Monday, 24 July 2017

Gone over to food

One of the most marked changes in the pub trade over the forty years of my drinking career has been the ever-growing prominence of food. In practice, there was a lot more pub food around in the 70s than the decade is often given credit for, but even so it has steadily increased in importance such that, for many pubs, it now forms the core of their business. It has become a truism to say that, outside urban centres, most pubs now could not survive without food.

The situation where this is perhaps most obvious is when away on holiday. For most people, going on holiday is about the only opportunity they get to experience pubs outside their own area in the evenings, when they are busiest, and the balance of trade is most representative. I remember in the 80s, when visiting pubs on holiday, that there tended to be a mixed economy. Yes, many now served evening meals, but there was also a good leavening of drinking customers too. Fast forward thirty years, and all too often they’re given over entirely to dining. For example, last month I visited a pub on the Isle of Wight on a Monday night. It didn’t obviously present itself as a “dining pub”, but I rapidly became conscious that I was the sole customer who wasn’t eating.

Obviously the main driver of this is changing social trends and mores, and pub operators can’t be blamed for adjusting their business model to suit the shifting winds of fashion. It may be a matter of regret, but there’s nothing really that can be done to reverse the trend. But you do have to wonder whether it has, slowly but surely, led to pubs metamorphosing into something entirely different from what they once were. Certainly, the new-build “family dining pub” that is becoming increasingly common would be unrecognisable from the perspective of 1977.

Back in the early days of this blog, I described this as “a strange hybrid kind of business that may superficially resemble a pub but in reality is just a second-rate dining outlet.” I know that particular boat has long since sailed, but I still can’t help thinking that we would have both better drinking and better eating if the two hadn’t merged into one.

33 comments:

  1. That hits the nail on the head very squarely. If I want a good "dining experience" I will go to a restaurant - not necessarily an expensive one - where I can get good service and decent wine. And if I want to drink beer seriously I will go to a good wet led pub where my enjoyment of the beer is not spoiled by the pervading miasma of chips.

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    1. I made much the same point here - most pub food isn't actually much good.

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  2. Restaurants are shit. Formal, uncomfortable and stressful. The food is often overpriced and boringly formulaic, and the beer selection is pathetic.

    Pubs are a much better bet for food. Comfortable, relaxed, informal, good beer, and unless you make the mistake of going to a chain pub, the food is generally home-cooked and good value. You can be sitting at the bar having a few rounds with your mates, and you get a bit peckish, so you ask "can you do us a cheeseburger and chips please mate". Perfect - much better than bloody crisps.

    Hot chips and cold beer are the perfect combination.

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    1. I was referring to the "dining experience" - going out for a meal with friends or family - rather than satisfying the urge for chips brought on by six pints of beer.

      My general experience of pub dining, which I used to do with a walking group until I totally lost patience with gastropubs - was: You all queued up at the bar to place your order individually; the food then arrived so erratically that one of you would be served desert before another had finished his soup: that the bar closed down while the staff were busy serving food so you couldn't get a second drink during the meal. (TBH a lot of these problems are simply a consequence of under staffing).

      Nor have a found a pub that serves decent Italian food; certainly nothing like Mario's Cafe in Uttoxeter, nor Chinese as good as the old Imperial Palace.

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    2. I'd far, far rather go for food with family and friends in a pub than a restaurant. I'm more of a pub person, other people may be more "restaurant people".

      Point of order: if you're ordering food at the bar, its not a gastropub. Gastropubs have table service. If you're in a pub, you're there for the beer and the company, not a formal dining experience, so what does it really matter what order the food arrives in?

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    3. Nonsense - plenty of what are clearly "gastropubs", for example the Brunning & Price chain, expect you to order at the bar.

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    4. Every Brunning and Price I've ever been to has had table service. Are you sure you're not thinking of fayre and square?

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    5. Well. If the definition of a gastropub is one that has table service then I have obviously been going to ordinary food led pubs. But that doesn't change my reservations about the standard of service.

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    6. Brunning and Price are a chain, owned by The Restaurant Group, owners of delights like Garfunkels and Frankie and Bennys. The food may be better than a Hungry Horse but most of it is higher end boil in the bag and ping. Not my idea of a gastropub.

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    7. Their main courses are around the £20 mark. I'd love to know what your definition of a gastropub is if £20 for a main is considered small change. At what point does a pub become a gastropub up there in your rarefied air? £200 a head? £1000 a head?

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    8. Yes, they are a chain, but it was originally set up as an independent business, and since the takeover they haven't deviated too far from the initial formula. If not a "gastropub" by some narrow, rarefied definition, they're certainly "high-end dining pubs".

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    9. So, Py, your definition of a gastropub is made solely by how much one charges? Interesting that most people, me included, would define a gastropub as a finer dining experience, irrespective of the cost. Good to see you're back on your usual form, by the way.

      Mudge, I think you'll find that behind the scenes, Brunning & Price are increasingly deviating enormously from the initial formula which was centred on food that was produced almost entirely from scratch in their own kitchens with their chefs given latitude over specials. Now, food is being sourced centrally and often just reheated in their kitchens.

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    10. A gastropub is a business model popularised in the 1990s that uses the physical settings of a pub to host a relatively upscale restaurant. Nothing more or nothing less. A crap gastropub is still a gastropub, its just a crap one.

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  3. And another advantage of a expensive restaurant is that you are much less likely to be bothered by noisy and unruly children :-)

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  4. Personally I quite like children and am happy for them to be running around as long as they don't bump into the table and spill my drink. Children are all part of the great pageant of life as much as anyone else. If you really must insist on avoiding them, avoid large dining pubs like Hungry Horses.

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  5. Markets adapt. Pubs that were formerly wet-led might have to shift the balance of their trade over to food in order to survive, but this creates a void which is increasingly being filled by the 'wetsclusive' micropub.

    I think we'll see a divergence between larger, more rural pubs with kitchens meeting one need (families and groups travelling by car, wanting to eat) and far smaller, generally urban pubs with lower overheads meeting another (the traditional beer drinker who will go for a curry or pick up a kebab after they've drunk sufficient).

    I'm not unhappy if the market continues to go this way, though I appreciate that people like Mudgie might be more bothered about not being able to drink in old pub buildings. I don't like the idea that the 'traditional country pub' doesn't really exist any more and is now effectively a restaurant, but this has been the direction of travel for a while, probably since drink-driving laws were introduced if we're honest.

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    1. This is by no means a solely rural phenomenon - it has now extended to many suburban areas too.

      And micropubs, with their very narrow appeal and customer base, are no substitute for proper all-round pubs where you'd see a wide variety of customers.

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    2. Why must micropubs have a 'very narrow appeal and customer base'?

      The one down here seems to attract a fairly diverse clientele. In terms of gender/class/age mix it's probably more diverse than the old backstreet wet-led working class boozer ever was. It wouldn't confirm the stereotypical view of Surrey either.

      If micropubs have a narrow appeal, then so do 'family-oriented food pubs'. And 'mainstream lager and sky sports pubs'. Indeed virtually every pub that isn't a Wetherspoons (which deliberately tries to offer something for everyone) has narrow appeal. That's the point.

      If there is a modern-day version of this 'everything for everybody' pub that may indeed never have really existed outside your own nostalgia, then it's a Spoons. And as the years go by, I find Spoons increasingly less and less attractive to me.

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    3. I wrote a post about the narrow appeal of micropubs here.

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    4. My experience of "traditional pubs" is that the clientele tend to form cliques and that a shy retiring person like myself can find it very difficult to strike up a conversation. Whereas, as you say, in a micro pub you are often forced to join in the conversation. So nice choice: micropub when I feel like talking, trad when I want to sit and read.

      As for your criticism that micros have limited opening hours: many trad pubs don't open their doors until mid afternoon or, especially in the country, six or seven o'clock in the evening

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    5. In town centres, such as Stockport, Macclesfield and Stafford, micropubs and new-wave bars are closed on weekday lunchtimes while plenty of proper pubs nearby are open.

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  6. Indeed, and markets segment. If a town or largish village has two pubs, chances are one will go upmarket or family-friendly and focus on food, and the other on flogging copious amounts of cheap beer to the local young folk and alcoholics, sorry, I mean regulars. Variations on a theme.

    Which one will have good beer? Your guess is as good as mine.

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    1. I'd like to know where these two-pub villages are where one is food-oriented and the other wet-led. In my experience, either one has closed down, and the remaining one is foody, or both are foody. Or both have closed down.

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    2. Both of my nearest villages actually have 3 pubs - and we're talking about small villages with only a few hundred people.

      There must be hundreds of 2-pub villages near you. Do you have a car or a bike?

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    3. I am familiar with plenty of villages, thank you very much, but I struggle to think of any where the division between food-led and wet-led pub that you describe exists. I can think of at least two where it once did, but the wet-led pub has now closed.

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  7. Keep the middle aged middle class real ale alkies in the micro pub.

    Give me a microwave meal that comes with a pint in the company of screaming kids any day of the week.

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  8. Some of my happiest times in pubs were as a kid, eating food.
    It can be done very badly, usually in a chain like spoons, toby carvery etc or a gastropub with 12 quid burgers and pretentious bollocks.
    Wet pubs should do snacks better (no cooking needed).

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    1. That is something else which I regret. The passing of ready to go food on the bar. When travelling with shortish time between trains or busses I want to be able to grab a pie instanta not wait half an hour for a sandwich to be dressed up on a plate with various varieties of grass.

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    2. It is interesting that a lot of the more modern, 'craftier' places do indeed offer 'grab and go' pies, scotch eggs etc. (albeit typically of higher quality and at a higher price point)

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  9. Quite apart from the argument about relative quality of restaurants and pubs and gastropubs. I am always surprised just how large the market for pub food is. There seems to be an inherent contradiction between supermarkets squeezing there suppliers nearly out of business in order to reduce the average customers grocery bill by a couple of pounds and those same customers being willing to spend the thick end of a ton on a family meal out.

    Throughout my childhood and through most of my adult life eating out was a rare treat.

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    1. An increase in eating out is one of the most noticeable ways in which an increase in living standards is reflected - it is no longer an occasional treat but an everyday occurrence.

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    2. Its probably not actually the same customers though.

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  10. Not just eating out. In the modern economy consumers seem to want to screw the price of goods right down but are willing to spend silly sums on personal services. Seeking out a 0.1p reduction in the price of road fuel then splashing a tenner on having the car cleaned is typical example.

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