Drinks guide bitter over tasteless theme pubs

Chains blamed for poor food and low-quality service Lucy Ward
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The Independent Online
Theme pubs are destroying an important way of traditional British life with low-quality food and drink and production-line decor, according to a new survey.

In a stinging attack, The Which? Guide to Country Pubs published today warns that some of Britain's most attractive pubs are suffering as a result when they are bought up by chains. In some cases food quality had gone downhill since the pubs were taken over and in some cases it was "utterly dire", the guide said.

"Typically, managers move into these pubs for a few weeks and then leave minions to take over with chefs who have no business using the title running the kitchen," said David Mabey, editor of the guide.

The guide also complained about bland and formulaic furnishings in such institutions. "It seems to be almost compulsory to cover walls in fake collections and clutter culled from the pubfitters' curiosity shop," Mr Mabey said. "It is a sad character-stifling exercise that appears to be designed to rip the heart and soul out of any decent hostelry."

A spokesman for the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) said that while there was room for different types of pub in the market "the problem is when someone thinks of a good idea, such as the Irish concept, everyone jumps on the bandwagon and there can be three or four of the same kind in the high street and there is a danger of saturation".

But Bob Cartwright, communications director for Bass Taverns which owns 87 O'Neills Irish-style pubs, strongly disagreed with the guide's findings. "There is cracking service and very good food and a really good ambience. O'Neills is highly successful because it appeals to a broad section of people who might not normally go out to the pub," he said.

The guide also notes that landlords in the North are raising their glasses to the north-south divide after a new survey found that almost half the top- rated pubs were situated there.

There was a "distinct shift" in centres of excellence, with the North taking over from the West Country, which was criticised for bowing to the "perils of over-exposure, seasonal trade and a hefty dose of 'resting on laurels'."

In contrast, pubs in areas such as Yorkshire, Lancashire and the Midlands have done well this year with many more winning the coveted "two rosettes" award which indicates that the quality of bar food is comparable to that found in a serious restaurant.

Britons now munch their way through around pounds 4bn worth of pub food every year - spending as much on eating in pubs as they do in restaurants.

The Which? Guide to Country Pubs is published by Which? Ltd and can be ordered by calling 0800 252100; pounds 14.99. Also available from bookshops.