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.

HELP US: Gastropubs in the 1990s

Did you drink, eat, work at or run a gastropub between 1990–1998? If so, we’d love to hear from you.

We’re espe­cial­ly inter­est­ed in diary entries, let­ters, arti­cles, emails or oth­er records you might have made at the time – noth­ing is too scrap­py or too minor.

But mem­o­ries are help­ful too.

We’ve got lots of facts, dates and fig­ures: what we want to know is, how did these places feel?

Like jour­nal­ist Kathryn Flett, a great cham­pi­on of gas­trop­ubs in the 1990s, did you appre­ci­ate their un-blokey atmos­phere and rus­tic chic? Did you wel­come the oppor­tu­ni­ty to enjoy good food with­out hav­ing to dress, mind your table man­ners and take out a small bank loan?

Or per­haps you’re with Patrick Harve­son who, in 1995, wrote an arti­cle in the Times call­ing for The Cam­paign for Real Pubs. Did your local became some­where you no longer felt you could pop in for a pint? Maybe you saw the very idea of the gas­trop­ub as dan­ger­ous – a threat to the very idea of what pubs are meant to be.

The Eagle in Clerken­well, Lon­don, gen­er­al­ly giv­en cred­it as the orig­i­nal gas­trop­ub after its 1991 rein­ven­tion, is one we’re par­tic­u­lar­ly focus­ing on but we’d be hap­py to hear about any oth­ers you think are notable or inter­est­ing.

You can com­ment below but it’d be much more use­ful if you could email us via contact@boakandbailey.com.

Thanks!

Main image adapt­ed from ‘Eagle, Clerken­well, EC1’ by Ewan Munro (Pubology.co.uk) via Flickr under Cre­ative Com­mons.

Don’t be scared off by cutlery

As the death of the gas­trop­ub is announced, we found our­selves pon­der­ing how peo­ple react to the ‘food led’ pub and why we’ve nev­er real­ly had a prob­lem with it.

Admit­ted­ly, if a place is send­ing clear sig­nals that, despite being in a pub build­ing, the estab­lish­ment is real­ly a restau­rant, we don’t go in unless we want din­ner. (Those sig­nals, by the way, might include a name with the word ‘restau­rant’ in it, or sim­ply not stock­ing any beer at all.) Gen­er­al­ly, how­ev­er, we don’t let a bit of cut­lery and the odd bit of French on a menu stop us going inside.

We have nev­er been turned away and have always had great suc­cess with a bit of human inter­ac­tion: “Is it OK if we just have a cou­ple of pints?”

On a cou­ple of very rare occa­sions, we have had to drink our pints with a snooty look­ing own­er sulk­ing near­by, but, as far as we’re con­cerned, that’s their prob­lem. Is it us or are hard­ened, expe­ri­enced drinkers some­times rather sen­si­tive flow­ers when it comes to this kind of thing?

The Fal­mouth Pack­et is a Cor­nish pub which real­ly gets it right. It is food-led – the land­lord is a chef – and it has almost no seat­ing for peo­ple who just want to drink. Nonethe­less, they have not only always made us feel wel­come whether we’re eat­ing or not, but actu­al­ly take the time to make con­ver­sa­tion with us as we sit at the bar. They have an excel­lent beer, Jol­ly Farmer, brewed exclu­sive­ly for them by the Pen­zance Brew­ing Com­pa­ny, as well as two oth­er cask ales. It’s cosy, too, and the locals who gath­er around the bar are always up for a chat. So, food-led or not, we have no hes­i­ta­tion in rec­om­mend­ing this as a great place to go for a pint.

The Britannia, Victoria Park

The Bri­tan­nia has the most con­vinc­ing Ger­man-style beer gar­den we’ve seen in a British pub.

It’s looks out over east London’s huge and love­ly Vic­to­ria Park (found­ed by Her Majesty in the 19th cen­tu­ry to keep the cock­neys out of trou­ble) which pro­vides the req­ui­site canopy of trees.

In the sum­mer (and there are a cou­ple of weeks of it left) there is a wood­en bar­be­cue kitchen which con­tributes a char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly Ger­man aro­ma – grilling meat.

Time Out and oth­ers refer to it as a gas­trop­ub,  and it cer­tain­ly does much bet­ter than aver­age pub food: the home­made chips had been fried mul­ti­ple times and were very crisp. The bar staff and wait­ers were extreme­ly friend­ly, too.  How­ev­er, it’s def­i­nite­ly as much a pub as a restau­rant (anoth­er rea­son why it remind­ed us of Ger­many?).

There are Mean­time beers, two cask ales (Deuchar’s IPA and Sharp’s Doom Bar), Wor­thing­ton White Shield, Hoe­gaar­den, Innis and Gunn and Staro­pra­men on offer.

Shame there was no 4% helles on draft, though. A litre or two of that would have gone down very nice­ly.

The Bri­tan­nia has a web­site here, which explains where it is.  It’s not great for train or tube, although the 388 bus stops out­side. It’s very child-friend­ly, which we like because it means we get to spend time with our friends who have sprogged. If you hate kids, you might want to go some­where else.