Providing hope for wet-led pubs

Fully laid for dinner

Over the years my attendance at trade events in Olympia has traditionally ended with the reward
of a couple of pints of well kept beer in the welcoming Warwick Arms on the very unwelcoming
Warwick Road. And so it was the same journey I took last week, but this time I was met with the
majority of the tables set for dinner.


We’re not talking about linen table cloths and the full works here but there were certainly
enough napkins, cutlery and glasses to nudge those people just visiting for a drink into the corner
of the pub where the small number of unset tables were located.


This scenario reminded me of my days as a judge for one of the pub industry’s major awards. For
the Pub Food of the Year category I was all too often met with a venue that was pretty much a full
blown restaurant where drinkers were distinctly deterred from visiting. There were many culprits
of this crime and none of them won the award but the one that I can recall with most horror was
The Ratcatchers pub just outside Norwich.


The landlord proudly boasted that the locals had actually bought their own table for drinking at
because every other table in the place would be religiously set for diners at both lunch and dinner.
I wasn’t impressed and it’s clearly telling that the pub has become a restaurant named Steak in the
Stix at The Ratcatchers.


It very much stretched my definition of a pub and it’s for this reason that gastropubs have always
sat uneasily with me. It’s sad that many places suggest they are an easygoing pub – that just
happens to sell Michelin-standard food – and that they welcome walk-in drinkers but the reality is
that there is invariably nowhere for these people to sit or stand.


Sadly, wet-led pubs are having a particularly hard time at the moment, and so it’s not surprising
there is a strong focus on the opening of food-led pubs. There is nothing short of an avalanche of
chefs and food-focused operators opening venues right now. In only the past few weeks we’ve
had Margot Henderson of Rochelle Canteen announce she’s opening her first pub The Three
Horseshoes in Somerset, Michelin-starred Glynn Purnell is to open The Mount Pub in Henley-in-
Arden, the team behind the acclaimed Mackie Mayor are to open their first pub The Nags Head
near Chester, Gary Usher has The White Horse in Cheshire in his pipeline of launches, and Gareth
Ward is to build a pub next to his two Michelin star restaurant Ynyshir in Wales.

But will it be a proper pub? The Three Horseshoes in Batcombe

No doubt these places will fail the test for what I’d call a true pub: a place you can simply wander
in and grab a beer without having had to book six months in advance and be force fed a 10-course
tasting menu. I’m not in any way harking back to the days when chicken and scampi in a basket
was at the vanguard, and I clearly recognise food is so much more important today for the health
of the industry, but I also believe it does not have to take over a venue to the detriment of
drinkers.


However, I’ve been given a little hope recently via some smart innovations where an interesting food
proposition complements a predominantly wet-led pub business. At Bloomsbury Leisure gyoza
machines from Japan are being rolled-out across its pub estate to cook pre-prepared dumplings in
a matter of minutes without the need for a chef. At the St James of Bermondsey pub in South London they have tied-up with Pieminister to offer a concise menu of pies with mash, peas and
gravy that involves little cooking effort from the pub’s team and sits well within the venue’s
overall offer.

The Bhaji Smuggler sarnie from Max Halley

Another interesting development is the move into pubs by sandwich expert Max Halley who runs his eponymous Sandwich Shop in Crouch End. He has plans to move beyond The Five Bells in
Salisbury with his partners, wet-led operators Great Boozers, where the food on offer currently
comprises Scotch eggs, hot sausages and Scampi Fries. Surely his clever sandwich creations are a
no-brainier addition for these pubs.


This all provides me with hope that there is life left in the good old wet-led boozer and that I won’t
have to increasingly walk into pubs and find there are more knives and forks on the tables than
pints being sold and where you are expected to order langoustines rather than lager.

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Beer Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.

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