Monday, 6 September 2010

Shame about the food

Pete Brown says here in The Publican exactly what I’ve argued about pub food on several occasions in the past – that pub menus haven’t significantly changed in a quarter of a century, and the vast majority of menus are, with a few exceptions, pretty much the same as each other. Indeed, there was more originality in pub menus in 1980, when there was more of a spirit of experimentation and “suck it and see”, than there is now. When there is so much innovation and variety in the restaurant sector, even down to the everyday “family restaurants” on your local retail park, pubs remain mired in a hackneyed, old-fashioned world of “hearty fare” and meat and two veg.
This represents a crushing lack of imagination, innovation or listening to customers. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with these dishes per se, but they form such a tiny, narrow sliver of what we now like to eat as a nation, and when they’re all identical, and when there is simply no option of a nice, tasty meal that is going to be less than 75 per cent of your daily recommended intake of fat and calories, I suddenly realised why I find eating in pubs to be largely a depressing experience.

I’m not saying I want sashimi platters with my pint of ale. I’m not saying there is no merit in hearty fare, or traditional British dishes.

But when you look at almost any other aspect of pubs – décor, beer selection, ambience – there is incredible diversity as you roam the country, even within a single town.
Beyond snacks and sandwiches, I rarely eat in pubs now because the food is so consistently dull and unappealing. Traditional English gristle and stodge blighted my childhood – it’s the last thing I want to eat today.

Yet on the same website we have Jessica Harvey praising “retro nostalgia pub grub” which surely is the last thing forward-looking pubs should be promoting.


  1. 80s menus, Ah yes I remember them well.
    A spoonful of shredded crab on a slice of lightly toasted ciabatta rubbed liberally with garlic surrounded by an artistic swirl of green sauce. A steal at £35 a portion.

    Pub grub needs to get back to basics, so make mine a large boars head, a haunch of venison all washed down with a flagon of mead..

  2. A local entertainment complex offers Nando's, Chiquito, Frankie & Benny's, Pizza Hut and Burger King. None of it haute cuisine, but all popular. So how do pubs try to compete? Steak & Kidney fucking pie. As far as competing in the dining market goes, pubs deserve to die.

  3. I'm not sure that this reflects my experience very much. It looks like a typical Pete Brown over-simplification to me.

    I've had some good food in pubs fairly recently, although I'll admit one meal was dire and matched the description. But that was one meal out of quite a few.

  4. Yes, Mr Brown does at times seem to be the master of the sweeping generalisation. I think you will in fact be hard pressed to find many pubs at all that stick purely to the "old fashioned stodge" on their menus. How many can you think of? I know there will be many where "old fashioned stodge" makes an appearance but there are usually plenty of other options.

    If you really think that pub food "is so consistently dull and unappealing" then you really do need to get out more. But then again, I have eaten out with you in pubs which sell hugely varied and interesting food and you always stick to a ploughman's, so I have to say I'm not really sure where you're coming from with this one.

  5. I shall take that last comment as an allusion to PC's natural conservatism, rather than a swipe at the humble ploughman's:)

  6. @RedNev – the point Pete Brown is making is not that food in pubs is poor as such, but that it is so limited in range compared with the vast array of foods we as a nation eat nowadays. You can have a very good roast lamb dinner, but it's still a roast lamb dinner.

    @John Clarke – possibly the reason I chose a ploughman's (which in any case has only happened in your company once in the past two years) is because most of the rest of the dishes, however "good", fell into the category Pete Brown is criticising. It is precisely because I have got out a lot that I have seen just what an unimaginative and standardised selection of food is on offer in most pubs.

    This is not an argument about quality, it is about pubs boxing themselves into a corner of becoming "English ethnic restaurants". Even a lot of highly-praised gastropubs offer what is in effect middle-class nursery food.

    In the past it was not uncommon to find pubs that, along with some "standard" dishes, specialised in a particular kind of cuisine. For example, I remember a couple that offered a variety of Mexican dishes, another Austrian, a few Italian. You don't tend to see that nowadays, as food-led pubs have either been put under management or, when leased or tenanted, have been "advised" by pub companies to adopt standardised menus of Ye Olde Pubbe Grubbe.


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