Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Pub or Restaurant?

In discussing the CAMRA Pub of the Year (not the “Best Pub in Britain”) which has just been announced, my fellow blogger Stonch mentions that he finds the landlord of said pub, the Old Spot in Gloucestershire, misguided as he prefers his pub to be a community based pub that does home cooked food and sells jolly good beer and accuses him of being "hostile" to what he calls "fine dining". This seemingly worries him. Stonch also thinks that pubs have to fit a traditional stereotype to be considered for this prestigious award. The fact is that such pubs will naturally appeal to the Campaign for Real Ale, not because they are twee, but because they are the heart of their local community and selling good home cooked local produce and local cask ales. In CAMRA, as well as real ale, we campaign for excellent traditional pubs. That's because they are most likely to sell excellent traditional ale, so why on earth not?

Stonch may just be banging on about stereotypes to provoke a reaction (fair enough) but having listened to the landlord talking on the link he kindly provided, I don't see any hostility to anything. Be that as it may, the point behind this is worth debating. What is a pub and what should it be doing food and customer wise?

I won’t do the history lesson bit here. Others are far better at that, so let’s look at now. Pubs can't, on the whole, exist without food these days whether it is the humble filled roll or pie and peas, through to the "gastropub" where the whole focus is on high end food with tokenism being shown to beer. Then there is the ghastly “family” pub, stinking of chips, with unruly children running riot and keg beer, or at best, a couple of handpumps dispensing tired Greene King IPA or Courage Best. There are all points between of course. Most steer a middle road, with food being available at certain times, to sustain the drinker and to provide much needed income.

But when does the line between food and drink become one that leaves the drinker uncomfortable and unwanted, or those whose pockets are not lined with gold, dismayed by haute cuisine and "hauter" prices, when all he needs is a wholesome butty to soak up the ale? Who hasn't been made to feel like an unwelcome cheapskate in some pubs, merely because you just want a drink? Let’s not forget. A pub is for drinking in. If it is not then I'd contend it isn't really a pub. It may well be fashionable for pubs to become virtual restaurants and good luck to those that do, but when the line between the two becomes so blurred that you feel you are no longer in a pub, then surely these establishments that pretend to be pubs should be recognised as restaurants and we should just call them that? The whole point of a pub is its inclusiveness. When it fails to deliver that, whatever it is, it is not a pub in the way most of us like to think of pubs.

There is a cultural thing going on here as well. Pubs have always evolved. There have always been differences between “spit and sawdust pubs and those aiming to attract a more up market clientèle, but it is relatively recently that we have seen “pubs” aimed at particular segments of the market rather than merely aiming for "a better class of customer". Most, but not all are aimed at youthful lager drinkers. This is what has brought us "destination" places like Walkabout and other such drinking barns. Some like Pitcher and Piano and All Bar One are aimed at the affluent set, or women. All are cavernous and most are aimed at the young circuit drinker in towns, all clustered together, all belting out loud music while the scantily clad clientèle feed the binge culture image by getting arseholed on cheap bottled lager and alcopops sold expensively. However these are not pubs. They are “bars” targeting segments of the market, to the exclusion of others. The true pub aims to be inclusive and embrace all.

Returning to the food theme, I believe that pubs can still deliver value. What the majority of us want is interesting, home cooked food delivered with a decent pint at reasonable prices. That's what pubs that serve food should deliver. Those that want "fine dining" should go to restaurants in the vast majority of cases. At best they are missing the point if they don’t and at worst they are stealing our pubs.

When a new "pub" is built these days, it may have exposed pipes, plasma screens and loud music, but it will rarely attract a good cross section of people. It will rarely be the hub of a community. It will rarely feel “right" and it will rarely win awards. If it can be different, but inclusive, modern and attractive and sell decent beer, it will win awards. Unfortunately these are few and far between.

We shouldn't feel ashamed to defend traditional pubs. They have served us well for many years. They are uniquely British and they work well with a little effort, foresight, imagination and flair. A few will fall by the wayside, but these will likely be at the bottom end of the market. Most pubs will adapt to survive as they always have done, will attract customers by offering them a traditional pub atmosphere, will welcome all and mostly will be based in the original pub buildings we have. And what's wrong with that?

I'll conclude with a point of agreement. Like Stonch I think the Old Spot sounds a cracking boozer which hopefully one day I'll visit.


Zak said...

Q: When is a pub not a pub?

A: When it's a .. err... umm....

I've no idea what the answer to this is. A lot of the pubs I go to I wouldn't want to eat in, purely on the basis that I'm quite picky about what and where I eat. But their beer is great. I ate and drank in an All Bar One recently, and was pleasantly surprised by the food and the beer. It wasn't a pub, but it was pretty good for a chain bar.

The Grove in Leeds (a compact multi-room boozer) might be able to scrape you a sandwich together, if they have any breadcakes left. The Cross Keys (near the Grove) does good gastro-style food. They're both great pubs, with great beer, they're just different sorts of pubs.

I don't get the idea of being prescriptive about what a pub should be - it's like saying that you'll only go out with blonde women, or tall guys - it just doesn't make sense (to me)

Stonch said...

The problem I have - and the point I try to make - is that the interpretation of "traditional" you present is so narrow. Your post provides ample demonstration of that point, and illustrates my point perfectly. I'd echo Zak's comment wholeheartedly and ask you to think again.

You're talking about one type of establishment. Most sensible people (including myself!) cherish them, but don't consider them the be all and end all.

CAMRA are always saying it "take all sorts of people to campaign for real ale" (or words to that effect). Why can't different types of pubs get some love too?

Stonch said...

PS. You talk about "drinking barns", and yet you spend half your time in Wetherspoons!!

Tandleman said...

Zak - I don't think we should be prescriptive about what a pub should be, but the context was what a pub of the year should be. A different thing. I said that I have no problem with good food in pubs, but there is a wider issue than that which I covered in my blog.


I'm afraid you (deliberately) misunderstand me. My post was written in response to what you said and in its context. Do you really think I am so stupid as to just blunder along hoping for the best when I write? I thought long about what I said, raised some issues of concern and stick by my conclusions.

Let's have your non narrow interpretation of tradition with examples. You'll find it hard to come up with I fear. You never seem to set out your visionary alternative.

As for your Wetherspoon jibe, I can only assume that you are having a laugh!

Stonch said...

Tandleman, come along now, I don't deliberately misunderstand you. I just don't think your perspective is broad enough. I haven't denigrated "traditional" pubs. I love 'em. I just have a soft spot for more innovative places too.

If you think the only alternative to pubs that fit the "traditional" mould are "Walkabouts and other such drinking barns", then I think you've got a very jaundiced view based on visiting the wrong places.

Evidence of this is your poor choice of examples. Walkabouts aren't "destination" places in anyone's book - they're low-end, the butt of jokes, and myself and my friends wouldn't be seen dead in them.

All Bar Ones and Pitchers & Pianos are hardly top end either - they're chain bars, and again I wouldn't visit them.

Indeed, your entire argument seems to be based on false assumptions, such as gastropubs being places "where the whole focus is on high end food with tokenism being shown to beer". How can you make such a sweeping statement?

Zak said...

It's a complex argument. I don't think "fine dining" disqualifies somewhere from "being a pub" (whatever these two things really mean). I'd summarise it like this: if they are serving decent steak and onions in a sandwich, it's probably a pub; if it's at a white-clothed table, served on a plate with pommes pont neuf, then it probably isn't really a pub. I think that an emphasis can be put on quality of food, cooked well, without losing the essence of a pub. This is absolutely not necessary, although it is a bonus (to me, anyway!)

And in 99% of cases, you're absolutely right about new-builds not really being pubs.

Stonch said...

The recently re-opened Hat & Feathers in London (junction of Clerkenwell Road and Old Street) is a pub that also houses a full white-linen restaurant. The Cafe Royal in Edinburgh is another that springs to mind. These places are true to the traditions of high-end pubs of their era (albeit that the London example has been refurbished after years of dereliction).

They serve as reminders that a narrow view of the public house is a relatively modern innovation.

Tom (OBBD) said...

Surely for a pub to be chosen by CAMRA as pub of the year, by definition it has to have good real ale. The rest is down to what else the pub has to offer. I haven't visited the Old Spot Inn, but from the website it looks like a good all-rounder, and we all seem to agree that we like the look of it. The only 'narrow' element of the choice is the real ale, but without that it wouldn't be considered in a CAMRA context.
So is the problem that it also happens to be a 'traditional' pub? If so, does this point to a biased selection, or is it just that this model of a 'traditional' pub is most likely to please the widest cross-section of people? I'm inclining towards the latter.

Stonch said...

Tom, that's a good point.

Tandleman said...


Fair enough. Even if some gastropubs aren't mostly food focussed - a contradiction in terms - and my lower end examples suck, my point is that there is little else between them and the "traditional" pub.

Where's your examples of innovative places? What's your vision?

Tandleman said...


I have no objections to any pub adding a white linen restaurant to complement its "pub" offering as long as it doesn't supplant the pub.

If it does it like the Cafe Royal, you wouldn't even know there was restaurant there. That just looks like a posh bar.

But where's the new insight? The modern interpretation? They are as I said few and far between!


That's what I was driving at with "inclusiveness".

Stonch said...

But where's the new insight? The modern interpretation? They are as I said few and far between!

I can only speak with any authority about London, but they aren't so rare here. Off the top of my head, I'd say check out the Florence in Herne Hill next time you're down in London. Nice easy train ride on the Thameslink. I could list others if it wasn't time for kip.

PS. My earlier contributions to this discussion were made with one eye on Hotel Babylon. I want to be in a cocktail bar in a posh hotel staffed by Alexandra Moen and Emma Pierson. Bollocks to real ale! ;-)

Tyson said...

Interesting. I shall have to visit both the Hat & Feathers & the Florence next time I'm in London to get where Stonch is coming from. Otherwise, I think Tandleman is generally right. There does seem litle between "traditional" and the top end. Perhaps a case of London blinkers? Certainly if you look at places like Manchester, Birmingham etc the examples of innovation that Stoncg hints at are few and far between.

Tandleman said...


This is the problem. It's all very well to dredge up with a great deal of effort only two pubs in a vast area like London and cite them as POSSIBLE contenders for the new vision Stonch espouses. I can think of few myself. None in my (our) CAMRA area. I know you are much more familiar with the Manchester scene which is full of new lookalike bars, but nothing that would ever suit a CAMRA Pub of the Year as far as I know.

I think the problem is that sometimes people who think we in CAMRA are all daft stick in the muds, clinging on to the past, don't realise that we desperately want the excellent "something different" if only for ourselves!

It just ain't that simple!

Stonch said...

I only cited two examples for brevity. I could choose dozens in London. Elsewhere, they may not exist, but that's neither here not there: the point is, we don't have to choose between "old man's pubs" and obnoxious bars. There's a third way and it's great.

Tandleman said...

Name names, state places, describe in detail the third way.

And it is the point.