There has been talk recently of a move away from dining pubs back towards wet-led ones. This is a theme taken up in this BBC report from February, and explored in further depth in this article by Glynn Davis. However, the two examples used are not perhaps the best illustrations of the point.
The first is the Ypres Castle Inn, situated in the shadow of the eponymous castle (actually more a glorified gatehouse) in the picturesque historic town of Rye in Sussex. It’s in a location where you’d probably expect a pub to serve food for visitors. However, it was taken over pre-Covid by high-profile licensee Jeff Bell who I suspect has turned it into more of a beer-focused pub and no longer sees the need for food.
The second is the Queen’s Head in Newton, Cambridgeshire, which is one of the “famous five” ever-present entries in the Good Beer Guide. It’s situated in an attractive village a few miles outside Cambridge. It serves a limited food menu including soup, sandwiches and meat and cheese platters, but as far as I know has never attempted to be a full-on dining pub, so it isn’t really illustrative of a trend, although it does underline the point that you don’t need to be a gastropub to thrive in that kind of location. As I wrote about it, “It’s odd how the South of England manages to draw middle-class customers to non-dining village and rural pubs in a way that is hard to imagine in Cheshire”.
So, case very much not proven. It has certainly been recognised in recent years, though, that the food-driven model isn’t necessarily appropriate for all pubs, and wet-led pubs need to be considered as an important category in their own right rather than just seen as second-class citizens of the pub world. North West-based Amber Taverns developed as a pubco dedicated to wet-led pubs, and divisions of major pubcos such as Stonegate’s Craft Union concentrate on this segment.
There has also, over a longer timeframe, been a substantial retrenchment of the availability of food in pubs, to a large extent associated with the general decline of the pub trade. In the past, many pubs would offer a simple menu of soup, sandwiches, toasties, burgers and the like with perhaps a hot dish of the day, which to a large extent was aimed at customers from nearby workplaces.
But lunchtime pub visits from work are increasingly frowned on, even if they don’t involve drinking any alcohol, and many of the workplaces themselves have closed or drastically slimmed down. Tougher hygiene regulations also require pubs to have a dedicated catering kitchen rather than preparing food in their domestic one. And town-centre footfall from shoppers is much reduced too. The classic freshly-prepared “four quarters” pub sandwich is a virtually extinct species.
I wrote about this trend fifteen years ago:
...many pubs in less prominent locations that once made an attempt to serve meals and appeal to outsiders have dropped the food, gone evenings-only and essentially cater only for locals and regulars.In many cases these pubs are no longer there at all, and if they are they’re probably not open at lunchtimes. In smaller non-tourist towns it can be difficult to find any pub food outside of Wetherspoon’s, who have hoovered up what trade remains.
Of course many pubs do thrive by concentrating on food and turning themselves effectively into restaurants, but the “mixed economy” pub with a balance of dry and wet trade is becoming increasingly rare. With pub food, it seems to be either all or nothing. Plus, as I’ve mentioned before on the blog, there’s evidence of the much-vaunted family dining pub model not finding everything plain sailing.
Griffin in Heaton Mersey. This is a four-square Holt’s pub with an unspoilt multi-roomed interior including an impressive sash-windowed bar. In the 1980s it was so busy, mostly with wet trade, that a large extension was built on one side, the bar of which effectively became the pub’s main bar.
There was a serving hatch in the extension from which a variety of straightforward food was dispensed at lunchtimes. I remember having some tasty bacon barms there. But the general decline of pubgoing meant that it became nowhere near as busy as it once was, and Holts carried out a thorough cosmetic refurbishment, fortunately leaving the historic parts untouched, but removing the serving hatch. I’m not sure whether this was pre- or post-smoking ban.
They introduced a much more ambitious and expensive pub food menu, but it never seemed to find many takers, and the general impression that the pub still gave of being a traditional boozer probably put diners off. In hindsight, it might have made more sense to make the extension a dedicated dining area with a brighter colour scheme and return the main bar service to the old side.
So the food has now been dropped, and according to WhatPub it now only offers “pies and barmcakes”, which presumably need no kitchen preparation. It majors on TV sports, but apart from when United or City are on gives the impression of a few people rattling around in a large building, whereas thirty years ago it was often standing room only. As I mentioned in an earlier blogpost, the contrast in the level of trade between it and the Wetherspoon’s half a mile down the road is very striking.
Yes, there may well be examples of more marginal food-serving pubs giving it up entirely, but I really don’t see much evidence of pubs with a major food offer dialling it back and putting the emphasis more on wet trade. It might be nice if they did, though.
As an aside, the term “wet-led” often seems to be used to mean pubs that serve no food at all, whereas surely it should also encompass pubs where food is only a relatively small part of their sales.