Gastropubs lie in the middle ground between the pretension of upscale fine-dining restaurants and the rowdiness of regular pubs. It has a selection of food and drinks that simultaneously cater to casual eaters, foodies, wine snobs and beer chuggers.
Soon celebrating its 30-year run, how did gastropubs come about and how did it change the way we eat? Let’s find out.
What is a gastropub?
Let’s start with the obvious: gastropub is a portmanteau of pub (short for public house, an English drinking establishment characterized by its large selection of beers, loud chatter and a lack of table service) and gastronomy (the study of the relationship between food and culture).
Ed Beddington, the editor of the pub trade journal Morning Advertiser, which runs the 50 Best Gastropub Awards simply defines gastropub as a pub that focuses heavily on food, but where you can still get a pint.
Pubs serving good food is a novelty in the UK that’s much more recent than most people think. The term gastropub, after all, was coined back in 1991, when restaurateurs Michael Belben and David Eyre purchased a long-standing pub in Farringdon, London, called The Eagle and began to break various pub traditions.
The Eagle set the wheels in motion to a different kind of pub experience, one that involves an open kitchen, posh grub and a vast wine selection in a pub setting. Eventually, in the 2000s, gastropubs would make a splash across the pond, capturing the undivided attention of American foodies.
The Eagle and the start of the gastropub movement
The Eagle forced the pub industry to innovate. One cardinal rule they held (and still hold to this very day) was an ever-changing menu scribbled on blackboards strategically placed inside the pub and at the entrance. Good food didn’t have to be expensive. But good food should be made with fresh, and preferably locally-grown, ingredients. And the making of this good food was a spectacle everyone could see thanks to its open kitchen.
More restaurateurs realized how much cheaper it was to run a pub that served food than a restaurant. Here was a business model that used booze sales to subsidize a kitchen, and where patrons had to order food at the bar counter rather than expect table service. Gone were the days when pub food was considered as secondary to the selection of bubbling ales and ciders.
Classics like fish and chips and sausages in onion gravy gained a gastronomic renaissance of their own, alongside more sophisticated additions like braised lamb shanks, wasabi peas and elderflower sorbet. If I can describe the cooking, it’s like having your gay foodie uncle cook for you during Thanksgiving. There was a hint of flamboyance and sophistication, but in a pub (I can’t emphasize this enough).
Suddenly, the pub wasn’t just for people who loved their old boozers and merely wanted a quick pint or two with the lads. Gastropubs attracted a new kind of snobs such as the metropolitan elites and middle-classed tossers who had never felt comfortable with the anarchy of the public houses. There was an extensive wine selection that included Argentinian Chardonnay and Fleurie La Madonne.
This friction eventually led to a cultural war of its own, in which traditional pub purists accused gastropubs of gastronomic gentrification. Sure enough, supermarkets caught wind of the gastropub trend and hiked up prices for once-cheap local ingredients. Soon, mega breweries were also affected with decreased sales from the cultural shift.
The Eagle not only transformed into a trendy gastropub, people wanted more of this kind of establishment. This place ushered a whole gastropub movement of restaurateurs serving food worthy of a Michelin star in reinvigorated pubs.
Gastropubs become a critical darling
Gastropubs allowed chefs to focus on their food instead of the other formalities of the restaurant industry, such as table service.
In 1999, self-taught chef Stephen Harries purchased an old pub near Whitstable overlooking the sea called The Sportsman. Regarding the gastropub, Stephen stated:
I was just a chef looking for somewhere to cook. Personally, I love eating out and everything that goes with it, but I think a lot of British people are inherently suspicious of restaurants with their fancy waiters and all that. The pub setting allows people to come in, have a pint and see what they think before committing.
Stephen experimented on country cooking, He did asparagus soup with a soft-boiled egg. He cooked delicious braised pork belly stuffed with black pudding. He ensured that the food was refined, but remained aware that he was operating within a pub.
The result? In 2008, it received a Michelin Star. In 2016 and 2017, it was named as the UK’s best restaurant by Estrella Damm National Restaurant Awards. In 2017, it ranked first on Square Meal UK Top 100 Restaurants outside London.
Many gastropubs also became critical darlings. As of 2020, there are 19 UK gastropubs awarded with a Michelin Star. Today, the gastropub menu is a British standard, and pubs serving great and exciting food have become commonplace.
Gastropubs capture America’s undivided attention
It didn’t take long for the first gastropubs to pop up in the United States. In 2000, chef Sang Yoon bought Father’s Office, a bar in Santa Monica California that resembled a typical English pub: dark-wood furniture and a clientele that came for its selection of craft beer.
But Sang was inspired by various types of European eating establishments, including the tapas bar, the enoteca and the brasserie. With Father’s Office, he created a bar that happened to serve good food in a casual setting.
While not explicitly inspired by gastropubs, Father’s Office was one and was based on the European culinary standards partly established by the gastropub movement. Like regular pubs, Father’s Office also didn’t have table service. Guests had to order at the bar and a runner brought food to the table.
In 2004, the first establishment that labelled itself as a gastropub opened its doors. The Spotted Pig was founded by power restaurateur Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield, a British expatriate and one of the most acclaimed chefs in the US. The Spotted Pig quickly became a critical darling.
For the New York Times, Eric Asimov described the place as a winning confluence of casual yet imaginative food served in an easygoing, almost rustic atmosphere. Only a year after its opening, in 2006, the place received its first Michelin Star and made April one of the few women chefs to hold this prestigious award. This was unprecedented at a time when Michelin stars were only given to fine-dining institutions in the US.
Despite its initial success, The Spotted Pig experienced many controversies, including serious sexual harassment allegations amidst the #MeToo movement. In 2016, Michelin downgraded The Spotted Pig to a Bib. In 2020, The Spotted Pig closed its doors.
Nonetheless, Father’s Office and The Spotted Pig have made their impact in the American dining scene and many gastropubs in New York have opened up since then.
The future of gastropubs
Today, the gastropub has further undergone a transformation that effectively cemented its status as here to stay rather than a passing fad. Large gastropub chains are now in the UK and the US.
Blackfinn Ameripub is a growing American chain with an aim to be a whole new generation of the classic American pub, a lively restaurant and bar that offers the affordable, craveable American food our guests want to eat.
With locations across the US, Yard House describes itself as a modern public house where food and beer lovers unite. Yard House is owned by the Darden restaurant group, which also operates Olive Garden and The Capital Grille. in 2014, Wall Street reported that Yard House had the largest sales volume out of all the Darden properties.
Gastropubs have also gone global! Once traditional London pubs like The Heron and The Faltering now serve delicious Thai food.
There’s also the interesting rise of Desi pubs serving tandoori grills alongside British ales and owned by proud British South Asians who are proud of their multicultural heritage and their pubs’ role in community-building. Expect delicious and authentic South Asian food at London Southall’s Prince of Wales. Or maybe you can go to the aptly named Prince of Punjab and be greeted by Punjabi plastic figurines, loud chatter, and the noise of pool balls smacking.
Today, gastropubs have been widely embraced by all kinds of foodies and drinkers. They attract to a wide range of customers that want good food in a casual setting. Many gastropubs now even offer takeaway and delivery services. Who knows? Maybe next time, you can get pale ale and confit de canard delivered to your doorstep.