Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - March 2004

* All Gastro, No Pub *

The contemporary “Gastro-Pub” is a travesty of the word

YOU HAVE no doubt read approving pieces in the colour supplements about how Giles and Tabitha have transformed the old Red Lion, removing the dingy, nicotine-stained wallpaper (and probably the dingy, nicotine-stained customers), stripping everything back to the bare wood, and introducing an imaginative menu of modern Southern European cooking with the odd Thai and Caribbean twist. Two can eat (with wine) for a very reasonable £60, and it’s drawing diners from miles around. Thus you have that modern phenomenon, the “Gastro-Pub”.

The trouble is, such establishments have effectively ceased to be pubs, and it’s unlikely they have retained any of their former customers either. However much food it serves, a pub is a social meeting place and welcomes non-diners who just want a drink, whereas the typical “gastro-pub” has become to all intents and purposes a restaurant. It may still look like a pub, but in terms of its function it no longer is. You might as well call a trendy restaurant that has been converted from an old bank a “gastro-bank”.

* A Tasty Example *

It is possible to combine good food with genuine pub atmosphere

OF COURSE, we have in this area a pub that shows how it is possible to combine good food with a genuinely pubby atmosphere, in the shape of Stockport’s Arden Arms, the deserved winner of the 2004 Stockport & South Manchester CAMRA Pub of the Year Award. The Arden is an excellent pub in many respects, but in this context its food really stands out.

The licensees formerly ran a well-regarded restaurant, and they have put together a menu that is imaginative and uses high-quality, fresh, ingredients, but never loses sight of the fact that it is in a pub, not a restaurant, with a wide choice of interesting snacks, and a small but varied selection of specials which rarely rise above the £7 mark. The food is extremely popular, and at lunchtimes it can often be difficult to find a seat after 12.15, but the Arden remains a social meeting place with a wide mix of customers calling in just for a drink and a chat. It sets an example that other pubs would do well to follow.

* Grabbing Attention *

The bigger and brasher the bar mounting, the worse the beer?

WHEN KEG beers were first introduced, their garish light-up fonts drew much adverse comment in comparison with the unassuming, traditional shape of handpulls. After a while, the brewers of keg beers seemed to learn a lesson from this and brought in bar mountings that were much more restrained. Recently, though, this trend seems to have gone into reverse, with more and more fonts appearing that not only look unpleasant but are also overpoweringly large. That appalling Carling font in the shape of a giant illuminated “C” must win the prize, with the enormous black Guinness excrescence a close second. And others seem to be competing for the tallest font award, with Kronenbourg currently leading the pack. It doesn’t say much for the ability of these beers to sell on their reputation that their makers feel the need to grab drinkers’ attention in such a blatant manner.

Ideally it would be good to walk into a pub and see nothing but handpumps on the bar, but unfortunately in the real world that is unlikely to happen. But surely, recognising that pubs have no choice but to sell keg beers, it makes sense to dispense them – as some still do – from a row of standard taps fronted by small oval badges, rather than littering the bar with a forest of illuminated monstrosities.

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