Heston Blumenthal’s got one, and so has Jean-Christophe Novelli, although he wants nine more. Gordon Ramsay’s got two. And Anthony Worrall-Thompson has just got his third. So it seems that buying pubs is all the rage for television’s top toques these days. But is it a good thing?
We’ve lived for some time with the fact that pubs can easily be turned into restaurants. Even if they’re tatty and need work, they still have the right armature – loos, kitchen, seating areas, serving areas, and so on; so the conversion job needn’t start entirely from scratch. In fact it’s even better if they’re tatty: it means they’re cheaper to buy.
In London in particular, the number of locals that have been turned into restaurants recently is infuriating to anyone who loves pubs and beer. So not a few hearts stopped when Gordon Ramsay announced that he had bought the Warrington in Maida Vale, a historic landmark that was once (they say) a high-class brothel, and another pub in Docklands.
The foul-mouthed one’s people insist he values his acquisitions as pubs and doesn’t plan to turn them into restaurants.
Indeed, I was myself honoured to be asked for advice on what ales the pubs should stock, so they’re obviously serious about it. Still, the Gordon Ramsay name makes it inevitable that the food offering is the main attraction, and the two must class as gastropubs. But hang on: what exactly is a gastropub?
Virtually all pubs, as we know, have to sell food of some sort these days in order to survive. The number that don’t even make a token nod at food service is tiny, and even those that don’t have cooks and kitchens and food hygiene certificates of their own often let customers bring in a takeaway.
At the other end of the spectrum there are pubs with splendid dining-rooms, and I suspect that in most areas (and always excepting ethnic cuisines), proper restaurants have a tiny share of the dining market and eating out for most of the people most of the time means going to a pub.
But pubs with good dining rooms are not gastropubs, and the difference is one of culture.Gastropubs are run and used by people whose main concern is food. They are formal and structured: usually, and if they’re any good, you can’t just turn up and expect to be seated. You have to book. And you don’t expect to socialise casually with other customers: you bring your own company with you. In most if not all gastropubs you can, in theory, have a drink without a meal. But often, drinkers are not really welcome: service can be slow and even resentful, and the space left for drinkers might amount to one tiny table squeezed into a corner by the gents. Naming no names, I’ve found this at a number of well-known gastropubs; other readers will doubtless have had similar experiences.
But actually, TV chefs moving into the pub trade are less guilty of this sort of offence even than most national chains of pub-restaurants. Yes, of course, their cooking is the main attraction. But Novelli and Vickery and Ramsay seem to understand that a pub is a different animal from a restaurant: it also has to serve Joe and Jim and Harry who don’t necessarily want a three-course meal but do want to catch up with each others’ gossip over a pint.
Evidence of this is that chef-proprietors are paying more attention to the ales they stock. Often their pubs are leased from national chains, so they’re tied to certain beers. But Novelli cut his teeth as a trainee in a pub kitchen (although, to be fair, it was Keith Floyd’s pub kitchen) and there is much about pub culture that he finds attractive. So he was glad to stock the locally-brewed Rebellion IPA as his discretionary guest ale when he leased the White Horse at Hatching Green near Harpenden last year.
In 2005 the new lessees of the former Front Page in Chelsea, Jamie Prudom and chef Ashley Hancill, went one further. They changed the pub’s name to the Pig’s Ear and put on Uley Brewery’s ale of the same name as their “guest” ale. The menu picks up the theme: alongside stuffed pig’s trotters you’ll find actual pig’s ears, marinaded in brine; poached for eight hours in stock; sliced; dipped in flour, egg, breadcrumbs, and mustard; fried; and served with a ravigotte of capers, shallots, parsley, tarragon, mustard, and gherkins.