The menu is chalked on a blackboard; the crockery, pre-chipped and artfully mismatched; the outside resplendent in heritage hollybush green. Behind the bar, in the de rigueur open kitchen, flames burst from a flambéed steak as diners look on from rickety chairs scattered around flaking wooden tables.
So far, so gastropub. But The Eagle, which celebrates its 25th birthday on 14 January, isn’t just any old London boozer serving food, but the site of a dining revolution that spawned thousands of imitators, changing the way the British eat while we drink.
The term itself might be contentious – gastropubs have not graced The Good Food Guide’s pages since 2011, although the industry mouthpiece, The Publican’s Morning Advertiser, holds its annual celebration of the top 50 gastropubs later this month – but the concept is as familiar as some of the overused conceits to describe the grub. (Who’s for some “jus” on their “good, honest food”?)
Before Michael Belben and David Eyre acquired the lease on the corner property on Farringdon Road in late 1990, central London pubs were not places anyone sober would seek out sustenance. You went to restaurants to eat, and pubs to drink, usually heavily. But, on 14 January 1991, the two friends started dishing up Venetian sausages with lentils, grilling goat’s cheese to top focaccia, and frying those “bifana” marinated steaks to stuff into a roll. Neither they, nor the rest of Britain, has looked back.
“We worked in restaurants,” Belben recalls, “but couldn’t afford to go out and eat in them.” The pair dreamed of places such as Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray’s The River Café and Alistair Little’s former restaurant in Soho.
“We weren’t really pub-going people because pubs didn’t seem to answer our needs,” says Eyre, who sold his stake to his partner after seven years. “We wanted to open a place where we would like to go, and we knew there were lots of people like us who’d like to go there as well.”
The Monopolies Commission had ordered the big brewers to sell off their pubs, and the duo duly snapped up the Farringdon site.
“The day we opened, we had nothing. We emptied our pockets of small change to put into the till. Because we had no fridges, the menu changed twice a day,” says the talkative Eyre, the first of what has still only been three head chefs. Belben remembers ringing round newspaper food critics; the first to turn up was Emily Green from The Independent. Her review from 9 February, 1991, rated the “voguish Italian food ... best, a trio of spicy pork sausages served with a thyme and olive-spiked gratin”, a write-up that Belben credits with “kicking the whole thing off”.
Today, Green, who long ago decamped to the US, remembers the place feeling like “sunshine”, in contrast to its counterparts, which were “dark, even at noon”.
“They were smoky. They stank of old beer and Silk Cut. Seek out lunch and there might have been bangers, mash and congealing baked beans under heat lamps. By night, most London pubs hardened off into places where you could drink, smoke and, only when in the grip of alcohol poisoning, stagger off in search of solids. [The Eagle] was a place where you might have some beer with your food, not crisps with your lager. It felt as accessible and welcoming as a pub, but at the same time, more like a dining room instead of a boozer. Real men could order a half pint.”
Within seven weeks, the pair had banked more money than they had “optimistically” promised their bank manager they would make in a year: “There’s only about 40 places to sit and we used to sometimes do 140 people in two hours!” Eyre again. It took barely eight months before Jonathan Meades predicted the ensuing revolution in The Times, writing: “It is certain to be copied sooner or later by The Malt Cartel - ineptly copied, of course, with no understanding of what makes it tick. It is not a former pub, it still is a pub – but one whose owners have written the rules.”
Today, Eyre grimaces at the gastropub epithet. “We don’t really like the term. We always felt it was just a pub. You don’t have gastro-hotels. You don’t have gastro-bars. It sounds like a belch!” The writer Charles Campion is credited with coining the word; wrongly, he insists. “The Oxford Dictionary quoted one of the first sightings as one of my reviews in the Evening Standard, but I don’t remember writing the term,” he says.
Although Rochelle Venables, the editor of The Good Food Guide, reckons the term fails to “convey the flexible approach to hospitality that pubs have traditionally offered to diners and drinks [becoming] synonymous with restaurant ambitions”, gastropubs live on for Campion because they dish up the goods.
“If I say, ‘Come out to dinner at a gastropub’, you know what I mean,” he explains.
“Chefs have told me that customers can tire of the term when a pub names itself a gastropub because they serve a burger with a bit of bacon in it or ‘posh pork scratchings’. But true gastropubs are more than that, and I think the public knows that too,” says Nicholas Robinson, the food editor at The Publican’s Morning Advertiser. The trade is eager to find out where they rank in the paper’s Top 50 Gastropubs list, out on 25 January, he adds.
Nick Deverell-Smith, the chef proprietor of The Churchill Arms in Paxford, Gloucestershire, speaks for those who feel the sector has moved on. “‘Gastro’ sounds like a big, loud, garish word, something almost mass produced, with big portions. I’d say we’re a food-destination pub.”
Or, for those such as Tom Kerridge, whose feted Hand and Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, is shiny with stars, try “Michelinns”. You read it here first.