Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - February 2000
* Missing the Revolution *
There's little evidence of the so-called pub food revolution in our local pubs
CAMRA recently launched a new Good Pub Food Guide, accompanied by publicity that talked about the revolution in the quality and variety of food available in pubs over the past twenty years, compared with the bad old days of pickled eggs and curling sandwiches. But that picture doesn’t match my own experience, and I just can't see it in the pubs I use.
The days when few pubs served food were not in the 70s, but back in the 50s and early 60s, before the drinking memory of most pubgoers today, and certainly before I was going in pubs. The real revolution in pub food probably happened between 1965 and 1975, spurred on by the introduction of the breathalyser in 1967. I began eating in pubs regularly in the late 70s, and my recollection is that the range and quality of food then was much the same as it is now, although there were more pubs that didn’t serve any food whatsoever. In some respects the pub food market has even gone backwards, with the expansion of chain eateries like Brewer’s Fayre and Big Steak which offer standardised, frozen and microwaved menus and rarely rise above being just about adequate, and many local boozers serving up very basic grub rather than nothing at all.
The great majority of pubs today seem to offer a predictable choice of traditional favourites leavened with the Anglicised versions of dishes such as chilli and lasagne that have now effectively become British standards. You could almost write the menus in your sleep. Some, it must be said, do it very well, but even so the culinary trends of the past forty years have largely passed them by. Let’s face it, most pub food is deadly dull, and scarcely touched by any "pub food revolution". There’s far more exotic stuff on the shelves of your local supermarket.
In general, the only pubs showing real innovation or imagination in their menus are those that have gone for an upmarket, restaurant style, with prices to match, and in the process lost most of their pub character. There is a marked lack of pubs which manage to serve interesting, contemporary food at reasonable prices in a pubby setting, particularly in the North of England, and those that do tend to fall into the café-bar sector. Some may think that pubs are stoutly defending tradition, but I can't help feeling that they’re missing a trick.
Pubs that rely solely on blackboard menus make life difficult for their customers
An increasing trend nowadays is to abandon printed menus completely in favour of blackboards. This gives the impression that the pub is offering market-fresh specials, although in reality blackboard menus often remain the same for weeks. A drawback of this is that it can make it difficult to work out exactly what you want, particularly if you’re in a large group, and people often like to mull over a menu and consider various combinations of starter and main course before making their choice. In one week I saw two examples of one member of a party having to read the contents of a long blackboard menu out to elderly or disabled companions who couldn’t easily get near enough to see it. This is another of those subtle ways in which pubs unconsciously discriminate against the disabled. In these days when most pubs probably have a PC in the back somewhere, surely it is not beyond licensees to print off a copy of their daily menu for every table.