Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - August 2004

* The Unpalatable Truth *

Too much pub food falls far short of the hype

PUB FOOD is often hailed as one of the glories of the British drinking scene, and you read numerous articles in pub guides hailing the “pub food revolution”. Yet, while superb pub food can be found, more often than not it falls within a range stretching from just about adequate to frankly disgusting. These are a few of the areas where pubs get it wrong:

  • Too expensive. You expect to pay more for food and drink in a pub than at home, and to pay extra for good quality. But when you find pubs charging £15 or more for main courses and £7 for sandwiches it is getting ridiculous. Sorry, but that just isn’t a pub any longer.
  • Too cheap. Equally, if you see a sign saying “Three course Sunday Lunch - £3.95” you just know the quality’s going to be rock-bottom too. Cheapness for its own sake is not a virtue.
  • Too much. At a time when the growing tide of obesity is a major political issue, pretty much every meal you get out of the house is half as much again as you want or need. The thought of “a belly busting pound of chips” is enough to make you feel sick. Smaller portions and higher quality must be the way forward. If people really want to stuff their faces, offer large portions at a higher price.
  • Too English. Look at the variety of restaurants on your local High Street – Italian, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Turkish. Yet what’s on the specials board at the Dog & Duck? Steak & Ale Pie. If pubs confine themselves to “traditional English” they are boxing themselves into a corner.
  • Too formal. At a time when we are moving away from traditional meal times and structures, the typical pub menu is still redolent of thirty years ago with its rigid organisation into “starters”, “main courses” and “desserts”. Informal, flexible menus cater for the way people really want to eat now and also help to retain the atmosphere of a pub rather than a restaurant. And perish the thought of separate dining areas with place settings.
  • Lack of local ingredients. Virtually everywhere in the UK has distinctive local produce – cheese, bread, pies, smoked fish, black puddings – often made on a small scale by traditional methods. Yet, even where you find beers from local craft brewers, the only local place the food has seen is the cash & carry down the road. Even if you only feature one or two local items on your menu it helps give the impression of taking an individual approach.
  • Misleading menus. It still seems to be beyond many pubs to provide individual menus showing clearly what is on offer. If your standard menu is all on blackboards it makes it difficult for the elderly, partially sighted and disabled to peruse it. A list of main courses is of limited use without stating what accompanies them. And if you say “sandwiches – various fillings available” it makes it much less likely people will order them than if you state what the fillings are.
  • Turkey dinosaurs. Even when pubs offer a range of imaginative, high-quality food for adult diners, children are landed with dismal factory fare packed with salt and additives. Why can’t children simply be given smaller portions of adult meals?
  • Microwaves. It’s only too easy to get a vast range of “exotic” meals delivered from a big factory in Grimsby to your freezer in a foodservice van. But at a time when processed food is increasingly frowned on, wouldn’t it be better to put more emphasis on freshness and authenticity even at the cost of reduced choice?
  • Chain dining. The pub food market is becoming dominated by chains from Wetherspoon’s to Chef & Brewer. The food may be OK in the same sense as a Tesco ready meal, but the menu’s the same all over the country, and it’s never remotely inspiring. One of the things people value most in pubs is individual character, something a chain pub cannot provide.

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