Gastrophobia: Never forget it's a pub

Paid £25 a head for an average meal in a pub recently? Blame the great British gastropub experiment
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I have measured out my life in deliberately mismatching crockery and ale-of-the-week beer mats. Many of the defining moments of my existence have happened in gastropubs. I've been hired over razor clams, dumped after wild mushroom risotto. I've celebrated birthdays behind bowls of fish pie and toasted absent friends with Chilean Merlot. I've been horribly spoiled, clearly, but I've also been overcharged, underfed, patronised and disappointed. The catering trade will take all this with a pinch of crushed sea salt (we don't charge extra for it!), but it seems to me that the original idea of the gastropub - good cooking in casual surroundings - has been diluted from a thick, tangy broth into a thin, tasteless consommé.

What went wrong? When co-founders David Eyre and Michael Belben opened The Eagle, generally accepted to be the first gastropub, in January 1991, they had a five-word manifesto: "Never forget it's a pub."

Eyre and Belben's Clerkenwell corner pub ushered in a brave new culinary world where customers could drink, or not, and eat, or not. They pioneered the idea of "one-plate eating", believing that not everyone who goes out to lunch or dinner always brings an appetite for the traditional one-two-three of starter, main course and then dessert. They accepted cash or cheques only, and took no reservations for tables. Belben bought cutlery and crockery in car-boot sales, and Eyre's distinctive handwriting spelt out each day's menu in chalk, on a huge blackboard behind the bar. To decorate their new premises, Belben bought old school chairs and solid wooden tables, while bar taps were discreetly hidden rather than flashily displayed. "The key factor," says Belben now, "was a very high standard of food in cosy, comfortable, even scruffy surroundings. It was an anti-restaurant."

The Eagle, its owners hoped, would be unpretentious, non-intimidating, democratic, cheap. Eyre's food was heavily influenced by the Mediterranean, especially Portuguese cooking, and prices were low. You could have a pint and a steak sandwich for close to a fiver. "Still can," points out Belben. Big Flavours, Rough Edges was the apposite name of the cookbook that resulted.

It all sounds so simple - not to say familiar - but the idea was quite revolutionary at the time. "It's easy to forget the debt of gratitude everyone owes to the original gastropubs," says author Richard Benson, who has recently spent some time eating his way around the country for The Good Food Ride. "At the end of the 1980s, if you wanted to go out to eat there was a divide between posh, elaborate, French-influenced cooking or pub grub, which was pretty awful. It was almost impossible to find good cooking without all the formality of a restaurant." The trouble is, agrees Benson, that despite the best efforts of the original gastropubs, it still is. "It makes me feel quite sorry for that much-maligned institution, the British eating public," he says.

Benson feels that gastropubs have now "become a fashion. It's so cosmetic: country pubs tart themselves up to look like gastropubs, but it's the same people cooking the steak-and-eel pie who used to cook the gammon and pineapple."

The early gastropub successes were soon copied and rolled out by enterprising landlords. Big breweries were also quick to jump on the trend - All Bar One, the Slug and Lettuce, and Pitcher and Piano chains were all launched in the wake of The Eagle's founding.

While Belben is proud of the sea change in British drinking and dining that resulted from his brainchild, he accepts that the gastropub has now lost its way. "It's a great shame," he says. "I've always felt that we were creating a nice foodie culture, an English bistro culture. But that's not something that can be rolled out."

The Eagle is by no means the only good gastropub, though - Belben is a partner in the highly rated Anchor & Hope in Waterloo, south London, and he also namechecks a former protégé, Amanda Pritchett, who owns The Lansdowne in Primrose Hill, north London. Notable mention should also go to The Cow in Notting Hill and Heston Blumenthal's Hind's Head in Bray. However, these are among the few that have remained true to the earliest ideals.

Certainly the overwhelming trend is downmarket. Food writer Tom Parker Bowles, author of The Year of Eating Dangerously, acknowledges the positive influence of the better gastropubs but longs for a return to "good, solid pub cooking - food for soaking up booze, rather than all these coulis and super-reductions."

The problem is often, reckons Parker Bowles, that "most people can't cook like Heston Blumenthal, but it doesn't stop them trying. What they should be doing is keeping it simple and keeping it cheap - pies, steak, good chips, good salads.

"We forget that when we were growing up all you could eat in a pub was a pickled egg and a curled-up sandwich; we should be thankful that has changed. But it's time to kill off that word gastropub. The line between pubs and restaurants has become fatally blurred."

"I don't think gastropubs will die," counters Belben. "People will be able to get good food in good pubs forever. But as a phenomenon, the gastropub won't be as big or as successful as everyone thought it would."

Meanwhile, it being a Sunday, there's a good chance you've been reading all this in one. In which case, I hope that your meat is tender, your beer is fresh, your table is sturdy, your wallet is bulging, and your expectations aren't too high.

Alex Bilmes is features director of 'GQ'