Saturday, 4 February 2017

Master of none

One of the improvements over last year at the recent Manchester Beer Festival was replacing official catering with independent food stalls. One of them was the What’s Your Beef burger stall, from which I had a delicious plain cheeseburger, fresh and hand-cooked, which was probably the single nicest thing I’ve eaten out of the house this year. Yes, it cost a fiver, when in Spoons you’d get a bigger burger plus chips and a soft drink for less, but the quality was far superior.

It didn’t inspire me to go on a burger kick as such, but during the following couple of weeks I’ve had two burgers in pubs, both of which were markedly inferior and had a distinct whiff of the freezer cabinet about them. Indeed, I’d say that the archetypal McDonalds quarter-pounder, when not overdone, would be better. At least it’s moist and actually tastes of beef.

This underlined a point that many writers about pubs rather fight shy of – basically, most pub food isn’t actually much good. It may be adequate and fill a gap, but if you actually want a good curry, you’ll go to an Indian restaurant, if you want good fish and chips, you’ll go to a chippy, and if you want good pizza, you’ll go to Pizza Express.

I recently praised Friends of Ham for specialising in one area of food, and doing it very well, but what most pubs do is the exact opposite. You will virtually always dine much better in a dedicated restaurant than in a pub, even if maybe a little more expensively. Where pubs do excel is in simple dishes they have prepared themselves from fresh ingredients – such as the classic ploughman’s and traditional cheese, beef and ham sandwiches and rolls – or have bought in from local independent suppliers, such as pork pies. But those are increasingly rare nowadays.

I’ve freely admitted in the past to being a distinctly eccentric and fussy eater, so I am reluctant to offer opinions of the subject of food. Very often, the criterion for food meeting my approval is simply that it is something I can eat comfortably without gagging. I worked out the other day that I had a BMI of 26.4, which just about qualifies as overweight. But if I actually liked my food, I’d probably be the size of a house. I remember a few years ago at a wedding reception being served up with some particularly inedible “rubber chicken” – but other guests were wolfing it down as if it was manna from the Gods.

However, for dishes that do fall within my sphere of palatability, I reckon I have a pretty good nose for what is good, what is merely adequate and what is awful. And most pub food struggles to achieve second base.


  1. Those hotdogs in Bakers in Stockport were great,specialism works.

    1. There's so much to like about the Baker's apart from the spectacular lack of seating :-(

    2. They were very good, those dogs at Bskers. Your BMI surprises me; I would not have thought it anywhere near 26.4.

    3. FWIW I am 5'11" tall and weigh 189 lbs.

  2. I went for a meal in the Marble Arch on Rochdale Road a couple of weeks ago, and while to food was adequate, it would have been better value at about two thirds of the price I actually paid.

  3. Lordy yes, I remember in the late 60s / early 70s (I was overseas for a decade after that) ordering a ploughman's in country pubs. A huge doorstep of fresh baked bread, big chunk of Cheddar and a couple of pickled onions, washed down with a pint or two of Best. Unbeatable.

    I'm actually tending towards being a bit of a foodie, but I still think the simple things, when well done, are the best. As far as food in pubs goes these days (or at least 15 years ago before I expatriated myself again), it was generally crap - a last resort. I guess it must be getting better, since pubs now to a large extent have to rely on food, what with them having thrown out all their best customers ten years ago, but if I ever visit UK again, I won't be partaking. I'd rather go to an Indian. Cheaper and better.

  4. If I wanted good pizza, the very last place I'd look for it would be Pizza Express! I get your point about pub food in general though but because I'm choosy and generally only eat in pubs Iknow, I rarely get disappointed.

  5. It has always astonished me that so many people prefer to eat in pubs rather than restaurants. Pub grub is fine for a quick snack when the budget is limited but for quality dining a restaurant is always better, especially if you are looking a foreign food. A good Indian will offer you far more choice and far better curries than you will get at a dining pub on curry night. Similarly for Chinese, Italian.

    And even the most modest restaurant offers better service than many dining pubs. I particular dislike having to fight through a crowd of drinkers to get to the bar to order food and then having to go back to the bar in the middle of the meal for more wine.

  6. I don't understand why anyone would go to a pub for a curry, Italian, Chinese, etc. The pubs I eat in do good traditional British food - fish, steak, pies, stews, soup, that sort of thing.

  7. but Id have said theres a massive range of pubs serving food, that go from the archetypal budget supermarket meals for one, right up to fine dining and gourmet cuisine with everything including gastropubs in between. Heston Blumenthals the Fat Duck was originally a pub before it became a restaurant only, but he actually bought another pub in Bray, thats still Michelin starred for food, but serves a good selection of local real ale. Marco Piere White used to run a pub in Lavenham, in fact its almost a feature in some of parts of East Anglia for pubs to actually be very focussed on the quality of the food they serve, even if its just burger and chips, and without that food focus most of those pubs would have shut.

    most of the craft orientated pubs in London thesedays serve "signature" burgers of the like you had at MCBF, one pub near me invites the local version of Whats Your Beef, for a weekly food night, couple of pubs I know have built wood fired pizza ovens, I know another pub close to closing got bought up by a couple who focussed on the food, and the stuff smells amazing though Ive never eaten there yet, and have turned it into one of the most popular pubs and gone from just selling Doom Bar, to 4 ever changing local beers. and we still have pubs who allow you to order in takeaway and they provide the plates, cutlery and do the washing up for you.

    food is a big topic and varies considerably. fwiw I actually think the curries in wetherspoons are comparable with an average sit down curry house meal

  8. Much of Britain is mediocrity. Amusing how you are so against the likes of Jamie Oliver et al, who appear to wish to get people in the UK to care as much about food, diet, provenance etc as is more common in Europe where food culture did not suffer industrial revolutions, empire & war rationing.

    having said that, quite fancy a spoons chilli burger after reading this.

  9. Quite right Mudge, the Ploughman's type of pub grub is much preferable to today's multi-choice menu full of microwaved ready-meals. When I worked in Offerton years ago, at dinnertime you had a choice of pea and ham soup at the Fingerpost, or at the Gardeners a plate of sandwiches (various fillings) with crisps on the side! Not big meals but just enough for going back to work in the afternoon. There's nothing like that now, that I know of - although the Magnet sells pork pies.

    The Arden Arms' food is probably the best pub food in Stockport, but it is restaurant standard stuff with restaurant prices. I enjoy a good carvery, such as the ones in The Puss in Boots, The Three Bears and The Fiveways. I've not tried the new Moor Top yet but it looked very busy with diners yesterday..

    My favourite pub meals at the moment are those served in the Crown in Colne and The Swan With Two Necks in Pendleton (nr Clitheroe), Both do simple but very good meals - from fresh not microwaved or frozen - and at lower prices than we see in Stockport. But that's another thing - we get ripped of price-wise in Stockport for pub and restaurant food.

  10. Professor Pie-Tin6 February 2017 at 15:22

    If I eat I lose all interest in drink.
    And anyway at my age eating makes me sleepy.
    Basically I can't remember the last time I ate in a pub.

  11. Pubs are often quite good at traditional British or American style food - pizzas, burgers, steaks, roasts, pies, battered fish or chicken, etc. In my experience they're generally both better quality and cheaper than going to a chain restaurant, to say nothing of more comfortable and convivial.

    I dislike restaurants. Uncomfortable seating and long waits every time you want another beer, and then the hassle of the bill. Much better to just pay up front, fetch your own beer, and sit on some decent bench seats.

  12. Plus the formality, posturing and over inflated drink prices.

  13. Also, no-one ever said "let's meet at (restaurant), we'll be there all evening so you can turn up any time although a few people might be leaving early because they've got a train to catch, you can get some food there if you want or eat before you come out..."

    In general, though, the standard of pub food seems massively variable, which is probably a function of the variability of what the core of a pub's offer is - is it somewhere that you go for dinner and a few drinks, or somewhere that you basically go for drinks but might need to eat at some point?


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