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The Gastropub « Pubology

The Gastropub
18 June 2009 ·

Unlike many of the previous topics, this one promises to be contentious, for it concerns the much discussed phenomenon of the gastropub. Everyone it seems has an opinion about them, roughly ranging from grudging acceptance to downright loathing. Given that even how to define such an establishment is itself debated, for me to discuss them I must start to offer some personal opinions, so I’m moving decisively to the first-person for this post. You may differ in your definition, but that’s to be expected. There’s no single defining element at work, though I’ve heard people trying to argue that things like serving handmade/hand-cut chips, or having a chalkboard with food specials, are the sole feature making a place a ‘gastropub’. Perhaps, though, they could feature on a checklist we might come up with, or a mathematical equation?

What It’s Not

Even the OED entry errs on the side of vagueness when grappling with the gastropub:

“gastropub, n. Brit. A public house which specializes in serving high-quality food.”

While one might quibble about how to define “high-quality” food, let’s start with what the gastropub is not. It’s not a restaurant. Which means that restaurants that happen to be located in former pub buildings, even really striking ones retaining their old signage and name — for example, Konstam at The Prince Albert (St Pancras WC1) — do not in any sense count.

The gastropub is, then, quite rightly, a pub.1 But how, after all, do we define a “pub” in the first place? We could say that if you can go in and just have a drink, it’s a pub for our purposes. You may not feel entirely comfortable just ordering a drink (these are gastro-pubs for a reason), but it should be possible without any undue attitude on behalf of the venue.

Then again, this doesn’t take account of the differences between a bar and a pub. One place which is local to me, where a person can happily just have a drink but which I don’t think of as a pub, is Masons (Ladywell SE13, fig. 50). It’s in a single-roomed former pub building; it even has a pub-like name (from its original name, The Freemasons’ Tavern). However, it’s fairly obviously a restaurant as well, and not a gastropub. There are many other places — whether housed in former pub buildings or not — that bill themselves as “bar/restaurant” or “restaurant/bar” which are, in essence, restaurants.

Masons (Ladywell SE13)
Figure 50. Masons (Ladywell SE13). Not a gastropub, but a bar/restaurant.

A pub doesn’t have to offer real ale (plenty of them lost their handpulls during the mid-20th century, as lager gained in popularity post-World War II), and then again there are places like the bar area at St John Restaurant (Clerkenwell EC1), which has several handpulls for ale. You could argue that pub decor is distinctive, perhaps emphasising wooden panelling, it might even be carpeted, but then there are plenty of places which shun these expectations and are no less pubs. Being able to sit at the bar doesn’t make it a pub (since you can do that at Masons), and if you are expected to stand while drinking it’s probably a bar, but some bars have seating and some cramped centrally-located pubs have a real dearth of it (The Coach and Horses in Covent Garden WC2, for example). It’s really a very subjective thing in the end.

In other words, you know a pub when you’re in it.2

More Food Than Drink

Taking the set of establishments we accept as pubs, then among those which could be called gastro, there are those which emphasise the food over the drink, and vice versa. It’s this first category which I would single out as the canonical gastropub and which have given rise to a certain characteristic style (which one can even see creeping into restaurant decor, just to further confuse matters).

They may not fully be restaurants but they certainly share characteristics, such as being laid out for service. Many fêted gastropubs will have a room, or several rooms, or another floor, laid out for service. Some may have only a few tables, or even just a bar stool area by a shelf, for drinking (especially during busy service periods, such as lunchtimes or dinner), which is I think fairly miserly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a pub. The Running Horse (Mayfair W1), to take one example, may be dominated by tables laid for service, but it’s still a pub.

The most famous — claimed, in fact, as the pioneers — are The Eagle (Clerkenwell EC1) and The Anchor and Hope (Southwark SE1, fig. 51), and fit into this category. The latter has a separate drinking area, but those crowding it are often waiting for a table in the coveted dining area next door (for which no bookings are taken). When I visited on my own, hungry, during a downpour, I was seated at the bar on the drinking side. The food was great, and there was quite a crush of people around me getting drinks in, but as a pub, it remains marginal.

The Anchor and Hope (Southwark SE1)
Figure 51. The Anchor and Hope (Southwark SE1).

The Eagle (Clerkenwell EC1) The Empress of India (South Hackney E9) The Horseshoe (Hampstead NW3) The Palmerston (East Dulwich SE22) The Running Horse (Mayfair W1) Somers Town Coffee House (Somers Town NW1) The Thomas Cubitt (Belgravia SW1) The Union Tavern (Finsbury WC1)

Even if not prominently laid for service, a gastropub will share other characteristics with restaurants, like offering a full multi-course menu, with daily specials (often to be found on that omnipresent chalkboard, just to emphasise the regular turnover of dishes). Your food might be preceded by some bread to nibble on; if you’re lucky, you may even get some olives gratis.3

The Beehive (Marylebone W1) The Coach and Horses (Clerkenwell EC1) The Fox (Dalston E8) The Garrison (Bermondsey SE1) The Norfolk Arms (St Pancras WC1) The Pig’s Ear (Chelsea SW3) The Prince (Stoke Newington N16)

More Drink Than Food

If most people consider the appellation “gastropub” to be a criticism — those people for whom a pub is the social heart of a community (a community perhaps primarily comprising beer drinkers) — then there must be a place for a good pub which happens to also care about serving food that matches the quality of its beer and wine. This post in fact was prompted by a conversation with my friend Kake4 about whether The Selkirk (Tooting SW17, fig. 52) was a gastropub. I disagreed: I don’t believe it is, at least not according to my definition in the section above. It’s simply a pub which happens to offer a good, regularly-changing menu. Thankfully, many such places exist, all striving to strike that ideal balance between serving their community, but also serving good food and well-kept drinks — and surely this should be part of that service. Thankfully, the time when the idea prevailed that pubs should just serve beer — and usually only to men, at that — has long since disappeared.

However, some will certainly consider these pubs (the ones which make just a little more effort with their food) to be gastropubs, and there’s little sense in arguing too strongly that they’re not. They may, after all, still have separate dining areas, or employ a trained chef with grand pretensions,5 and it’s admittedly a very fine distinction to make — that these places, unlike the ones in the section above, don’t force you to think about food when first you enter their doors.

The Selkirk (Tooting SW17)
Figure 52. The Selkirk (Tooting SW17).

The Albany (Fitzrovia W1) The Bald Faced Stag (East Finchley N2) The Montpelier (Peckham SE15) The Perry Hill (Catford SE6) The Rye (Peckham SE15)

This doesn’t mean that all pubs serving food succeed. All kinds of factors may adversely affect their attractiveness as a destination, but most often, they’re sunk by a lack of quality control. A lot of pubs have introduced menus in recent decades, more so again since the smoking ban was introduced to London (and England) in 2007, and that is to be welcomed, but not all of them really care enough not to just source their meals from a professional catering company.6 And if you’re doing that, I don’t think you can be called a gastropub. Young’s is an example of a PubCo (it’s also a brewer, of course) who have upgraded a lot of their pubs over recent years according to a template emphasising food and hospitality, but in so doing have at times removed the vitality from them (though by no means from all of them: they still have some fantastic pubs).

Gastropub Chains

Having dismissed Young’s as not being truly gastro, there are nevertheless several up-market chains which focus even more robustly on this end of the pub market. Perhaps most prominent among them are the increasing number of pubs owned by Gordon Ramsay Holdings, starting with The Narrow (Limehouse E14, fig. 53) back in 2004, and whose estate is increasingly extending over West London.7 One might expect these to actually be closer to restaurants, but my experience in The Narrow, at least, has been that the majority of the pub is given over to drinking (with a separate, shorter bar menu available to these areas), and that the ale has been well-kept (if rather unchanging).

The Narrow (Limehouse E14)
Figure 53. The Narrow (Limehouse E14).

Another currently-expanding chain of gastropubs is that owned by Ed & Tom Martin (under the sober business sobriquet of the ETM Group), often refitted Victorian-era boozers with an added food enticement — though at least one, The Botanist (Sloane Square SW1), qualifies more as a bar than a pub.

The Gun (Blackwall E14) The Hat and Tun (Clerkenwell EC1) The Prince Arthur (Hackney E8) The Well (Clerkenwell EC1) The White Swan (Holborn EC4)

So What Is the Gastropub?

You know a gastropub when you’re in it. Just don’t expect everyone to agree with you.