It wasn’t a word that teemed with lovely associations. Though meant to suggest a combination of boozer and food connoisseurship, “gastropub” sounded alarmingly close to both gastropod (“a class of asymmetrical molluscs, including limpets, whelks, snails or slugs”) and to gastroparesis (“paralysis of the stomach muscles.”) But it was widely adopted by pub owners for a very specific reason. It gave them an opportunity to charge punters £14.95 for a warm duck salad.
Once there were “bar snacks” – crisps, peanuts, pork scratchings - designed to satisfy the hungry, but heftily salted to make them drink more. Then there was “pub grub,” a friendly-sounding term suggestive of plump barmaids dishing up hearty plates of cottage pie, cod Mornay or cheddar-and-Branston pickle to students like me in the 1970s. The quality of the food gradually improved in the 1980s – pubs might serve beef and lamb roasts at Sunday lunchtimes, and offer a limited menu of fish pie, sausage-and-mash or chicken–and–chips if you were lucky.
Then one day in 1991, a revelation occurred in the unpromising milieu of London EC1. A stone’s throw from the Guardian HQ on Farringdon Road, a scabby boozer called The Eagle began to feature, behind the bar, an open oven and grill manned by two sweaty young men, who dished up robust, heftily spiced and excitingly seared pork, fish and lamb dishes. The place was always packed, the noise unbearable, and the flames from behind the bar frankly demonic. But it was the first sighting of a pub to which you’d make a detour in order to to try the food – a gastropub.
Twenty years on, this promising hybrid has spawned several thousand others, with mixed results. Old-fashioned drinkers who want a pub to remain a place for drinking beer are dismayed by the encroachment of dining tables on their territory. The last time I popped into my old local, the Lord Palmerston in East Dulwich, for a pint, it was so full of seated lunchers, I had to stand out in the street. Too many unloved little pubs have been disastrously made-over by their brewer managers, and recast as burger bars or Thai-food fuelling-stops.
Too many establishments emphasise the “gastro” rather than the “pub” and charge accordingly. There’s something galling about choosing your seafood linguine from a chalk menu, ordering and pre-paying for it at the bar and being charged as if you were dining at Le Gavroche.
But when a gastropub gets it right, it can be a thing of beauty. At the Harwood Arms in Fulham, for instance, the décor is stripped-down, rustic, minimal and pubby; the menu is full of gutsy, honest-to-God flavours (snails with oxtail? Venison scotch egg? Braised shoulder of English mutton?) as un-precious as a tattooed bicep, and utterly delicious. And there’s still plenty of room to stand around at the bar, flooring pints and setting the world to rights. We may all have gone off the word “gastropub.” But whatever the Harwood Arms is, I wish there were dozens more.