New at the table: Gastropubs
Their bars may be antique, but the menus aim near the avant-garde
LONDON -- England is a nation of pub lovers. From medieval times to modern times, the local tavern has always been much more than a bar: It is a hangout, a second home, a refuge, and often the center of the neighborhood. A Brit is nowhere as comfortable as in a pub. Except for the hunger bit.
There are more than 60,000 pubs in the United Kingdom , and until very recently none of them served food worth eating. Pub food meant something gray and mushy, or, perhaps, fish and chips. Sometimes mushy gray fish and chips. British pubs served only comfort food -- and it was cold comfort. With dishes like cock a leekie (chicken and leek stew), hairy tatties (potato pancakes), and bangers and mash (sausage and mashed potatoes), usually straight out of the microwave, tourists were routinely warned off.
Then in 1991, a pair of cheeky Londoners came up with the brilliant idea of opening a pub that offered good food instead of the usual glop. Not surprisingly, David Eyre and Mike Belben's Eagle was a runaway hit.
This was such a radical idea for the Brits, they needed a new name for it. Thus, gastropub.
It is an ugly name, but a sweet idea. Not a bar, not a restaurant, a gastropub is designed to combine the comfortable setting of the local pub with the culinary riches of the country's many young chefs, at prices at least a shade below restaurant tabs.
As one London gastropub, The Atlas, describes itself to prospective employees, "We are a pub, not a restaurant, so the atmosphere is pretty relaxed. Nevertheless, we want customers to go away thinking that was a really great pub -- we're not trying to be a restaurant, we're just trying to be a great pub."
Gastropubs boast dishes like porcinni-rubbed chicken breast with mash and mushroom ragout (The Engineer , $27) and confit leg of duck with star anise smashed parsnips, roast garlic, cream and orgeano-baked apple, and aged balsamic (The Atlas, $21). If the prices seem steep, it's worth noting that nothing is cheap in London; even the Tube (underground) costs $7 a pop or about $12 for a one-day pass.
Most gastropubs offer starter- size meals at $7 to $14 and main dishes from $24 to $35, while traditional pubs are charging $15 to $20 or more for their steak and kidney pies and soggy burgers.
English cuisine has been turned upside down since the 1980s as a nation of meat pie eaters became gourmands nibbling on chargrilled squid with warm salad of barley lentils and pumpkin seeds and ox tongue poached in milk. Scores of new restaurants opened all over London, from Michelin-starred temples of fine dining whipped into shape by celebrity chefs like the ornery Gordon Ramsay (you've seen him yelling appalling things at trainee chefs on a reality TV show) to the excellent and economical Wagamama noodle shops that dot the city.
And the boom is continuing. Harden's Restaurant 2006 Guide reported the opening of a record 142 new restaurants in the previous 12 months.London boasts an unrivaled diversity of choices: British cuisine (England's version of cutting edge cooking), Indian, Thai, Japanese, French, Chinese, and of course, all those frightening fast food chains that are replicating across the globe.
London, once a culinary backwater, has evolved into one of the world's most exciting centers of fine cuisine. But the most interesting trend, perhaps, is the emergence of the gastropubs. For me, the proof was in the pancakes.
My daughter and I traveled to London for a week last year, just in time to beat the rush of foodies who booked reservations after reading an issue of Gourmet magazine that offered an homage to London in which it was crowned "gourmet capital of the world."
Our first stop was the "local" in our home base of Earls Court , and right away, we hit a jackpot. The Atlas is tucked away on a side street a few blocks from the vast Earls Court Exhibition Centre. Behind a charming, pubby exterior, the front door opens onto a long, rectangular wood-paneled room, the bar hugging the left wall and a pair of fireplaces at the far end, sending out welcome warmth on a chilly March night.
The Atlas was once a rundown old Victorian pub as tatty as the hairy tatties it served. In 1998, brothers Richard and George Manners ripped it up, stripping out the Victoriana but leaving the wood paneling and installing an open kitchen, from where they began cooking up hearty dishes with a Mediterranean bent. The daily menu is chalked on a blackboard hanging above the bar, and a second chalkboard lists wines, available by the bottle and glass. The beers and ales, of course, the essense of a pub, are on tap.
My 19-year-old, a legal drinker in England, wanted to order her own beer. She edged up to the bar and asked for a Guinness ($5.75). The gastropub custom is also to order dinner at the bar, and we put in our requests for pasta with prawns ($20) and pan-roasted fillet of salmon with garlic mash ($22), paid the bill, and retreated to our little table.
A server brought our plates and the dinners were a treat; both the linguine and the salmon were excellent and the portions so generous, we had no room for dessert.
Later in the week, on another chilly spring day spent tramping around the British Museum, we found refuge at The Eagle in the Clerkenwell district. This is the pub that started the gastro binge when would-be restaurateurs Belben and Eyre bought all they could afford -- an old boozer that they stripped to bare wood floors. They filled it with a mishmash of furniture, and installed an open kitchen. The Eagle began turning out dishes like roast pollock with chickpeas and aioli , and the media types from nearby newspaper and magazine offices poured in.
Though the kitchen does not open until 6:30, on this cold night we took refuge in the pub at 5:30, settling on a sofa to sample more beers (Hoegaarden and British bitter ) and wait. Right on the dot of 6:30, the front doors began swinging back and forth as the regulars swarmed in to get a spot.
Our choices, lingine with basil and tomato ($19) and roast lamb chop sandwich with spinach and root vegetables ($25) , were hearty meals and , again, left us too full to contemplate dessert. We took a doubledecker bus home down Oxford Street to Earls Court, scarcely able to keep our eyes open as the lights of London rushed past.
We were really getting the hang of this gastropub thing. We just had to figure out a way to hang on through dessert.
One solution was to stop in a pub for breakfast. After walking across breezy Regents Park one morning, we stumbled into The Engineer, which holds down a corner in the Primrose Hill section of London. The pub was brilliant with sunlight, which bounced off the mirror and polished glasses behind the light-wood bar. We settled into a corner table, sharing the room with four gents as they stretched a breakfast business meeting as long as they could.
We ordered buttermilk pancakes ($15) and eggs Benedict ($15) and pub manager Karen Northcote told us how The Engineer went from skanky to swanky.
"This is one of the oldest gastropubs; it was opened in 1995," said Northcote. "Beforehand, it was an Irish pub that was, well, really kind of skanky. Strippers in the pub on Sundays and all. The new owners, Tamsin Olivier and Abigail Osborne, worked in a cafe and they wanted to set up the same thing at The Engineer, a place they would want to eat and where you would look after people properly. Nice food, but in an informal place."
I tucked into my stack of pancakes and Northcote's voice faded into the background as I all but swooned. The pancakes were plump but light, swimming in maple syrup and honeycomb butter and accompanied by organic bacon. The chef was clearly having a good time. And so was I.
Where there was one in 1991, more than 100 gastropubs now populate London, and new ones open all the time. A chalkboard menu is no guarantee of fine dining, but word of mouth (ask the hotel concierge, or the clerk at the bookstore -- everyone has a favorite) and reviews at sites like squaremeal.co.uk, can point the way.
As for me, I didn't go to London just to get pancakes, but I might go back for them.
As I sank deeper into the booth at The Engineer, I turned my attention to the last of my pancakes and bacon -- and then asked to see the day's lunch menu.
Contact Barbara Matson at email@example.com.