There is something of a mystery why it didn’t happen earlier, but perhaps it did.
The pub is to Britain what the brasserie or bistro is to France _ ubiquitous, informal, relatively cheap and a democratic place of refreshment. Traditionally the refreshment in pubs has been, to all intents and purposes, liquid, and almost exclusively beer and spirits at that. Wine was very much the poor relation. Food was secondary, if not cursory or ignored altogether. Rather belatedly, however, there is a new breed of pub colonising town and country _ the gastropub, where food carries equal weight with the booze.
There is something of a distant tradition here. The nineteenth- century novelist, Charles Dickens, wrote of the variable pleasure of inns, a kind of pub/restaurant/hotel hybrid that catered to travellers, and that tradition has been maintained by such legendary institutions as the Spread Eagle at Thame, Oxfordshire, and later still by the Spread Eagle at Sawley in Lancashire and the Talbot Inn at Knightwick, Worcestershire. But pubs remained pubs, boozers of varying degrees of gentility.
The failure of the pub to change its spots has something to do with the brewers who owned them, the leisure groups or hotel chains or merchant princes who brought up the chains purely for commercial purposes. There were thousands of pubs everywhere. They might be themed, beamed or beautified, but essentially they remained the same. With few exceptions, such as Young’s pubs in London, and the odd beacon such as the Red Lion in Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire, few took trouble with their catering arrangements. The food they offered was the same dreary selection of cardboard pies, bready sausages, catering baked beans, acid salads and any number of viscous goos passed off as home-made steak’n’kidney pie, lasagne, hot pot, moussaka and so on, none of which could really appeal to an increasingly gastronomically knowledgeable generation used to foreign travel and weaned on the cookery columns of newspapers and magazines, TV cookery programmes and sophisticated ready-cooked meals from supermarkets.
Round about the mid-1980s, a series of sharp eyed individualists such as David Eyre and Michael Belben at The Eagle, Beth Coventry at The Prince Buonapart in London and Tim Withers at the George & Dragon at Rowde began to prize old, run-down boozers out of the dead hands of the breweries and convert them to the bare wooden floors, miscellaneous tables and mix-and-match chairs that we know and love today. And they did food: not the miserable excuse for food of mass catering, but real food, tasty food, satisfying food.
Practical considerations restricted the sophistication of the cooking. In most pubs the kitchens are tiny affairs compared with the average restaurant. In a sense that didn’t matter, because the new customers didn’t want fancy dishes at fancy prices. They wanted decent grub and they wanted it fast and they wanted it reasonably priced. Soon gastropubs were popping up all over the place, like the wild mushrooms they serve.
Now, all over the country an increasing number of the more talented British chefs are bringing their skills to bear on refreshing our pub culture. They tune into local suppliers, local foods, local dishes and local customers. They turn their backs on fine dining, Michelin stars and all the other trappings of gastro-snobbery, and there’s hardly an area in the country where you can’t now find a pub that serves real food which gives real pleasure.
Let’s not pretend that Britain is a gourmet’s paradise yet. We have a long way to go before we reach the levels of Italy, France Spain or, indeed, almost every other European country, but we have started. At a time when most countries are concerned by the erosion of their culinary cultures, the British can celebrate the rebirth of theirs.
TOP FIVE GASTROPUBS IN LONDON
The Cow Dining Room, 89 Westbourne Park Road, London W2 Tel: 020 7221 5400
Salisbury Tavern, 50-52 Salisbury Rd, London NW6. Tel: 020 7328 3286
The Eagle, 159 Farringdon Road, London EC1. Tel: 020 7837 1353
The Anglesea Arms, 35 Wingate Road, London W6. Tel: 020 8749 1291
Salt House, 63 Abbey Road, London NW8 020 7328 6626
TOP FIVE GASTROPUBS OUTSIDE LONDON
The White Horse, Worple Way, Richmond, Surrey. Tel: 020 8940 2418
The Star, Harome, North Yorks. Tel: 01439 770397
The Punch Bowl, Crosthwaite, Cumbria. Tel: 01539 568237
George & Dragon, High Street, Rowde, Wilts. Tel 01380 723053
The Village Pub, Barnsley, Glos. Tel: 01285 740421
Matthew Fort is the food editor of The Guardian