The Publicans’ Gastro Wing
Andy Lynes / October 2012
Seems that everyone with a few tap lines and a burger wants to call their place a gastropub. Not so fast, mate. Andy Lynes traces the shifting definition of British gastropubs, from modest beginnings to Michelin-starred acclaim.
Until January 1991, if you wanted something to eat in a British pub, you’d have to settle for a packet of pork rinds or the questionable joys of prawn cocktail and steak at Whitbread brewery’s nationwide chain of cheap and cheerful Beefeater establishments. That all changed when restaurant workers David Eyre and Mike Belben launched their first business by taking the lease of the dilapidated Eagle pub on Farringdon Road in Clerkenwell. Their simple formula of serving Mediterranean-inspired dishes freshly cooked in the tiny open kitchen behind the bar proved revolutionary, launching the gastropub movement (a term coined by critic Charles Campion in his Evening Standard review of The Eagle) that two decades later culminated in Michelin bestowing two stars to Tom and Beth Kerridge’s The Hand & Flowers in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
“I really don’t think we’re inventing anything,” says Eyre, who now runs Eyre Brothers restaurant in Shoreditch, London. “We certainly didn’t have any notion that we were going to turn pubs on their head. We were just trying to open something that we wanted.”
The Eagle does have its precedents. As long ago as 1737, publican William Verral, who fused the cuisine he learned under renowned French chef Pierre de St. Clouet with English country house cooking, was serving salmon with shrimp sauce and lamb’s sweetbreads with asparagus to his customers at the White Hart Inn in Lewes, Sussex. More recently, Italian born Franco Taruschio ran the celebrated Walnut Tree in Llanddewi Skirrid, Wales, from 1963 until 2001, where he cooked vincisgrassi (pasta baked with prosciutto, mushrooms, and cream) and cockle-and-mussel pie. In 1983, the “godfather of the gastropub,” the late Denis Watkins, opened The Angel Inn in Hetton, North Yorkshire. Initially relying on liquor sales, Watkins evolved the food from plaice and chips to roasted topside of English lamb, grilled Tuscan-style vegetables, gnocchi with home-dried tomato, and melting Yorkshire blue cheese.
The birth of the gastropub movement was foreshadowed by the activities of the Campaign for Real Ale. Since 1971, the independent voluntary consumer organization has been agitating for “real ale, community pubs, and consumer rights,” aiming to support the notion of the public house as a focus of community life. Its mission to increase the appreciation of traditional beers, ciders, and perries (pear cider) made the idea of serving gourmet food cooked from scratch in a pub the next logical step. Though Eyre and Belben were clearly staking out new territory, they were aided by the 1989 “Beer Orders” ruling of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission that forced the six breweries dominating the pub industry in the United Kingdom at the time—Allied Lyons, Bass, Courage, Grand Metropolitan, Scottish & Newcastle, and Whitbread—to sell off some of their licenses, which became available on an affordable leasehold basis.
“I think we were the first of a new type of operator,” says Eyre. “We were people who didn’t own a freehold, we were in our late 20s–early 30s, we had come from a restaurant background, and we took cooking seriously.”
With little room to store food, The Eagle’s menu changed at every service, written up on chalkboards in Eyre’s distinctive and much imitated calligraphy. “It sounds scary to change the menu every shift, but we worked within a sort of template. If some white haricot beans were going next to a pork chop at lunch time and there were some beans left, then pork chops might become lamb chops at dinner, or the beans might become ribollita the following day, or they might be pureed and put on a piece of toast with an anchovy.”
With prices kept below £10 ($15) per dish, The Eagle was the affordable antitheses of higher end restaurant dining. “The whole idea of The Eagle was that there was no service. We couldn’t physically operate that way in that space, so it was one course eating—go up to the bar, place your order, and no credit cards,” says Eyre, whose first-year end financial targets were met within seven weeks, helped along by an enthusiastic response from the press, including being the subject of a big feature in the Times.
Inevitably, employees left to open their own establishments, starting with Amanda Pritchett at The Landsdowne in Primrose Hill in 1992 and Margot Henderson, who set up the French House Dining Room in Soho with husband Fergus (a precursor to his world famous St. John restaurant in Smithfield Market) soon after. More recently, Harry Lester opened the acclaimed and influential Anchor & Hope in Waterloo, former Eagle head chef Tom Norrington-Davis moved on to Great Queen Street, and Trish Hilferty invented the foie gras toastie (cooked in a Breville sandwich maker) at the Canton Arms in Stockwell.
The success of The Eagle and its offspring didn’t go unnoticed. The idea of the gastropub began to attract interest from unexpected quarters. In 1993, Stephen Doherty, former head chef of the Roux brothers’ then-three-Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurant Le Gavroche, became chef/manager of the Brown Horse village pub in Winster, Cumbria. “I don’t want to be detrimental to upmarket restaurants, but I started feeling I wanted to get away from anything associated with pretentiousness,” he told Caterer and Hotelkeeper magazine in 1995. An early review of the Brown Horse in the Independent newspaper shows Doherty was as good as his word, allowing customers to order drinks from the bar and serving them roasted pork with cabbage and applesauce, onion soup, cannelloni, seafood crêpes, and steak and chips. The bill for one came to less than £20 ($30).
Numerous high-end chefs have since followed in Doherty’s footsteps, including fellow Roux alumni Mark Prescott at The White Hart in Nayland, Suffolk, Jonathan Harrison at The Sandpiper Inn in Leyburn, North Yorkshire, and London-based chef Dan Evans. Previously head chef at Odette’s in Primrose Hill and The Fire Station in Waterloo (partly owned by Trevor Gulliver, now Fergus Henderson’s business partner), Evans’ menu at The Anglesea Arms near Hammersmith in the late ’90s was influenced by his four years working for modern British pioneer Alastair Little; it included John Dory with Jersey Royal potatoes and cèpe butter sauce, and warm salad of chicken fillets, chicken livers, and young vegetables.
But it was yet another Roux alumnus, former Le Gavroche chef Steve Reynolds, who achieved the landmark of winning the first Michelin star for a pub in 2001 at The Stagg Inn in Titley, Herefordshire. “We did not set out to get a star, just to do our very best and to try and give our customers what they want and to cater for a broad range of customers,” says Reynolds’ wife and business partner Nicola Reynolds. “The Stagg was shut when we bought it and not viable as a drinking pub. As time has gone on, it has become very apparent that the old-fashioned drinking pub is struggling to survive due to the change in drinking habits and ways of socializing. We often get asked if we are a pub or a restaurant, and we usually say that the choice is yours, but we still see ourselves as a pub or more accurately an inn, because we serve draught beer, have some local drinkers, and cater to people who might just want a sandwich, allow dogs and children, and provide accommodation.”
Recently named National Dining Pub of the Year by The Good Pub Guide, it’s no surprise to find refined dishes such as seared scallops with celeriac puree and black pepper oil on The Staggs’ à la carte menu. But Reynolds also offers mushroom and chestnut tart, parmentier potatoes, and savoy cabbage on a separate vegetarian menu. A children’s menu includes “our own sausage and mash, onion rings,” and for Sunday lunch there’s roast rump of local beef with Yorkshire pudding and roasted potatoes. “Basically, anything goes,” says Reynolds. “Serving food that people will travel to eat is not a choice but a business necessity.”
After a career working in country house hotels and top London restaurants including The Capital hotel and winning a Michelin star for Adlard’s restaurant in Norwich, Tom Kerridge was inspired to open The Hand & Flowers with his wife, Beth, in 2005 with a visit to another Michelin-starred pub. The Trouble House in Tetbury, Gloucestershire, was run at the time by Michael Bedford, whose CV includes stints with Raymond Blanc, Pierre Koffmann, and Gary Rhodes. “You walked through the door and you instantly recognized it as a pub—there was a bar with real ales, so you instantly felt comfortable,” Kerridge says. “The staff was smiley and friendly, and there was a simple menu of five or six starters, mains, and desserts—all food you wanted to eat. I had a red mullet soup followed by braised oxtail. I just sat there thinking: this food is fantastic, it tastes amazing, it’s cooked by a Michelin-starred chef, yet I’m sitting here very comfortably drinking a pint. That was the point where I thought this is something we’ve got to do.
“We looked at the cost of a freehold pub, and it was a lot of money, so we started off with a five year tenancy agreement at The Hand with Greene King Brewery,” says Kerridge. “The costs of moving in were pretty much nothing; we just had to buy the fixtures and fittings for £35,000 [$55,000] and then we spent £10,000 [$16,000] of our own money buying kitchen equipment second-hand from an auction.”
Although things weren’t easy to start with—for two and a half years, Kerridge had to prop up a broken oven door with a vegetable oil drum because he didn’t have the money to get it fixed—the low initial cost allowed the couple complete control of the business. They have since purchased the pub’s lease. Within 10 months of opening, The Hand & Flowers won a star and by 2007, Kerridge was able to refit the kitchen. Michelin added a second star this year.
Kerridge says he retained the same techniques and standards from his restaurant career, but adapted his style and ingredients to suit the pub environment. “More affordable cuts don’t have to mean poor quality. So we’d use skate wing as opposed to John Dory, pork belly as opposed to loin. We started with rump steak, but now we’re doing filet, but that’s a customer-driven position.”
Six and a half years down the line, Kerridge is producing some of the most distinctive gastropub dishes in the country. Lamb bun is a slice of rack of lamb on the bone wrapped in a chicken mousse studded with breast of lamb and sweetbreads en crépinette and encased in brioche dough. For his signature shin of beef dish, Kerridge marinates the meat in red wine for 48 hours, then braises it with mirepoix and a sachet of aromatics. He piles the picked meat, mixed with marrowbone, into a split and cleaned beef bone and tops it with slices of potato cooked in chicken stock. The whole is wrapped in caul fat and rebraised with stock and butter and served with a whole carrot cooked and glazed in butter, water, sugar, salt, and star anise.
Not all influential gastropub chefs come from a fine dining background. Stephen Harris, a former history teacher, takes the ideal of local and seasonal to its logical conclusion at The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent, by boiling down seawater to make his own salt, churning his own butter, and hanging his own hams. His multicourse menus, which have helped him achieve a Michelin star and the title of Gastropub of the Year at the recent National Restaurant Awards, incorporate local salt marsh lamb and game, shellfish from nearby Whitstable, and foraged seashore vegetables; to wit: scallops with seaweed butter and Monkshill Farm lamb belly with mint sauce.
Despite the success of Harris, Kerridge, and many others, in the eyes of Great Britain’s influential The Good Food Guide the term gastropub has been made irrelevant by operators charging restaurant prices, taking reservations, and sidelining drinkers. The guide dropped the term in 2011, stating in a press release that they preferred to “call a pub a pub, with all that implies—good, old-fashioned hospitality with good value food and drink.” It’s a move that has been met with mixed opinion.
“I really detest the term gastropub. I always think it sounds like a bilious complaint,” says Eyre. That’s a view shared by Guy Manning, formerly of Per Se in New York City and now owner of the acclaimed Red Lion in East Chisenbury, Wiltshire. “Gastropub is a very ugly word— the phrase that I’ve decided I like is ‘country dining pub.’”
Tom Martin of the London-based ETM Group, which runs The Gun in the Docklands and The White Swan in the City of London, is more enthusiastic about the term. “It really defines what we do quite well,” Martin says. “The reason people are concerned about it is because copycats have jumped on the bandwagon and have ended up not investing in their kitchens or quality of the chefs and are turning out a rubbish product and giving the term a bad name.”
Publicity stunt or not, The Good Food Guide’s decision highlighted just how diverse gastropubs have become. From their East London origin, gastropubs quickly spread across the capital, the United Kingdom, and eventually the world, mutating to meet the aspirations of the owners, the demands of customers, and the flow of fashion. Defining exactly what a gastropub is or should be is not an easy task.
“A gastropub is a pub that serves extremely high quality food prepared by professionally trained and highly skilled chefs who don’t just press a button on a microwave,” argues Martin. “They’re primarily independent establishments run by private companies or small groups, such as ETM, which are also independently run, and certainly do not include the massive pub companies or brewery managed pubs. On the back of that, you have fantastic beers and wines and the relaxed setting that goes with it.”
Eyre’s vision of a gastropub broadly chimes with Martin’s. “If it has a dining room covered in wineglasses and napery, if it takes reservations, if there are no real ales well stocked, it’s not a pub,” he offers. “If it’s got a Michelin star, how can it be a pub? At the other end of the scale, if it’s owned by a chain, I won’t go. It should be open to anyone. At The Eagle we had a sign saying ‘muddy boots welcome’ just in case people got us wrong. There would be a customer having a pint of session lager, a bloke having an Armagnac and a coffee reading the paper, someone with a bowl of soup or a girly salad, or five businessmen larging it.”
For Manning, being part of the community helps define what he and his wife, Brittany (also formerly of Per Se), do at the Red Lion. “We’re as much like a traditional village pub as it’s possible to be,” he says. “We’ve always embraced that and been involved. The village comes in to drink, and the football team comes in on Sunday after the match. The locals get discounts on their food, and some help us out with odd jobs.”
Manning says he tries to “give people what they want,” by serving pub classics like ham, egg, and chips, and ploughman’s lunch. But given his training, which also includes stints at Chez Bruce in London and Martín Berasategui near San Sebastián, Spain, they’re classics with a twist. Manning cures his own hams in ale and honey and smokes them to serve with fried quail’s egg, frisée, and sautéed potatoes. His ploughman’s lunch includes a Scotch quail’s egg wrapped in braised pork rib meat served with Montgomery cheddar, tomatoes from the pub garden, pickled vegetables, and house-made sourdough and rye breads. But Manning is also happy to stretch his customers with dishes like quenelles of smoked conger eel with marinated beetroot, citrus salad, and grilled leeks, and roasted Great Farm chicken leg with chicken boudin, girolles, mashed potatoes, and whole grain mustard.
At The Hardwick in Abergavenny, Wales, Stephen Terry takes a very different approach to menu planning. With 16 starters, nine main courses, and 12 desserts, he makes full use of his brigade of 11 chefs, two kitchen porters, and a prep cook. “There’s very little thinking that goes into it—it’s instinctive and ingredient-led,” says Terry, who was a fixture on London’s fine dining scene, working for the likes of Marco Pierre White, before opening The Hardwick in 2005. “I can’t say no to people who supply me and have such amazing produce.” Despite offering a huge choice to his customers, Terry acknowledges he has to work within some limits, although they are more to do with being in rural Wales than a gastropub. “You go to The River Café in Hammersmith and have some lovely grilled langoustines and pay £20 [$35] for a starter. You can sell that in London, but I can’t sell it out here,” says Terry, whose high profile in restaurant guides and TV appearances have enabled him to offer more luxurious ingredients and charge more for dishes. “One of our starters is diver-caught scallops with pork belly for £14 [$21]. Six years ago, when we opened, that was the average price of a main course. Now that’s one of our best-selling starters.”
Before he decamped in May, Warren Geraghty set forth a more reigned-in approach at the Dhillon Group’s The Crown in Amersham’s High Street in Buckinghamshire, where he—and now Damien Broom—maintained an English chophouse-style menu. “It’s the simplest form of restaurant I could think of that would still generate interest,” said Geraghty, previously executive chef of West in Vancouver. “If you find three things on a plate, one of them is going to be watercress. We based the menu around a Josper oven and serving very good high-quality beef, fresh fish from Brixham, and oysters from Weymouth. We make our own version of the malt vinegar–based HP sauce, cucumber relish, grainy mustard, and tomato ketchup.”
At The Olde Bell, a sister restaurant in Hurley in rural Berkshire, Geraghty also worked within fairly strict perimeters. “Customers want a good amount of protein on the plate and a nice accompaniment to go with it. If we tried to do anything more elaborate than that, we’d lose the customers we’ve got.” That approach is exemplified by a starter of corned beef: brisket cured five days in white and black peppercorns, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, thyme, bay leaf, rosemary, garlic, onion, pink and white salt, and sugar, cooked sous-vide for 72 hours, and then pressed until cold. For service, a pan-fried slice is served with duck egg gribiche sauce, pickled beets from the pub’s garden, and wild watercress. “The rub recipe comes from an old Chinese guy in Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver who makes the best corned beef I’ve ever tasted,” he explained.
In addition to the wave of chefs turning their backs on fine dining to run gastropubs, a number of high profile chefs have added one or more pubs to their portfolios. Since 2004, Nigel Haworth and business partner Craig Bancroft have run the hugely successful Ribble Valley Inns company, with four pubs across Lancashire and North Yorkshire as well as Northcote country house hotel in Blackburn. Heston Blumenthal bought The Hinds Head down the road from his world-famous Fat Duck restaurant (also housed in a former pub) in Bray in 2004 and purchased the Berkshire village’s last remaining pub, The Crown, in 2010. Brett Graham of the Michelin two-star The Ledbury in Notting Hill, opened one of London’s finest gastropubs, The Harwood Arms, in Fulham in 2008, which went on to win a Michelin star in 2010.
Gordon Ramsay launched what was proposed as a national chain of gastropubs in 2007 with The Narrow in Limehouse and added The Warrington in Maida Vale and The Devonshire in Chiswick in the following months. However, the group didn’t expand beyond three, and Ramsay recently disposed of both The Warrington and The Devonshire. And White, Ramsay’s mentor, appears to be enjoying success with a string of country pubs in which he’s installed his Wheeler’s of St. Jame’s concept, an extension of the famous London fish restaurant brand that White purchased in 2009. White has extended the menu to include hot foie gras with fried duck egg en brioche, steak-and-ale pie, and rib eye steaks as well as classic fish dishes such as grilled Dover sole with tartar sauce and creamed potatoes.
Although the impending demise of gastropubs has been reported on more than one occasion, they’re now unquestionably part of the fabric of the British dining scene. Arguably, gastropubs define it. It’s an idea that apparently works anywhere in the world. Alongside the obvious examples of The Spotted Pig, The Breslin, and The John Dory Oyster Bar run by Ken Friedman and chef April Bloomfield in New York City, there’s Liverpool born Jayne Battle’s fusion of British and Californian cooking at Jaynes Gastropub in San Diego, where she serves Newcastle Ale battered sea bass with sautéed fresh snap peas. Beppe De Vito transplanted the British boozer to the Far East at the now-defunct The Jackson Plan in Singapore, and even Parisians have taken the gastropub to heart with the Sir Winston.
But whatever form gastropubs take, they could all take a cue from Eyre and Belben. “We had a big banner in our office,” says Eyre. “It said, ‘Remember, it’s a pub.’”
About the Author: Andy LynesJacqueline Sainsbury
“The sheer diversity represented by the gastropub sector in the U.K. is breathtaking,” says Andy Lynes. “From tiny village pubs run by former Per Se chefs to stylish rural inns, high quality city centre pub groups to a local pub with two Michelin stars, you’ll find some of the best cooking and most enjoyable dining experiences to be had in Britain in its gastropubs.” The Brighton, England–based writer—a regular contributor to Metro, the London Times, the Independent on Sunday, and Jamie Oliver’s Jamie magazine, as well as the editor of the restaurant guide at www.britainsfinest.co.uk—has lectured in food media and creative writing at the University of Brighton and can also be found on Iron Chef UK, The Secret Supper Club, and BBC Breakfast News.