The Start Of The British Pub Revival?
How did London go from having famously bad food to topping world cuisine charts? After the war, Associated British Cafeterias (ABCs) sought to provide cheap meals for those on rations and drastic budgets, because the government was concerned about malnourishment.
This is the period we now look back at with horror; when half a grapefruit with a cherry was a starter, a time of elastic Brown Windsor soup and Mince ‘N’ Peas, when the only place in London where you could buy spaghetti was Harrods. The culinary ground could not be regained because the first wave of fast food culture hit in the seventies, and this was followed by a period when international food arrived, so that it was easier to get a good curry than standard British fare.
Looking for a pub to take a few friends for my birthday, I’m noticing a move further into traditional local British menus that’s in keeping with the popularity of all things retro, from Angel Delight Creme Brûlée to a variety of rabbit and hare dishes. In London rapacious property developers, having already destroyed backstreet pubs, are finally being warded away from high street premises, but for decades local hostelries were bought up and flogged off at an incredible rate.
The saviour was the arrival of the gastropub, and the realisation that London pubs should do the one thing everyone wanted from them – to provide a haven for conversation.
The key is small consortiums that own two or three pubs and run them well. I can think of no other country that provides these conviviality-hotspots in the same way, although I love the cafes of France and Spain. And as it’s traditional to have a drink before or after a meal, pubs provide both functions. Some places swing too far into restaurants, though – especially outside of London, where some pretty bad specimens exist because owners play against their strengths.
As a new generation has come to recognise the pleasures of pubs, speciality nights have reappeared. At my local there are nights combining SF and music with Uke Skywalker, the ukelele-strumming Star Wars character. This year, I hope to set up a new writers’ group in a London pub where I can run a creative clinic for those who are stuck with their ideas, rabbit-stews and ukeleles welcome.
And for those who always ask me about the best places to visit, a shortlist would include the Bull & Last, the Fox & Anchor, the Windsor Castle, the Cross Keys, the Pineapple, the Seven Stars and the Fellow, several of which are new.