy presentation
Thou shall be inventive
Thou shall not be prejudiced
(This is the translation given by Paul Freedman in Ten Restaurants That Changed America, 2016. There are many subtly different versions around.)
From this side of the 1980s, Nouvelle Cuisine is a bit of a joke — huge plates, tiny amounts of silly food, very expensive. What yuppies ate. But that list made us think about changes in beer that were taking place in the same period with the rise of micro-brewing and ‘alterno beer’.
Of course some of those commandment don’t directly map (overcooking, sauces) but how about if we rewrite them a bit?
Thou shall not stew good hops.
Thou shall use fresh, quality products.
Thou shall lighten thy beer.
Thou shall not be industrial.
But thou shall seek out what the new techniques can bring you.
Thou shall eliminate brown beer (UK) and yellow beer (US).
Thou shall be transparent about the strength and ingredients of your beer.
Thou shall not prize marketing over quality.
Thou shall be inventive.
Thou shall not be prejudiced.
Of course there are a million exceptions to each of those ‘rules’, as there were in Nouvelle Cuisine as actually practised, but that doesn’t feel to us like a bad summary of where — in the very most general sense — people’s heads were between about 1963 and, say, 2015. (We say 2015 because, in very recent years, something seems to be changing. But that’s just a gut feeling which we’re still probing.)
This feels like a connection Michael Jackson, Charlie Papazian, Garrett Oliver or even Sean Franklin must have made at some point but a quick Google (time is short this morning) doesn’t turn anything up. Pointers welcome in comments below.
To finish, here’s another quote from Freedman:
Nouvelle Cuisine of the 1970s… had two missions that have since gone separate ways: to exalt primary ingredients simply prepared, and to advocate variety resulting from breaking with tradition — new combinations such as Asian fusion.
That sounds a bit like the break between ‘real ale’ and ‘craft beer’, doesn’t it?
There’s a lot wrapped up — pun intended — in the ham rolls you see on the back bar of a certain type of pub.
Roll.noun. A round individually portioned bread product usually split before eating. Synonyms: bap, cob, batch.
They are not in any sense ‘artisanal’. The bread is usually of the soft, gummy white and processed variety — eight for a pound. The ham is from a packet, pre-sliced, rubbery and pink. If there is butter, it isn’t butter, though you may not believe it. Instead of waxed paper they’re bundled up in clingfilm (US: Saran Wrap) — convenient, certainly, but prone to sweating and squashing the rolls into faintly obscene shapes. And, most importantly, they don’t cost £5 but more like £1, or perhaps £1.50 if they’re especially substantial.
Some variants: the roll might be crusty; there is sometimes mustard, or raw sliced onion; and there might be cheese rolls too — mild cheddar, probably pre-sliced.
This is how we remember pub food when we were kids — piles of rolls like this, kept under plastic covers, and slung across the counter with packets of peanuts, the intention being to soak up beer in the belly, and keep bums on banquettes, pounding pints.
And that’s the point: they are functional accessories to beer, satisfying in their own way but without being a culinary experience.
No-one plans to eat these rolls. They’re a side effect of being in the pub and not wanting to leave for whatever reason, and of the munchies that strike after a round or two. You see them and you just fancy one, just as in the terminal phase of the same evening you might fancy a kebab you wouldn’t touch with a broom-handle while sober.
In the 21st Century they’re a way for a pub to signal that it is unpretentious but not uncivilised; old-fashioned rather than rough. If you’re going to drink ten pints here, mate, which you’re very welcome to do, then make sure you don’t do it on an empty stomach.
But they’re becoming rare these days as pubs become ever more polarised between haves and have-nots and as environmental health regulations make it harder for a publican to knock up something even this simple without a dedicated food preparation area.
Which is a shame because we’re beginning to think that Ham Roll Pubs™ might be the best pubs.