In early 2007 I visited young businessman Philip Mossop at Bacchus, the restaurant he had recently set up in Hoxton, London, which provided the platform for little-known Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes to make his name and go on to great success.
My interest was in Mossops’ objective of delivering “fine dining in trainers” as he so cleverly phrased it. He was referring to the fact Mendes’ high-end food was being served in a former pub and that he had scant interest in turning it into a stuffy experience.
His views fitted neatly into a piece I was writing that predicted the death of the gastro-pub. He openly boasted he had not sold a single pint of beer in the six months since he had been open – although he did admit to one diner ordering half a Guinness!
This perfectly encapsulated my distaste and distrust of the gastro-pub phenomenon. Far too often they were smart restaurants masquerading as laid-back boozers. Nobody was really welcome to pop into these places and have a pint while they read the paper before going home for dinner – and this went against what I believed pubs should be about.
Earlier this year I made the effort to visit renowned north London gastro-pub The Bull And Last. It made me realise that in the intervening years my negative views on gastro-pubs might have become out-dated. The prediction of their death had certainly not come to pass.
While I admit this reflects on my changing perspective – for one thing being 11 years older makes a difference to any viewpoint – we also have a very different market place to that of 2007.
For starters, the smoking ban came into place a mere two months after my story was published, then the financial crisis began in late 2007. The sub-prime mortgage market collapsed in the US, triggering the implosion of Lehman Brothers and Northern Rock, among others. These two seismic events wreaked havoc on pubs and the aftershock is still being felt today.
I’ve come to understand that while I’m not going to be the most frequent gastro-pub visitor, I have at least come to value their presence rather than having a tendency to denigrate them as I did in the past.
Thousands of pubs have been lost in the past ten-plus years, which is why the gastro-pub has been such a valuable proposition – without it we would no doubt have suffered even more pub closures. It’s the case today that the vast majority of pubs have to offer some kind of food and the better end of the pub dining experience – as typically delivered by the gastro-pub – has undoubtedly pushed up customers’ expectations across the board. These food-led boozers have played their part in universally improving the quality of food served in pubs.
My changed viewpoint sits comfortably with that of academic Christel Lane, who argues in her recent book that gastro-pubs have had a positive impact on pub culture rather than gentrifying this unique British icon, which was my big worry a decade ago.
She also suggests gastro-pubs have been unfairly criticised for sterilising the traditional wet-led boozer. I apologise for being part of that critical grouping – but I’ve changed my ways.
So much so I welcomed the reopening of two gastro-pubs – The Coach in the City of London (formerly The Coach & Horses) and The Hero of Maida (formerly renowned food pub The Truscott Arms) in the west of the capital. This partly comes from the fact they are both overseen by chef Henry Harris, who I was a big fan of when he was at French brasserie Racine. If there is one person who can deliver gutsy food suited to a pub environment, it is this man.
What such a move highlights is gastro-pubs have moved to a much more mature footing. High-quality food sits so much more comfortably in a pubby ambience now and we have the full spectrum – from Michelin star venues all the way down to much more laid-back establishments.
We have progressed from the early stages of the gastro-pub movement, when good food in pubs was seen as something of an oxymoron. They were uneasy bedfellows in my opinion. We’ve firmly moved on from boil-in-the-bag cod to sea bass sous vide and I’m pleased to say I’ve also made the journey to the extent I sometimes enjoy a bit of fine dining in the pub while wearing my dusted-down trainers.
This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.