Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - June 2005

* Stuffed *

Restaurant culture is killing the British pub

ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a characterful pub in mid-Cheshire, with a warren of small rooms, and a cramped, awkwardly-shaped bar counter. It was near to a major road junction, so I always feared that, like so many others, it might suffer some kind of “modernisation”. Recently it was closed for refurbishment and, seeing it had reopened, I ventured over the threshold to see what it was like. The sign outside saying “Casual Dining” didn’t exactly raise my hopes.

I didn’t expect much, and I wasn’t disappointed. All the character had been removed, and it had become just another of those dreadful, bland, knocked-through, over-priced dining pubs, where all the seating is at restaurant-style tables and there’s no remotely pubby area with benches where social drinkers might want to gather.

Continental countries are often praised for their open and inclusive drinking culture. But in many of them you will find a clear distinction between restaurants, which serve meals, and bars, which essentially serve drinks, although they may offer a menu of simple snacks and maybe a daily set meal.

This is something that in this country, outside of major urban centres, is becoming increasingly eroded. Historically, we never had much of a restaurant culture. People either ate at home, or on special occasions went to hotel dining rooms. As prosperity increased, and people became more interested in dining out, pubs more and more began to fill that gap. At first, it was just “snacks at the bar”, with chicken or scampi in a basket, but more and more the tail has now ended up wagging the dog.

Across large swathes of the country, what were once pubs are increasingly becoming dining establishments that offer a dusty welcome to anyone who just wants a drink, or even a straightforward snack. The original function of the pub as a social meeting place has been eclipsed. Very often a group of elderly locals who used to gather for a chat and a game of cards or dominoes have been evicted and left with nowhere else to go. The same fate has befallen a multitude of societies who once used meeting rooms, and brought much custom and goodwill. And this is by no means exclusively a rural phenomenon – a growing number of pubs in urban areas are now going over to the dreaded “country dining” format, and kicking drinkers into touch.

Nobody now seriously disputes that most pubs need to serve some food to give them a chance of survival. But if pubs become establishments whose main purpose in life is to serve main meals, and which have no social function beyond this, they have betrayed their origins. This over-emphasis on food is killing the British pub. I have seen more than one former pub with a sign simply proclaiming “Dining Rooms” – that is a chilling portent of the way things are heading.

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