We don’t think we’re imagining it: pub food has got noticeably worse in the past year or two.
We eat in pubs more than we should, maybe.
Pubs just feel more comfortable to us than restaurants, for one thing. We’ve got pub-grade table manners and don’t like being fussed around by waiters.
We also resent having to leave the pub because we need to eat. The offer of food, whether it’s a cheese roll or something more substantial, means we can extend our session.
We rarely go to places that are known for their food, with food in mind. It’s generally a distress purchase of chips or squid rings to give us half a chance of functioning reasonably the following morning. So we tend to start with sensible expectations.
Even with that in mind we’ve been pretty consistently disappointed with the quality of the average pub’s food in the past few months. The portions are smaller, the presentation is worse, and the prices are up.
On the one hand, you can see the margins being squeezed, which really isn’t surprising. Raw ingredients and energy both cost more, with further increases expected.
On the other hand, you’ve also got problems with the job market. Recruiting and retaining experienced chefs for pubs has always been difficult but it’s almost impossible right now. Every pub we go in seems to have a pleading, desperate “We’re hiring!” notice or two on display.
Now, we find ourselves wondering: why are pubs bothering with food at all?
The key point is that, though beer enthusiasts tended to see it as the poshing up of pubs, those in the gastropub movement saw themselves as democratising good food. They wanted to serve simple, value-for-money meals in a less formal environment than the traditional restaurant.
The food was elevated only insofar as it was cooked fresh and used unprocessed ingredients. It often resembled home cooking more than haute cuisine. It also happened to offer decent margins for minimal effort – can you imagine the markup on lentil salad?
The success of the gastropub, both as a business model and as a buzzword, took it into the mainstream. By the late noughties, received wisdom across much of the pub industry was that you needed to offer food to survive and the wet-led pub was on the way out.
Wetherspoon pubs, with their vast menus and low prices, further normalised the expectation that a pub would have food available if you wanted it.
We’d argue this has reversed somewhat in the past decade. Between micropubs and taprooms, new wet-led enterprises have opened in most towns and cities in England, and are often go-to destinations.
However, this still leaves lots of formerly wet-led pubs clinging onto food as part of their offer, usually following the latest trends a year or two later. (You know a food fad is on the way out when Greene King pubs are on the bandwagon.)
The mediocre £15 burger
We didn’t particularly mind eating a mediocre burger when it’s less than a tenner. When it’s more than £15, we expect it to have a bit of something about it.
We completely understand that when everything is going up, you need to charge more to stay in the same place. As we explored in a post a few months ago there are thresholds at which you will lose customers, particularly when they’re also grappling with the increasing cost of living.
Based on our observations, this is already happening. We don’t think we’re seeing as many people eating in pubs that offer food. And the other week, we wandered into a pub that’s usually full with diners at lunchtime on the weekend and found it mostly empty.
Obviously, we don’t think pubs should stop serving food, but it might make sense for many of them to rethink the offer.
For example, we’ve noticed that the trend of having food trucks in taprooms has extended to pubs. Our local pizzeria (it’s in someone’s backyard) has been resident at a pub recently.
Elsewhere in Bristol, Wing’s Diner is a permanent fixture at Small Bar, and Kansai Kitchen operates out of The Hillgrove Porter Stores. There are plenty of other examples of this kind of symbiotic relationship.
The other week we ate at an old school gastropub in central London (Patreon subscribers can read about that here) and were struck by how hearty and absolutely unpretentious the menu was compared to most pubs.
The dishes tended to have two components – protein + carbs. Roast beef was served with bread and horseradish. There was nothing a single person couldn’t prep, mostly in advance, in a kitchen the size of a cupboard.
What we really hope for, of course, is the return of bread rolls on the bar – a great mark-up for the publican; a tasty bargain for the consumer.
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.  Something interesting was afoot but, for the moment, the language lacked a word to describe this collision of gastronomy and the public house.
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.  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. 
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.  (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’. 
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’.  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. 
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. 
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. 
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.
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’.  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. 
 ‘Popped in, pigged out’, The Times, 3 August 1991, Saturday Review supplement, p.27.  Reproduced in the Independent, 9 January 2016, pp.20-21.  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.  Correspondence with veteran pub-goer Ian Worden, 14 June 2016.  Big Flavours, Rough Edges, David Eyre, 2001, p.8.  The Gastro Pub Cookbook, p.6.  ‘20 Years of the Eagle Interview’, Liz Edwards, Clerkenwell Post, 2011.  ‘Eyre, David (6 of 10)’, Food: From Source to Salespoint, British Library.  So Me, 2004, pp.74-75.  ‘The Eagle: Britain’s first gastropub celebrates its 25th birthday’, Susie Mesure, Independent, 9 January 2016, retrieved 17 March 2016.  ‘Fox Hunting’, Observer Magazine, 22 July 2001, p.49.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.