In this series of features, to appear on BigHospitality this month, our sister publication Restaurant magazine aims to reclaim the term and restore its meaning.
The term gastropub is a contentious little blighter. For some it’s a great, simple mechanism that instantly informs the public that their establishment places decent emphasis on food as well as drink, while for others its ubiquity and over-use creates a gagging reaction akin to downing a pint of sea water.
It’s a harmless, useful descriptor – along with the likes of ‘fast casual’ and ‘fine dining’ – that hints at the style of a place without the need for verbose classification, say its fans, while detractors regard it as a meaningless, catch-all phrase now adopted by anyone serving (hand cut) sandwiches upwards.
The launch of The Eagle in Clerkenwell, central London, in the early ‘90s led to the coining of the term, but immediately the neologism was co-opted by major pub companies, turned into a stylistic template (pork belly, squishy sofas, Sunday papers) and stripped of any meaning.
When Ribble Valley Inns opened The Three Fishes in 2004 it was “adamant we wouldn’t call it a gastropub”, says owner Craig Bancroft. “There were many ‘gastropubs’ that weren’t gastronomic.”
Yet, as much as it is derided as outdated or pretentious, the term is still widely used. And it is still useful, argues Metro’s London restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin, who isn’t sniffy about it. “It’s as good a descriptor as any,” she reasons. “I wouldn’t go to a [ordinary] pub for dinner, so the ‘gastro’comes in handy, and any savvy diner should be able to sort the wheat from the chaff.”
Yet this distinction has become blurry. While the gastropub moniker points a diner in the direction of a food-led pub rather than a boozer, it gives little indication of the style of food, service or price.
A Michelin-starred pub such as The Harwood Arms in Fulham, west London, inevitably offers a different experience to one part of a group; how each is received depends on whether the diner was expecting a style – and price – more in tune with the former or the latter.
How a pub describes itself is much more than guiding prospective customers. To market your business, recruit and train staff and realise your offer effectively – in everything from décor to the menu – you must define what you’re trying to do.
With so many different styles of cooking it is vital pubs know where they fit in and how to communicate it to customers. If you don’t know what you are, or want to be, your customers won’t either, which could lead to you underselling yourself or, worse, over-promising on what you can deliver.
Restaurant says enough is enough. What was once a pithy term to identify a great food pub is today used to distinguish practically any hostelry from a wet-led boozer, which doesn’t help anyone.
The magazine has redefined the market the way it sees it today, narrowing the sector down to four categories.
Find out where your pub fits in by returning to the site over the next four weeks as we reveal the definitions one by one.