Leading Article: A filled baguette, a glass of wine and thou

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The Independent Online
The wine bar, when it first flourished, seemed to be one of the few civilising products of the Eighties. It appealed to people who liked wine - a broader and more humane category than 'wine lovers'; it appealed to women; and it appealed to those who disliked pubs, a broader grouping still. Before the arrival of wine bars all over Britain, a woman wanting a light meal and a glass of wine at lunchtime would find the pub had nothing to offer her but smoke, Liebfraumilch and sweaty quiche.

The wine bar at its best offered good, inexpensive food, accompanied by interesting and affordable wine in surroundings that were not aggressively masculine. Yet the survey we report today shows that wine bars are having a harder time in the recession than pubs seem to be having. There is a general sense, at least in London, that their time is passing.

Some of this is a matter of simple economics. The recession has not been good for frivolous spending. Drinking at lunchtime is less fashionable now than it ever was; even eating at lunchtime is regarded as self-indulgent in really dedicated firms. But it may also be the case that the apparent eclipse of the wine bar is a measure of the success of the idea rather than its failure. The distinctions between pubs, wine bars and brasseries are growing less and less distinct. Nowadays all can offer decent, interesting and inexpensive food. Some pubs even sell good wine. It has become very much easier for families to bring their children out to eat with them.

The reform of the licensing laws has forced licensed premises of every sort to concentrate on what customers want. This turns out to be very much more than alcohol. In fact, the tradition of drinking without food, as practised in traditional pubs and some primitive wine bars, seems odder and odder these days. This may well be a side-effect of the decline of smoking, which provided for generations of drinkers a substitute for nibbling.

Yet once food and decoration are admitted to be among the factors that influence consumers in their choice, no form of licensed premise can be expected to thrive forever. Fashion will see to that. The tapas bar of yesterday is already selling sushi and will soon serve nothing but Polynesian specialities. Pubs have been remodelled into so many things that the most modern are now being remarketed as traditional pubs. Wine bars will surely give way in time to beer bars, offering scope for entirely new snobberies as the connoisseurs order Ukrainian lager or Nigerian stout.

Yet in all this confusion there has been a noticeable improvement in the general standard of eating out. You must go a long way into the tourist hells to be sure of a really bad meal served gracelessly in England today.

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