The horror of gastropubs | The Spectator

Last week saw the publication of the 14th annual Estrella Damm Top 50 Gastropubs of Great Britain, a list consumed by middle-class foodies as eagerly as a £27 fish finger sandwich served on a piece of slate, washed down by a non-alcoholic cocktail in a jam jar. Couples scroll through former drinking holes transformed into Michelin-starred restaurants with ‘wacky’ names such as the Unruly Pig and the Scran and Scallie, noting the ones they have been to and others to put on a gastronomic bucket list – the bucket probably being what their sweet potato fries are served in.

It’s a far cry from George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘The Moon Under Water’. In it he described his vision of the perfect pub, in which he felt food takes away rather than adds to the enjoyment – though he conceded that there may be the odd snack available, such as a liver-sausage sandwich or a plate of mussels. Mind you, he also thought beer should be served in china mugs and didn’t like barmaids who called you ‘ducky’ rather than ‘dear’.

The point is, gastropubs are fine for an expensive meal out once in a while, but they are not really pubs – or at least not the kind of pub many of us grew up with, nor the kind of ‘local’ that is disappearing at the rate of around 400 a month. Yes, that’s right, 400 per month. Even more than during the Covid years.

There are, of course, many reasons why pubs are closing or have closed in years gone by. Right now it is down to the sheer expense of keeping them open at a time of staff shortages, soaring energy bills, would-be customers cutting back on spending and the lack of profit on heavily taxed alcohol which can be bought for half the price at the supermarket. Food is more profitable than beer, hence why an increasing amount of floor space is being devoted to it. But when floor space for drinking disappears, then so too does a lot of what has always made pubs such important community hubs.

At my grandmother’s pub you could buy cigarettes, chocolate, aspirin and crisps (but not wine), and there was a separate room with an out-of-tune piano that got played riotously as the evenings wore on

My grandmother ran a pub in rural Staffordshire for 49 years. My mother was born in it and I spent the first few months of my life there. It served ‘ordinary’ bitter rather than craft ale, mild and stout on tap and a single session lager. Cigarettes, chocolates and aspirin were sold from behind the bar and there was a separate room with an out-of-tune piano that got played riotously as the evenings wore on.

You could buy crisps and peanuts, the latter attached to a cardboard backing which revealed more and more of a scantily clad woman as each packet was torn off. What you didn’t get was food labelled as ‘rustic, traditional British fare with a modern European twist’, or a vegan menu. And there was no wine. This was the 1970s after all. If you wanted a Mateus rosé you had to go to a restaurant.

There was a dartboard adding to the danger for anyone within ten feet of it, regular crib and domino games against rival pubs and a fruit machine in the corner, but no TV showing live football and no jukebox or music system. It had a half-decent beer garden and an outside toilet block. The place was full of cigarette smoke during opening hours and the smell remained ever present. There is an argument that the smoking ban drove customers away, but I’m not so sure, and I speak as a smoker who doesn’t mind nipping outside the pub for a cigarette.

My gran’s pub is closed now. The local watermill which provided many of the regulars closed down; younger villagers who had not already moved out tended to go to town centre pubs before going to a disco – even after one of them was beaten to death outside a club in Stafford. Mind you, he wasn’t the only villager to go unexpectedly. Another was out shooting rabbits, tripped over and pumped both barrels into himself. But that’s country life.

Then there was my grandad, whose name was originally above the door. He ran the pub until he drank himself to death at the age of 54. Still, there was a hell of a party after the funeral, probably bettered only by the one when Stoke City won the League Cup in 1972.

But what I remember, more than anything, was the sound of laughter echoing round the place, rather than the din of a sound system or Sky’s Monday Night Football. It’s easy to associate pubs with depressed drinkers nursing a pint, but when they are good they are a joy.

Pubs should be where peoples take the mickey out of each other; where arguments over anything from politics to whether Bargain Hunt is better than Cash in the Attic are settled over a pint; where everyone gets a round in when it’s their turn; and where you can leave without worrying that you’ve spent the week’s housekeeping on a postage stamp-sized piece of locally sourced meat from a hand-reared cow fed on organic grass while listening to Mozart and ethically slaughtered by a former Buddhist. They should be friendly, fun, warm and welcoming (pubs, not former Buddhists).

Of course, this is not always the case. Growing up in London, trying a local pub for the first time could be a lottery, particularly in the pre-gentrified areas of the East End. We ended up nicknaming one Hackney boozer as the Flying Bottle after a very, very brief visit. Another became synonymous with National Front meetings in the upstairs room so we gave that a wide berth, and we were perfectly happy at the Beehive in Ilford until it got turned into a Harvester.

Now, living in rural Suffolk, our local pubs may not win any gastro awards or Michelin stars, but they thrive. Every village has one, sometimes two. They act as community hubs and make you feel involved in the area. You can get perfectly good meals without having to consult a dictionary to find out what the menu means, they pour a decent pint of Adnams (other non-Suffolk beers are also available), there’s always someone you know in there to chat to and they all welcome dogs, weekenders and stroppy uneducated journalists who occasionally write pieces for The Spectator. They have an outdoor boules surface for inter-pub matches, there’s a folk music evening once a fortnight (which I accept is not always a plus) and decent bar staff who may or may not call you ducky or dear but will remember what everyone is drinking when it comes to the next round.

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