Pub Grub: How Britain's public houses became foodie favourites
In Nottingham’s city centre lies one of the most famous pubs in the world. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem has been a distinguished part of the cityscape since 1189, acting as a refuge for pilgrims, a watering hole for locals and now a hotspot for tourists who flock to pay homage to the planet’s oldest inn. Nearly 1,000 years later, some aspects remain nearly unchanged. The labyrinthine limestone caves that make up the basement still offer an eerie insight into eleventh century England. However, there are some things about the inn today that would baffle an early patron, not least of which would be the food.
The term “public house” was first coined during the reign of Henry VII as a collective term for alehouses, taverns and inns. While early pubs - especially inns - would provide food on occasion, the idea of a food-focused establishment would have been laughable, as the origins and importance of public houses are rooted in alcohol. This is reflected in the fact that in the 1550s, of the near 20,000 pubs of all types dotted all over England, 85 per cent were dedicated solely to booze. Beer has always been a staple of the English diet, and for medieval Britons the drink was often a safer bet than the alternative of untreated water. This combination helped contribute to placing the pub front and centre of English life, as not just a pastime, but as a necessity.
In Britain, and indeed many countries, the pub was not and is not just a place to drink. It is the social heart of a community, a place for bonds to be built, gossip shared and local matters debated. As society has evolved and working people have found themselves with more downtime, the pub came to represent an escape and release from the trials of work. It was the place to relax and unwind. Since the foundation of Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem way back when, it has been this growing feeling that has helped give the pub such unique status in British culture and such a distinct place in society. Today, we still romanticise over what it means to go to the pub. A trip, for whatever reason, still feels special.
Until relatively recently, pub culture had remained virtually untouched, and was thus stagnating. Booze was still the star of the show, and food options were severely limited. A cold ploughman’s here. A drab-looking pie there. To a certain extent, pubs’ disinterest in food was reflective of a wider situation in British dining: we were a nation that was slow to catch up with the rest of the culinary world, content with tradition and stoic in our defence of somewhat bland British staples. The first serious attempt to transform what a pub could be took place in 1991, when David Eyre and Mike Belben took over “The Eagle” in Clerkenwell. The pair emphasised expanding the business’ menu as well as continuing to offer alcohol, providing British classics such as fish and chips, Sunday roast and shepherd’s pie. The Eagle’s new model created a new type of institution - the “gastropub”.
The introduction of the gastropub reinvigorated the British dining scene. The Eagle’s success saw others attempt to innovate in a similar vein and before too long, some real talent began to enter pub kitchens. Arguably the most well known celebrity-chef-cum-publican is Tom Kerridge, who took over the “Hand and Flowers” in 2005. By 2006, he had been awarded his first Michelin star, followed by a second in 2011. There are now 17 pubs in the UK that have been given international recognition by the French culinary awarding body, highlighting that the pub has completed a remarkable transition from bawdy drinkhall to viable fine dining destination.
The food-focused changes to pub culture have not always been through choice. A significant factor in this forced transformation came in 2007, with the introduction of the smoking ban in Britain. Where pubs had previously been a centre for sitting, smoking and chatting away an evening, smokers found themselves banished to the cold outside, under the orange glow of heat lamps. This left some pubs with a dearth of atmosphere that needed once more to be filled by the hum of conversation. Food was the most readily available option for keeping punters in their seats. Within a few years, many pubs would find that their income was just as dependant on the success of their food as their drink.
This metamorphosis has not been without drawbacks or controversy. Whilst the newfound foodie aspect of many pubs is cause for celebration, there can be little doubt that the new and necessary emphasis on food has drastically altered traditional atmosphere and culture. Many now decry that loss of the great British pub, and see what exists now as a sanitised compromise - neither restaurant nor alehouse, but somewhere straddling the fence. But what is also true is that pubs now cater for a greater variety of clientele than ever before. Many are marketed as a destination for families, where once they may have been significantly more exclusive and intimidating.
In the end, the changes to pub culture may just be indicative of wider changes in our society. The most successful businesses are those that adapt to this change and look to progress. Even Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem proudly displays a modern menu of pub classics, sharing platters and gourmet burgers alongside traditional beers. No business model, however traditional and rooted in history, can remain utterly inflexible in the face of evolution. As society becomes more inclusive of the tastes of others, so too must the pub.