Hospitality has finally reopened and we’re at long last within an inch of regaining some sort of normality. Whether that’s going out for dinner, hugging our best mates or hosting a garden party, it’s all looking a lot less bleak than those almost-twelve gruelling months of Lockdown.
And while I’m thrilled restaurants and bars have re-opened, it’s the humble pub I’m truly excited about visiting again. The buzz of groups talking, the sticky floors, the eclectic names, and especially the food. But let’s face it, they’re not all designed that way.
Over the years the “pub” has had a transformation – with upscale high-end gastropubs sitting side-by-side with traditional, local boozers, serving everything from Nobby’s Nuts to Michelin-starred dishes.
So, where did the evolution of pub grub begin?
Traditionally, pubs served up no-nonsense food with your pints. Think bowls of nuts and trusty pickled eggs. It was a place where you could go and enjoy a drink in peace and participate in one of Britain’s most important pastimes. It wasn’t somewhere you’d have to book months in advance to be in with a chance of landing a table with a five-course tasting menu and prices to match (which, don’t get me wrong, we love).
If we go way (way) back, the tabernae was probably the earliest record of any ‘kind’ of pub here in the UK. Brought to us by the Romans, it was a local establishment that usually sold food, wine and ale, and would later be termed as ‘the tavern.’ Makes sense, right?
The Anglo Saxon’s then gave us alehouses. Alehouses, inns and taverns then collectively developed into public houses, which ultimately turned into the good ol’ pub we have today.
In the 70s, pub chains like Beefeater introduced the concept of an evening pub meal, with the likes of steak and chips, battered onion rings and a slice of black forest gateaux on the menu. Shortly after we saw the rise in ‘basket meals’ (think chips and sandwiches), and shortly after that we witnessed the rise in a bigger variety of meals, the sort that required a microwave to defrost them (aka lasagne and shepherd’s pie).
But it wasn’t really until the early 90s that gastropubs actually became a thing and we started to celebrate restaurant-quality food in relaxed, laid-back settings. This was thanks to one institution in particular, The Eagle in Farringdon.
Founded in 1991, The Eagle was the brainchild of restaurant manager Michael Belben, and chef David Eyre, who wanted a restaurant but couldn’t afford it. Instead, they came up with a new and improved way of elevating the pub experience by offering a “casual, good value approach to dining using top quality ingredients that until then could only be found in expensive restaurants.”
Since then, they’ve been credited as pioneers of the gastropub movement.
Fast forward thirty years, and we’ve now got gastropubs with Michelin stars. The Stag Inn located in Herefordshire made history in 2001 by becoming the first-ever pub to be awarded the accolade, providing a space where good-quality food and easy-going hospitality went hand in hand.
In 2013, Tommy Banks became the youngest ever chef to be awarded a Michelin star, after heading up the kitchen of his family’s fine-dining pub, The Black Swan at Oldstead, which turned from the local village boozer into a tasting menu destination restaurant.
A gastropub that gets it right is The Mariners in Cornwall, owned by Michelin-starred chef, Paul Ainsworth. The 130-cover pub looks over Cornwall’s Camel Estuary and prides itself on offering British pub classics that champion local produce.
Paul tells Delish UK that upon re-launching The Mariners back in 2019, he “wanted to bring back traditional dishes that people associate with pubs while showcasing amazing Cornish produce.” As a result, the gastropub’s all-day menu features dishes like Cornish shepherd’s pie, spice roasted cauliflower, line-caught cod and, of course, a ploughman’s (Paul’s favourite).
On the other end of the scale is the national pub chain that’s made a name for itself over the last forty years, Wetherspoon’s. With everything from Steak Tuesdays to Curry Club Thursdays, some might say this is what pub grub’s all about. Low-cost, unproblematic dishes that remind us of the good ol’ days. We’re talking cheese paninis, beef chilli jacket potatoes and bangers and mash.
Wetherspoon’s menu is made up of small plates, deli deals and pub classics offering a whole breadth of landmark pub food, accompanied by an extensive drinks menu including everything from boozy pitchers to micro-brewed ales.
But, if there’s one thing Wetherspoon’s is undoubtedly known for, it’s the breakfasts. Traditional breakfasts, vegetarian breakfasts and even vegan breakfasts, Wetherspoon’s stays undefeated when it comes to its morning mealtime offerings. It’s become a destination for hungover adolescents as well as hungry families and working professionals, all with the same craving for a satisfactory brekky.
As much as the gastropub movement has contributed to the distinction of classic British pub grub, it’s clear that it isn’t all just lovingly made pies and freshly fried fish and chips.
Nowadays, you’ll find Greek pubs located in quaint villages, pubs that serve up a range of tapas-style small plates and pubs that aim to create a farm-to-fork experience for every customer that steps through the door. What we know to be ‘pub grub’ has simply advanced into different genres that some of us are yet to explore.
Publiq. in Kensington has raised the bar when it comes to ‘modern public houses,’ by offering a communal space for like-minded people who enjoy great food and great company, but in a slightly more contemporary, modern-day setting.
Charles Montanaro and Greg Almeida, Co-Founders of Publiq. say “At Publiq. we aim to inspire through hospitality. We always wanted to tackle modern issues and use great hospitality, food and drinks as a conversation opener. As such, the public house we aspire to be stems from the idea of coming together, conviviality and comfort in a welcoming space.”
Serving up seasonal cocktails and sharing plates, natural wines and local beers in a refined yet relaxed atmosphere, this place puts seasonality and sustainability at the forefront of its menu, championing organic and regenerative farming in the hope of delivering a modern public house with a difference. Here, we see a love for food, drink and comfort work seamlessly to create an all-new sort of subdivision of pubs.
There’s now even vegan pubs, too. The Spread Eagle in East London became one of the cities first-ever vegan pubs when it opened in 2018, with all of its food, drinks, fixtures and fittings being plant-based and sustainably sourced.
Described as, “keeping tradition alive while celebrating the UK’s modern culture,” The Spread Eagle challenges what some of us consider to be staple pub food. Rather than serving up meaty burgers and steaks, there’s porkless pies, roasted fennel and vegan-friendly pie, mash and liquor. Not to mention, a ‘squashage roll.’
In an interview with The Guardian, co-founder of The Spread Eagle, Meriel Armitage says, “At one point, you would’ve hidden that you were vegan; now it’s a case of being loud and proud. All of a sudden, you no longer feel meat eaters have the upper hand.”
As our eating and drinking habits continue to rapidly change, it’s clear the pub industry will follow suit with more daring and innovative ideas. Who knows, maybe vegan pubs will become something more and more of us turn to in the future.
It goes without saying, most pubs no longer serve up sub-standard ale and mass-produced lagers. Instead, we’re seeing an upsurge in craft beer whether that’s in the form of weekly specials or permanent pump fixtures. Brands such as Brewdog, Tiny Rebel and Camden Brewery are making regular appearances down our favourite boozers, and an increasing amount of us are becoming accustomed to drinking ‘craft’ over anything else.
What’s more, bowls of nuts and pickled eggs have been replaced by handcrafted ready salted crisps, glazed pistachios and artisanal popcorn. On top of cutting-edge menus and pioneering dishes, there’s a rise in quality bar snacks.
Premium snack brands like Honest Bean Co., Tyrell Crisps and Jack Links are popping up by popular demand, and more of us are reaching for adventurous flavours and unusual food finds to accompany our drinks (hello citrus-marinated olives and wasabi peas).
Now, as well as great-tasting beer and curated wine lists, you can experience specially designed tasting menus, the freshest local produce and innovative dishes, all while enjoying the home comforts of the classic (or not-so-classic) pub setting.
But no matter what, and in the words of Paul Ainsworth, “whatever the occasion, the British pub always delivers.”
Like this article? Sign up to our newsletter to get more articles like this delivered straight to your inbox.