Pint of merlot please barman: Guide to gastropubs

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What is a gastropub? A pub? A restaurant? A bit of both, or neither? Fiona Sims braves big chips and chopped parsley in search of what sets the genuine article apart from overpriced wannabes

The gastropub is the biggest food revolution in this country. Britain has come a long way since The Eagle opened its doors in Farringdon in 1990, and now nearly every town of any size has at least one. Not that everyone’s happy. Critics complain that the gastropub has been diluted, hijacked-by-the-big-boys, bastardised…

Some operators have jumped on the bandwagon, and there are plenty that definitely don’t do what they say on the tin; and yes, even some of the best practitioners hate the word. But the fact remains that the gastropub is here to stay and something Britain can be increasingly proud of. ‘It’s the biggest story of the last decade,’ declares Derek Bulmer, editor of the Eating Out in Pubs guide, who puts the success down to a change in British drinking habits.

Beef not beer

‘More and more pubs are finding it difficult to survive on wet sales alone, what with drink-driving laws and the smoking ban etc, so they’ve had to align themselves to food,’ he says. ‘Plus they are attracting chefs with good CVs, who are a bit older, who have children, who want to go back to their
roots and get a life.’

But what of the moans that many of them are just restaurants in the shell of a pub, which charge accordingly? ‘Sure, some have lost sight of what they were originally about,’ he says. ‘But does it bother me? Yes and no. No, because I’m all for improving standards. Yes, because we don’t want to lose the charm of our pubs.’

Generally then, the rise of the gastropub has been a good thing, and it’s not a trend that shows any signs of slowing down, either. The South East, of course, is well represented, as are the Cotswolds, Thames Valley, North Yorkshire and the South West, but there are plenty of opportunities elsewhere in Britain, too.

‘There are 60,000 pubs in England and Wales alone so there’s scope for many more – and breweries are recognising their potential,’ says Bulmer.

But can they cook?

One thing holding back any major increase – and something that is often criticised in existing gastropubs – is the standard of cooking. To put it bluntly, are there enough good chefs out there to deliver this higher level of pub food?

Mark Sargeant, for one, reckons not. The executive chef of Gordon Ramsay at Claridges is tasked with heading up the company’s burgeoning gastropub business and is seriously looking at centralising the cooking after the third pub, The Warrington, opens in Maida Vale. ‘We want to have total control of
the food,’ declares Sargeant, who dislikes the term gastropub.

‘I prefer pub,’ he growls. ‘For me gastropub now means something flash, charging £28 for sea bass, and trying to show off. Our pubs are going back to what they should be – honest British cooking in nice surroundings serving a proper pint.’

And if you’re thinking of opening one yourself, then listen to Sargeant. ‘You can’t be too greedy. You can only charge a certain amount on the food offering – your most expensive main course should be £14. We never try and make money on the food – we like to be generous. But you need to be clever with your drinks list, where you can make the money – it needs to be comprehensive and well-thought out, but not too expensive.’

And before you say, ‘how can he sell fillet steak for £14?’ the answer is simple: he doesn’t. ‘Look at cheaper cuts of meat,’ suggests Sargeant. ‘Our braised pig cheeks are a favourite. And if you do offer something more expensive, don’t charge through the nose for it, just balance it out with the cheaper cuts.’

The british bistro

Stephen Bull is another top chef who owns a gastropub but hates the word. ‘I could rant on about that for ages,’ he splutters. ‘Since the concept was taken over by pub chains, the word has been devalued. Anyone can do a gastropub these days – or so they think: buy a job lot of old furniture; add a few mirrors in gilt frames, throw in an identikit menu.’

Bull upped sticks at the end of the 1990s, abandoning his Michelin-starred London restaurants for the country. These days he leaves the cooking at The Hole in the Wall in Cambridgeshire to
his head chef Chris Leeton, preferring to run cookery classes from his home. But as one of the first big name chefs to make the move into gastropubs, he is well worth listening to.

‘The future is very bright for the gastropub – it’s the British bistro,’ he predicts. ‘There’s bags of scope as the market has only really just started, and with pubs closing all the time, there’s a huge well of opportunity.

‘It’s also a painless entry for chefs who want to go into business themselves – especially if they can buy the leasehold, and especially if they do their research. The main thing is to make sure you
have enough working capital – people always underestimate the costs when they’re starting out. And you must get the pricing right – you can always put the prices up, but never down. You must also realise that you can’t be all things to all people – decide what your market is and don’t deviate from that. And you should never, ever, get pretentious – remember that it’s a pub!’

Some might think The Mason’s Arms in Knowstone, Devon, is a bit pretentious – having a chef/proprietor who was cooking up a storm at Michel Roux’s three Michelin-starred Waterside Inn not that long ago. But at Mark Dodson’s popular gastropub, you won’t pay any more than at any other good gastropub, with a nice plate of crab at £5.95 and mains between £12 and £15. ‘Actually, I’d rather be seen as a restaurant than a gastropub, but there’s no other word to cover what we do,’ says Dodson, who opened in June 2005.

Go local

He has some good advice, too. ‘The main risk for anyone wanting to come into this business is lack of experience. You need to become a head chef first, and really learn the trade. Also, beware of over-staffing – it’s your biggest overhead and you can really do this on a small scale. And don’t be over-ambitious – we started gradually, building up trust, adding on £1 here, until we were comfortable.’

Dodson also advises pushing local ingredients wherever possible. ‘Customers really like to see it – even more than whether something is organic,’ he says. It’s also important that any new gastropub keeps the bar side of things going. ‘Yes, we could put in more tables, but if you take away the pub in a village, you take the heart out of a community – and they’ll thank you for keeping it. Anyway, we find the bar ticks over nicely and it adds instant atmosphere.’

The man who got it right

Mark van der Goot, The Rosendale

Mark van der Goot had no idea things would get this busy. The Rosendale in West Dulwich was doing 1,000 covers in its first week when it opened last July and things haven’t quietened down since.

Not that van der Goot is grumbling, he picked up the 2007 Time Out Gastropub of the Year award, pipping Gordon Ramsay’s The Narrow to the post. ‘Who would have thought that I would upstage Gordon Ramsay?’ he grins.

Until van der Goot got his hands on it, The Rosendale was an edgy boozer in south London with a less than savoury reputation. But with its proximity to the smart homes of West Dulwich and its huge capacity, van der Goot could immediately see the site’s potential.

‘It didn’t take much persuasion,’ he says. “Most people around here work in the City and regularly go to nice restaurants for lunch, but there’s only one or two in south east London that tick those boxes. Also many people around here have kids – it’s a big effort to go out to the West End for dinner.’

With The Greyhound in Battersea his acclaimed first venture, and The Rosendale his second, van der Goot has two more gastropubs in the pipeline, The Crown in Sundridge Park and The Wheatsheaf in West Wickham.

The Crown also has a dubious reputation, but van der Goot has already got the lease (‘it would make you cry if I told you how little it was,’ he laughs) and has shut it completely for a major refurbishment and a summer opening that will include 11 boutique-style bedrooms.

The Wheatsheaf in West Wickham is still operating, but minus the Brake Bros food offering. It closes in March and will reopen two months later with a restaurant and a more informal gastropub dining room offering British classics. ‘There are plenty of Italian restaurants around here but no one is doing potted shrimps,’ he says.

And yes, both venues will get a decent wine list with plenty by the glass, though 200 bins rather than the 600 you’ll find at The Greyhound.

We ask some top critics what makes a gastropub

Andrew Jefford

Multi-award-winning drinks writer

What is your idea of a gastropub?

The definition of a gastropub is simply a pub which serves good food. ‘Good’ means tasty, though not particularly complicated dishes, freshly prepared from raw ingredients by someone with some cooking skills in a kitchen. This is as opposed to the lamentable British pub standard of dreadful food, most of it bought ready-prepared and heated up in a microwave then tipped onto a plate.

The perfect gastropub?

It should be friendly, relaxed and democratic, attractive to be in, where whatever you choose to eat is worth eating and whatever you choose to drink (wines, ale, lager) is worth drinking. Needless to say, this will mean Czech, German and Belgian lagers, and real British ales (all in top condition), and high quality non-branded wines from
an independent wine supplier.

Worst thing about gastropubs?

i) The cost. An ordinary main course of, say, liver and bacon, priced at £12.95 or £14.50 in a gastropub is, simply, too much. Every gastropub should have three or four really good main course dishes at £7 max – no-one feels ripped off then. Oh, and bread should always be free.

ii) The Pretension. In some places (the Cotswolds come to mind) gastropubs are simply too high falutin’, with wacky square black plates and tiny portions sitting in a piddle of sauce. Gastropubs should stick to the pub ideal of simple, honest, generous food for the ordinary working man. If a gastropub wants to be a restaurant then it should just go the whole hog and become a restaurant and not pretend it’s a pub anymore.

Fiona Beckett

Food and wine writer, co-author of An Appetite for Ale

Best gastro pub?

My son [Will Beckett]’s pub, The Marquess Tavern, in Islington, of course! They have wine and beer pairings with every dish and great, unashamedly British food.

Worst gastropub?

The innumerable pubs that confuse being a pub with being a Michelin-starred (or a Thai) restaurant. And thinking that being a gastropub means having a long and expensive wine list – that annoys me.

What makes the perfect gastropub? Good, simple cooking using local ingredients, and good, well-kept beer. And it should be a uniquely British experience, with a warm, welcoming atmosphere.

Hugo Arnold

Restaurant critic and consultant

What’s bad about gastropubs?

What really annoys me is gastropubs that are far from being just that. The worst offenders are places charging restaurant prices and producing poncy food, but in a pub atmosphere. There are a host of them outside of the M25 (and quite a few in central London too). I don’t want cooking by numbers either.

What makes a good gastropub?

The definition is simple: a pub with good food, but very few get it right. What I love about the real ones is unusual menus, challenging cuts of meat and unusual fish – like pollack. A good gastropub should also have gutsy, no nonsense, full-on, passionate cooking, preferably by one of the owners. It also needs a short, well-focused list that supports the food, and beers that have as much thought and passion put into them as the food.

Guy Dimond

Restaurant editor, Time Out

Best gastropub?

The standard has soared significantly in recent years – though so have prices. Lately, I’m slightly ashamed to admit I hugely enjoyed the most obvious choices – both of Gordon Ramsay’s gastropubs, The Devonshire and The Narrow. However, they are both stupidly busy because of the Ramsay factor, with two-hour eating slots, and are not really gastropubs but dining rooms with pubs attached, which obviously lessens their appeal. I thought The Rosendale in south London was a knockout, and quite unexpected.

Worst gastropub?

The Conduit of Tybourne in Marylebone is a shocker. The boring beer and wine selection was disappointing enough, but the food was no better than school dinners at prices that rival the many smart new restaurants opening in the area. Must try harder – much, much harder.

What really annoys you about gastropubs?

The same things that annoy me about restaurants: couldn’t-give-a-stuff service, and indifferent food that’s vastly overpriced. Oh, and not making an effort with the beer. Nitro kegs of the usual lagers just don’t cut it in a gastropub, I’m afraid.

What makes the perfect gastropub?

For me, it shouldn’t be a restaurant pretending to be a gastropub – it should be a proper pub, with well-kept, real ales, where you can sit and eat or choose to just drink with friends with no pressure to dine. Such places are becoming increasingly rare.

10 Gastropub crimes

10 Steps to Gastropub Heaven

  • Charging for bread
  • Silly plates
  • Tiny portions
  • Single flowers in white porcelain vases
  • Braised lamb shanks
  • Big cut chips
  • Identikit menus
  • Branded food that says it’s homemade on the menu
  • Chopped parsley garnish
  • Overpricing
  • Main course max £14
  • A lively bar
  • Simple, honest, generous food
  • Locally sourced ingredients
  • Round, white plates
  • Well-kept beer
  • Concise, well-thought out wine list
  • Good selection of bottled beers
  • Battered pollack instead of cod
  • Friendly, knowledgeable service

Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine – March / April 2008

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