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.