Of course, the importance of food to pubs has greatly increased over the past few decades, and in some it has now gone so far that they have become restaurants in all but name, with few if any drinking customers. In a sense, it could be said that the rise of food has, overall, made pubs more civilised. However, it’s important not to get carried away. Pub food is nothing new, and thoughout my drinking career people always seem to have been harking back to a non-existent past era when all you could get was crisps and nuts. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if more lunchtime pub food had been sold on Mondays to Fridays in the 1970s than there is now.
These analyses always seem to reflect a very limited and partial experience of pubs confined to city centres and prosperous commuter belts. Go to any ordinary town and you will still find plenty of pubs, and not by any means just in obscure locations, where the food trade is limited or non-existent, and the vast bulk of their business is done after 9pm. How pubs like that are meant to adapt to a brave world of wall-to-wall dining is very difficult to fathom.
In fact, in recent years, in less prosperous areas the tide has been flowing the other way. Many pubs that used to serve weekday lunches for workers from local businesses have now dropped the food and often stopped opening at lunchtimes completely. As Phil of Oh Good Ale has reported, in the smaller satellite towns of Greater Manchester, it’s often difficult to find any pub food whatsoever apart from in Spoons.
And, of course, over the past few weeks, many pubs have been packed with punters watching England’s progress in the World Cup, and most certainly not sitting down to a meal. Yes, wet-led pubs may have declined, but they’re certainly not going to disappear or anything like it. There are now specialist operators like Amber Taverns who are concentrating on the sector rather than regarding it as a poor relation to the upmarket food houses.
Incidentally, although not directly related to this article, it irritates me when people limit the term “wet-led” to pubs that serve no food whatsoever. Surely all it means is a pub where the drinks trade predominates, and any food served is ancillary, not necessarily completely absent.