While we are often told that food has been the saviour of the pub trade, I am more and more coming to believe that it has ruined it. The original purpose of a pub was a place where people could meet and socialise over a few drinks. If they wanted a sit-down meal outside the house, they would go to a café or restaurant. Back when I started drinking in the 1970s, this remained very much the case. Many pubs served food, but it was generally very much a sideline and often confined to sandwiches and snacks. Looking back, it is surprising how many of the high-profile rural destination pubs did not serve evening food at all.
In the mid-1980s, my local pub offered no food on Sunday lunchtimes, and was packed throughout the two-hour session from 12 to 2. Now it’s open all day, majors on set Sunday lunches, and sees fewer customers overall and certainly far fewer casual drinkers.
More and more, pubs have expanded their food trade in an attempt to develop their business. In the process they have encroached on the territory of dedicated restaurants and increasingly sacrificed their original character as pubs. We are left with a strange hybrid kind of business that may superficially resemble a pub but in reality is just a second-rate dining outlet. And of course with food comes “family dining”, and places where you could once enjoy a quiet pint have become infested with howling infants.
I can’t help thinking that it would have been better if pubs and restaurants had gone their separate ways, which would leave us with much more welcoming and convivial pubs, albeit perhaps fewer in numbers, and a better everyday dining experience too. This, of course, is something that remains the situation in many Continental countries.As I’ve said before, it’s an increasingly rare experience, and one that is to be savoured, to come across a proper pub ticking over nicely and doing what it’s supposed to.