Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The man who...

Earlier this year, I was in one of Sam Smith’s Cheshire pubs, which can fairly be said to attract a wide range of customers from regular boozers to National Trust visitors. A group of fairly ordinary-looking people came in, not in any way rough or chavvy, settled themselves down, and one was heard to say “Now this is more like it, isn’t it?” I didn’t catch every word of their conversation, but the gist was that they had poked their noses through the door of a pub up the road – a rather smart dining pub owned by one of the local family brewers – and felt they had been looked upon like something the cat dragged in.

It seems to be a growing phenomenon that pubs are deliberately pitching their appeal at a point so upmarket that many potential customers in the C1C2 social group will not remotely feel at home. Yes, there have always been snobby pubs, but in the past many of them still retained a public bar, and my recollection is that thirty years ago there wasn’t anything like the obvious stratification of pub menus that we have now. Also, much more smart dining was done in formal restaurants, not pubs.

Obviously this has its spiritual home in the archetypal “country dining pub”, but it has also spread into historic towns and the more prosperous suburbs of major cities. As we know, class remains a sensitive subject in this country, and has infinite subtle gradations. Now, I am unequivocally a middle-class person, but, along with Neil Kinnock and Joe Biden, I fall into the category of “the first Mudgie in a thousand generations to go to university”, so I have a foot in both camps. While I can manage it without difficulty, I have to admit feeling somewhat uneasy if I venture into one of these airy, pastel-shaded eateries with their separate tables arranged in an artfully irregular pattern. I can’t help thinking I’d be far happier somewhere with dark wood and wall benches.

Clearly this formula is making money for many pub operators, but it is opening up an unprecedented divide in the pub trade. Back in the 1950s, people would have laughed if someone had suggested that in 2015 many pubs would be too posh for a huge number of potential customers. In the past, if on holiday, or out on a day trip, or breaking a journey, you could rely on most food-serving pubs to offer some some reasonable, not too expensive pub grub. But now, unless there’s a Spoons in the vicinity, you can see many people looking at cafés or casual dining chains rather than some pub trying to charge you 8 for a fish finger sandwich on a brioche bun.

The worst thing is the greeter who asks you when you walk through the door “and will you be dining with us today, Sir?” There’s nothing so calculated to make the common folk feel ill at ease. And should you reply that you’re just after a drink, you will be made to feel like the subject of an H. M. Bateman cartoon entitled “The man who walked into a dining pub and asked for a pint of bitter”. Or maybe the character in the Fast Show played by Mark Williams who looks at the menu in a high-class restaurant and asks “So which are the turkey Kievs?” then, after a painful silence, says “I’ll get me coat”.

Edit: although the above was prompted by a particular overheard conversation, and essentially relates to food-serving pubs, possibly much the same divide is growing between craft beer bars and traditional boozers. I would doubt whether many of the customers of the George & Dragon and Heaton Hops, which are across the road from each other in Heaton Chapel, would seriously consider going to the other one.

14 comments:

  1. I agree with much of what you say Mudge, and the posh-diner has become increasingly widespread here in the affluent South East during recent years.

    Unfortunately, it is often the price of survival for many isolated rural pubs, which would have folded long ago if they were to rely solely on the “wet trade”. There have also been several country pubs locally, which having closed their doors have re-opened and given a new lease of life as “destination dining pubs”. Amongst several other projects on the go, at present, I am doing a spot of research into these “born-again” establishments, and when finished I will publish a post about them to demonstrate all is not totally lost in the world of rural pubs.

    I know what you mean though about the “greeter” at the door, and it’s even worse when he’s wearing white gloves like some glorified butler!

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  2. Good points. Must say I've found the foody pubs in the bit of East Cheshire bounded by Sandbach, Congleton and Wilmslow particularly offputting to the drinkers, despite what they might say. Only Surrey Hills area comes close. Brunning and Price pubs are in same price bracket but no problem there.

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  3. @Paul - yes, I understand that for many pubs it's a stark choice between majoring on food and closing down. But do they have to do it so comprehensively that none of it feels like a pub or gives the impression of being welcoming to casual drinkers? And do they have to cultivate such a snooty atmosphere that many perfectly respectable customers would run a mile?

    This kind of thing also occurs in village and suburban locations where you'd expect a pub to be able to sustain more of a mixed trade.

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  4. The day you start feeling comfortable in "airy, pastel-shaded eateries with their separate tables arranged in an artfully irregular patter" is the day you wind this blog up:)

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  5. Are pubs selling beer and food or selling hospitality?

    If the latter then you can get why people want to go to where other like minded people of the same social class and age also go. You can also get why a business want to attract those that are willing to spend rather than those that watch the pennies.

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  6. I've just done a tour over two days of ten of our local country pubs, many canalside, to distribute our local CAMRA mag, and also to take notes and pictures for my pub articles for the local paper. I took friends with me as my drinking was seriously limited by driving; they were my surrogate drinkers, and we spent some time in each pub chatting to bar staff and licensees.

    All the pubs did food, and only one, a residential hotel with a real ale bar, asked if we'd be eating, but there was no problem when we said no. All were welcoming and friendly, and I got the impression that all, including the hotel, had a core of regulars who came in just to have a drink. Perhaps that's the difference: when a pub ceases to have such regulars, it has completed the transition from pub to restaurant where drinkers are seen as table blockers rather than customers.

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  7. Nev - that's good to hear. I don't know if the Eagle and Child at Bispham was on your round - that's the only one I can imagine asking about dining.

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  8. I don't like posh pubs, I like pubs with pool tables, sport on the tv and cheap beer. If it does an overfilled chip buttie for £2, even better.

    Unfortunately I'd rather the sport was rugby and the beer was one of these new wave cask ales.

    Pubs like this do exist, but they're quite hard to find.

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  9. I like a pub with Test Match Special on the wireless and a landlord who shuts his yapper to let me listen to it.
    While reading the Telegraph.
    Serving Bass.And pickled eggs.
    With a view out to sea.

    Haven't found it yet.

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  10. Keep looking, Syd!

    I agree totally Mudge, that “dining pubs” should cater for the casual drinker as well. Fortunately, many of them do in these parts.

    Perhaps I’m wrong, and I know it’s over 30 years since I lived in the North-West, but rural Cheshire always seemed more stuck up and definitely snobbier than Surrey; frequented by what used to be called the “Gin and Jag brigade”. Martin Taylor’s impressions confirm that nothing much has changed in the county, although he does say the Surrey Hills area comes close.

    I’ve only visited a handful of pubs there, so can’t really comment, but the scenery certainly is well worth seeing.

    Ps. As an off-beat thought, someone should publish a “Good Pub Grub Guide”, listing places serving good, unpretentious and reasonably priced food. (The antidote to gastro-pubs?)

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  11. I've no problem with the market providing a range of dining options in "pubs" but what I find off putting is that it's almost impossible to tell from the outside what sort of establishment you're going into if you're not from the area. That's why if I'm off area I'll head to Spoons as I know what I'm going to get.

    A number of pubs in the South London area provide clear distinctions between drinking and dining areas and thus works really well. They appeal to a wide section of society and are generally busy. You can take table service and tip or grab a drink and a bar snacks and feel at home doing either. You also don't feel pressure to leave after a meal as you can move into the drinking area.

    That's another reason I like a Spoons, you can stay after your meal without feeling like you're blocking a table.

    The worst pubs I find are those that areally a horrible muddle of not being fine dining but without any casual bar areas and so you never really feel comfortable having a drink.

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  12. Martin: I know the Eagle and Child at Bispham Green, but it is just outside our branch area and therefore wasn't on my list.

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  13. CAMRA did produce a "Good Pub Food Guide" in the 1990s, but the problem was that it placed far too much emphasis on the £16.95 braised lamb shank type of place as opposed to those serving locally-made pork pies and crusty cobs.

    I once had a letter about this published in "What's Brewing", and also wrote this opinion piece, much of which remains valid.

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  14. Martin, Cambridge4 October 2015 at 10:04

    When I lived in Hitchin in the 90s there were a fair few village pubs that served genuinely interesting tasty dishes that weren't posh but much better than the current pub chain standard menu. Cambridge has a few places (Adnams's Castle stands out), and the Font & Knott are good in Manchester, but generally interesting vfm pub food is hard to find.

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