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Coming down the vegetarian pub?

18 May 2012

Two London pubs – out of 7,000, the first in the capital – have just announced that they're ditching meat from their menus. The idea of a vegetarian pub remains alien to most Brits; one of my favourite boozers tricked me, the Harden brothers and many others when it announced on 1 April this year that it was going veggie for a month. But there are in fact around 16 vegetarian pubs across the UK, several of which are apparently in Glasgow, which has always been a haven for bien-pensant lettuce-eaters.

One of the new places is the Smithfield Tavern, in the middle of the largest meat market in London. (I've been there at five in the morning: the punters don't look like they eat much tofu.) The other is the Coach & Horses in Soho. In some circles, this is one of the city's more famous boozers, attended by hacks in macs, wasted artists and, until 2006, presided over by Norman "You're Barred" Balon. Private Eye, whose offices are up the road, still hold their lunches there. Jeffrey Bernard was among the Coach's more famous and tragic regulars. He never ate anything there and took all his calories from booze, so if nobody eats the new food at least there's a precedent for it.

I'd presumed the new menus would be a little bit smart and modern, with beetroot and burrata, maybe some Asian-spiced aubergines, nice salads and stuff. So I was a bit surprised to find that the Smithfield is doing jacket potatoes with cheese and curry for under a fiver, and the C&H is flogging veggie sausage, beans and mash at £7.65.

The landlord of both places is called Alastair Choat. He co-founded the Sustainable Restaurant Association in 2010, a body that, in its own words, helps "restaurants become more sustainable and diners make more sustainable choices when dining out". It's a fine organisation – anyone who eats out a bit, and who cares about the consequences and corollaries of doing so, does well to take an interest in it.

The Times's restaurant critic Giles Coren has long included SRA ratings in his reviews, but he was as perplexed by the menu as I was. "That's not a business I'd want to open myself," he told me. "Vegetarians aren't going to travel far for a veggie sausage or baked beans, and punters wandering in are going to be quite surprised by that, then wander out again." But, he added: "The idea is great. We all eat too much meat, and though we think of a vegetarian restaurant as this dreary, dour place full of people with root-vegetable-dyed hair and rings through their noses sitting down for a bowl of lentils and arguing over the bill, the idea that they've now got pubs where they're getting pissed up and eating tofu is good."

Over the phone, Choat admitted to me that this is "quite a brave move". (Which reminds me of Tony Blair saying that whenever he was about to make a stupid decision, the civil servants would euphemise it to him as "courageous".) The Coach, as Choat puts it, is "a real boozer, a place for people to pick at scotch eggs over their pint. But I was keen to develop my ideas on sustainability and work them into my business. I'm more conscious of how and what I'm eating nowadays, and this is a drive towards making that kind of change." Surprisingly, Choat isn't a vegetarian, although he claims not to eat much meat.

It's true that many gastropubs have been rather meat-heavy in recent years, and turning away from some of that is probably a good idea. But beer and beef have a natural affinity, wine is almost always better with food, and I don't remember ever fancying a nice salad when I've been pissed. Choat may find it a struggle to convince the butchers of Smithfield or whoever drinks in the Coach nowadays that they should embrace sustainability and look forward to homemade veggie pâté on toast. "It doesn't change the Coach," he says. "It's still a boozer, still a talking pub with good food, and that will never change. So come and try it."

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2012

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