Categories
beer and food

What’s going on with pub food?

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 rise and fall of pub food

We wrote in depth about the rise of the gastropub in our book 20th Century Pub – do check that chapter out if you can find a copy. There’s also a big chunk of it available here on the blog.

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.

Categories
20th Century Pub Generalisations about beer culture pubs

Our pubs are becoming too posh, 1964

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 GuardianTimes 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”.

It’s interesting to read this alongside those 1960s Batsford guides with all their talk of mutton curry and beef fondue, and other accounts of the coming pub carpets at around the same time. The mid-1960s were in pubs, as they were in art, music, literature, film, something of a moment as the traditional indicators of class got jumbled up or messed around with.

Fifty plus years on, people are still complaining about pubs being “poshed-up”, although these days the disappearance of the carpet in favour of bare boards is a key indicator of coming poshness.

And the objection seems to be less about class than attitude: pubs should be informal, unguarded, lively and spontaneous, not composed, curated or mannered.

We got our collection of editions of A Monthly Bulletin from Martyn Cornell who kindly gave us his spares a few years ago. Thanks again, MC.

Categories
20th Century Pub beer and food

Bristol and the Berni Inns

The Berni Inn chain is fascinating for various reasons, not least because it originated here in Bristol.

This is something that only really dawned on us recently as, taking an interest in the history of Bristol pubs as we do, we kept coming across references to Berni Inns in old guidebooks and local histories:

HOLE IN THE WALL
Free House *** F
Queen Square
A Berni Inn, but don’t be putt off. Just make for the back bar, The Tavern Public. Here find beautifully served Wadworth 6X (yes, in a Berni) and Worthington E in peak condition — both on handpumps. Sandwiches at reasonable prices also available. Quite small friendly bar with comfortable seats, thick carpet and jovial old locals.

Insofar as we were much aware of Berni Inns at all, this kind of thing was not what we had imagined. For decades they were the punchline to jokes about the tackiness of aspirational lifestyles in post-war Britain, famous for bringing prawn cocktail and black forest gateau to the masses. For example, here’s a song from Victoria Wood’s 2011 musical That Day We Sang which hits all the familiar references:

There are no shortage of articles summarising the history of the Berni Inn chain but — this one by Bristol-based writer Eugene Byrne is good, for example. The story is also covered, with some lovely archive footage, in this 2015 edition of the BBC’s Timeshift.

To save you a click, though, here’s a precis, based on Mr Byrne’s piece, the obituaries of Aldo and Frank Berni in the Guardian for 17/10/1997 and 01/08/2000 respectively, and various other sources.

Frank Berni was born in Bardi near Parma in Italy in 1903. He was brought up primarily by his mother because his father was abroad in South Wales running temperance bars. When he came of age, Frank joined his father in the family business in the UK. He was soon joined by his brothers, Aldo, born 1909, and Carlo.

Frank and Aldo Berni.
Frank and Aldo Berni from Hotel and Catering Review, March 1968, via Facebook.

In 1929, Aldo and Frank used a £300 inheritance from their mother to buy a cafe in High Street, Exeter, which was successful enough to fund expansion into Plymouth and Bristol.

During World War II Frank and Carlo were interned as ‘enemy aliens’ while Aldo, who had a British passport, was at first called up, and then assigned to Home Front work because of his poor health.

After World War II Frank and Aldo acquired Hort’s, an upmarket cocktail bar and restaurant in Bristol. Tom Jaine suggests in his obituary of Frank Berni that they might have got the money to fund this bold move from reparation payments for Blitz damage to their pre-war properties which just happened to be in the most heavily bombed cities in the West Country.

Like motel entrepreneur Graham Lyon the Bernis sensed that there were interesting things going on in America that British people, exhausted and bored by wartime austerity, might be ready to welcome.

Frank Berni visited the US in the early 1950s and came away inspired by American steak bars which made money by carefully controlling margins while maintaining the appearance of generosity and good value. He was also impressed by the consistency of chain restaurants which were capable of serving identical steak meals in identical surroundings anywhere in the US.

When meat rationing ended in Britain in 1954, they pounced, taking on The Rummer, a historic pub in central Bristol.

Berni Inns logo, 1964.

In a short essay for The 60s in Bristol (ed. James Belsey, 1989) Mary Ackland offers some details we’ve not come across elsewhere:

The Rummer is a rabbit warren of a place with cellar bars and rooms large and small as well as a history as an inn which dates back to the 13th century. They called in a clever designer, Alex Waugh, who created several restaurants and bars under one roof and cultivated an olde worlde, lived-in, almost shabby look. No-one need feel out of place in this atmosphere! Alex Waugh made a famous remark to the Bernis when he arrived. “If you’ve got cobwebs, keep ’em. If you haven’t, I’ll make you some.” Now that was very clever for 1955.

“The Rummer was the protoype”, she writes; “The Revolution quickly followed.” There were nine Berni Inns in Bristol by 1964, clustered around the city centre.

The Berni Inn model seemed to answer a need for accessible luxury. On the one hand, steak and wine felt sophisticated and posh British people brought up on fish’n’chips and brown ale. On the other hand, everything about The Rummer was designed to make eating out unintimidating.

The Rummer, 2018.

For starters, the fact that they hermit-crabbed their way into pubs, retained a pub-like character, and called themselves Inns, gave people something to latch on to. (See also: gastropubs.)

Then there was what Martin Wainwright called “the crucial role played by chips as a bridge between traditional fare and the glamorous… world of sirloin and black forest gateau”.  (Even if they did call them ‘chipped potatoes’ on the menu.)

Finally, there was the simplicity of the offer as summarised by Mary Ackland:

The brothers planned down to the last detail. They were determined that every last worry about eating out would be removed… The fixed-price, limited item menu ensured that customers knew exactly how much they would be paying. The wine list was cut to just 16 names, eight red, six white and two rosé.

The limited menu wasn’t only easy for customers, it also meant that the kitchens could be run with minimal equipment by interchangeable staff using a meticulous manual.

The chain went nationwide until there were 147 branches all over the country, all following the same formula. Frank and Aldo sold up to Grand Metropolitan in 1970. The chain continued to operate until the 1990s when Whitbread bought 115 Berni Inns and, deciding that the brand was effectively dead, turned half of them into Beefeaters.

Knowing a bit about the Bernification of Bristol helps makes sense of the 21st century pub scene in the city. Many of those famous, historic, potentially brilliant pubs are apparently still recovering from their long stretches as part of a food-focused chain. We don’t think we’ve ever heard anyone recommend The Rummer or The Hole in the Wall, and the Llandoger Trow, though it has its charms, is essentially the bar and breakfast lounge for a Premier Inn.

It goes without saying that we’d like to hear your memories of Berni Inns but especially the extent to which you recall them feeling like pubs, or otherwise.

Reading the descriptions of plush furniture, wooden tables, and chips with everything, we can’t help but wonder if most pubs aren’t Bernified in 2018.

Main image, top: a detail from an advertisement for Berni Inns in Bristol on the back of the programme for the Bristol 600 Exhibition published in 1973.

Categories
beer and food Snacks to beer

Guinness Pub Snack Ideas, 1961: Sild, Tongue and Fish Titbits

The Guinness Guide to Profitable Snacks (cover)

The other day we told you about Guinness’s drive to get more publicans serving food in the 1960s. Now, as promised, here’s some info on the recipes they were pushing.

The book, more-or-less A5 sized and in hard-covers, has a mix of black-and-white and colour photos, the latter with that particular gaudiness that makes food look faintly obscene in any book published before about, say, 1990. If you follow @70s_party on Twitter you’ll know what we mean although it must be said nothing in the Guinness book is as fundamentally horrifying as most of the excessively ‘creative’ recipes presented there.

It begins with a few double-page spreads like this one:

'Why snacks?' (spread with man drinking beer and bullet point list)

That’s interesting because it summarises where things were at in 1961: food definitely wasn’t the norm and people needed convincing, ideally with a bit of what we assume passed for female-friendly eye candy back then.

Categories
Beer history

Quick, Clint — to the Pub Grub Mobile!

Though there had been pub food before the 1960s (see the forthcoming Big Project for more on that) it was in this decade that it really took off, and Guinness got stuck in.

The story is told in the Spring 1963 edition of the in-house magazine, Guinness Time, and also in a short essay by Edward Guinness in The Guinness book of Guinness, 1988, neither of which can be considered entirely objective. Anyway, here’s how it went.

In partnership with the National Trade Development Association, in November 1961, the brewery published a book called The Guide to Profitable Snacks (many copies are available on Amazon/Ebay — we’ve got one on the way). It contained recipes and costings for bar snacks in an attempt to address a specific problem whereby, as Edward Guinness put it

many ladies started [providing food] with enthusiasm but were disappointed by the lack of return either due to inexperience in providing what the customers wanted or more often as she had no idea how to cost the operation and fix the appropriate retail price.

In 1962 Guinness followed that book up with a film, Food for Thought, which is sadly not available anywhere online, starring Pearl Hackney and Carry On star Eric Barker. (You’ll know him when you see him.)

These were successful enough but Edward Guinness felt that face-to-face demonstrations would be even better so, in October 1962, the newly-formed Snack Demonstration Team hit the road in this fabulous Mystery-Machine-alike:

Guinness Snack Demonstration Unit van.

Four days a week for the latter part of that year, lecturer Jo Shellard (an actor turned caterer) and his assistant Clint Antell toured the North West of England (where pub food was particularly wanting, we assume) speaking to groups of publicans ‘and their wives’:

The van contains the full equipment for showing the film-strip, tables, cutlery, cookers and other items necessary for the demonstration. it also contains sets of the basic snack equipment required by licensees, priced from £5 per set upwards. In addition, the van carries supplies of the book… and notebooks for each member of the audience, containing a précis of the lecture, recipes, and space for the licensees’ own notes.

The talks got busier and busier and Edward Guinness reckoned that, by the time the GSDU was demobilised in 1966, more than 20,000 people had attended its lectures. One licensee in Blackburn, he said, told him that he’d doubled his lunchtime takings by offering soup and a ploughman’s and thus luring local workers from the factory canteen. By this time, most big breweries had a catering training division, so Guinness’s work was done.

The motive for all this was never quite selfless — ‘Guinness prospered if the trade prospered’ — but ads like this from a few years later make you wonder if they didn’t also take the chance to push Guinness more directly, as the classy choice to accompany meals:

Guinness Ad for steaks from 1966.
From 1966. SOURCE: Illustrated London News.

We wonder if there’s anyone out there who remembers attending one of Jo Shellard’s demos — they’d have to be at least in their 70s if so. When the book arrives, we’ll let you know what recipes it contains, and how closely it resembles the pub grub cliches we know and love.