The gastropub explosion is leaving drinkers bitter, say experts

Survey says cost of a pub meal has risen by more than double rate of inflation as seared tuna and rocket supplants sausage and mash
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Not so long ago the broadest choice on the menu at the Crown pub in the East End of London was the range of drugs sold by its less savoury regulars. Yesterday, you could choose between the whole-baked sea bream or the slow-baked belly of pork with spiced Portuguese bean stew.

Not so long ago the broadest choice on the menu at the Crown pub in the East End of London was the range of drugs sold by its less savoury regulars. Yesterday, you could choose between the whole-baked sea bream or the slow-baked belly of pork with spiced Portuguese bean stew.

The former Victorian hotel, one of the most notorious pubs in the borough of Hackney until it was closed in the early 1990s, was bought in 1998 and renovated. It is now one of Britain's burgeoning breed of gastropubs, serving organic food and drink in a quiet residential street to a respectable clientele of suited professionals, middle-aged couples and young families with designer prams.

Lunchtime on a Tuesday brought a steady stream of customers to sit at the scrubbed oak tables and mix-and-match wooden chairs on polished floorboards that have become the typical decor of an estimated 5,000 gourmet boozers across the land.

And judging by the empty plates heading back to the kitchen, they were satisfied customers, despite paying £13 for the bream or £11.25 for the chargrilled lamb burger with homemade bun. All washed down with a pint of organic bitter at £2.80.

As David Ames, 46, an entertainment manager, said after polishing off his papardelle pasta with roast mushrooms, stilton and basil cream sauce (£6.50): "Bloody delicious but it's a bit more than you used to pay for a ploughman's down the Dog and Duck, isn't it?''

The Crown, one of a group of three organic pubs in the capital set up by two female entrepreneurs, has not had a price rise above inflation since it opened. But according to a survey by the country's leading pub guide published today, it is an exception to the rule.

In the past two years, the average cost of a pub meal - an industry now worth £3.5bn a year - has gone up by more than double the rate of inflation, leading to claims that the status of the British local as the bastion of a good-value helping of sausage and mash has been demolished by a wave of over-priced seared tuna and wilted rocket. And the gastropub is apparently to blame.

Alisdair Aird, editor of The Good Pub Guide 2004, said: "It is a lot more difficult to find good value for money in pubs now than it was two or three years ago and it is a phenomenon being fuelled by the rise of the gastropub.

"Prices at the established places have remained fairly stable but the problem is that you are getting lots of people jumping on the gastropub bandwagon. A new outfit comes along, buys a place, does it up and all of a sudden it is a fancy gastropub with fancy prices and unfortunately food that doesn't necessarily match."

Researchers tracked the price of a typical dish in 331 pubs across England and Wales between May 2001 and May 2003 and found it rose by an average of 13 per cent in that time compared with an increase in the Retail Price Index of 2.67 per cent a year. In one in seven pubs, the increase was 25 per cent or more.

Mr Aird said there was also a trend for pubs to match their stripped-down continental-style decor with a unnecessary garnishes and Mediterranean- influenced snacks at inflated prices. He said: "People feel bulldozed into having - and paying for - something rather fancier than the simple lunchtime snack or sandwich that they really want. Either a sandwich comes with a few pence worth of unwanted chips, crisps or salad, bumping up the price by a pound or two. Or the sandwich has blown up into a huge baguette, or trendified into a pannini, ciabatta or a wrap."

For those leading the advance of British pub food - the proportion of establishments offering hot food has increased from 60 per cent to 90 per cent since 1993 - they were harsh words.

Geetie Singh, co-owner of the Crown, said: "I couldn't disagree more - it is an ignorant view. Any restaurateur who is profiteering will be instantly found out in today's market.

"We are raised with pubs as part of British life and the gastropub is a modern version of what the pub is about - places for friends and family to informally gather to eat and drink. It is a very expensive business, people are paid more and if you are committed to quality ingredients that also costs money.

"But the results are plain to see because gastropubs have had a dramatic effect on the quality of food served in British pubs. If there are price rises then a large part of that must be the lag of others bringing their products up to scratch."

While the authors of the pub guide admitted this may be true in some cases, they said that most of the businesses in their survey were charging significantly more than two years ago but serving the same food. Some were found to have put up their prices by so much (50 per cent or more) that they were dropped from the publication.

There was also anecdotal evidence that high prices did not automatically lead to high quality. Among the 600 horror stories reported to the guide by customers last year were complaints about a chef's hair being found in soggy frozen vegetables and how a grumble about an expensive but less-than-fresh lemon sole led to a threat of physical violence in front of the customer's children.

Leaders of the industry insisted that the nation's 60,000 pubs still represented good value compared with restaurants and other outlets. The British Beer and Pub Association, which represents the main brewers and half of all pubs, said that about a billion meals were sold every year at an average price of £3.50.

Mark Hastings, the association's spokesman, said: "Factors like the increase in national insurance and the demand for greater-quality food will have increased costs but the pub is still the venue of choice for millions of people and it is a growing trend."

Industry experts believe that the relatively stable price of drink, in particular beer at an average of £2.07 a pint, may account for the rise in food prices.

One executive at a large pub chain, who asked not to be named, said: "I think you'll find that the margin is always higher on a plate of chips with a salsa dip than it is on a pint of lager. Some businesses are also exploiting a degree of ignorance among the customer and think if you drizzle enough olive oil on something it makes it award-winning nosh." But defenders of the gastropub, invented in the depths of the 1990 recession with the opening of the Eagle in Clerkenwell, London, insisted its popularity would endure.

Philip Burgess, a restaurant chef for 30 years who is now co-owner of the Dartmoor Inn at Lydford in Devon, which was named best dining pub of the year by the guide, said: "The fakes will always be found out. You are now getting top chefs who want to escape the pressure of the Michelin system setting up in pubs and you are getting customers who want something more accessible and moderately priced than a posh restaurant. France has its bistros. We now have our pubs."


Estimated number of gastropubs in the UK: 5,000, out of 60,000 pubs.

Value in 2002 of the pub meals industry: £3.5bn, representing one billion meals.

Average price rise in pub food from May 2001 to May 2003 at 331 pubs in 12 regions: 13 per cent.

Average increase in the retail price index over same period: 5.4 per cent

Percentage of pubs serving food in 1993: 60 per cent

Percentage of pubs serving food in 2003: 90 per cent

Average proportion of a pub's turnover made from food: 40 per cent

National average price for a pint of beer: £2.07.

Cheapest area for a pint: Nottinghamshire (£1.84)

Most expensive area for a pint: London (£2.49)

A revolution that has made stale beer and rubbery food a thing of the past

By Caroline Stacey, Food Editor

The gastropub revolution has taken place at a gallop. Two years ago the first pub - the Stagg Inn at Titley in Herefordshire - wona Michelin star.

The face of some dining pubs began to change. They are more polished than the originals such as the Eagle in Farringdon. But they have all been the salvation of eating out in this country.

Later this month the best are celebrated in The Gastropub Cookbook(Mitchell Beazley, £20), a glossy collection of recipes. But restaurants vary in price and quality, and even the priciest gastropub offers a more accessible way to eat and drink. Many, like the Stagg Inn and the Star Inn at Harome, The Good Pub Guide's pub of the year, bring exceptional food to rural areas.

They charge the same prices as restaurants. Why shouldn't they? They have also kept the spirit of the village pub alive at a time when hundreds with nothing to recommend them have closed. The Star Inn's cricket team gathers there for a pint after their matches.

Local restaurants struggle against the chains who roll out identikit eateries. You're certainly not guaranteed a bargain meal at an independent local restaurant. Nor good food. Pubs give chefs a chance to express their individuality.

France has always had local bistros serving simple, inexpensive food. The transformation of many pubs into places that put cooking on a par with their beers has given Britain an equivalent.

It would be a shame if it became easier to find a Thai curry than a cheese ploughman's down the pub, but let's not be cheeseparing about price, when eating there has improved immeasurably. Good ingredients are expensive and the cost is often reflected in the bill. It costs less to buy in frozen meals - the Brake Bros van outside a pub is always a giveaway - and employ a school leaver to wait for the microwave's ping. That's why pub food used to be cheap but not good value.

The Good Pub Guide might rue the rising cost of eating out. But there's no going back to the days of rubbery lasagne, stale beer, sticky carpets and a surly landlord who could barely rustle up a packet of crisps. And I'll eat to that.