Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - January 1996

* More Beer, Less Chips *

You're often told by the "quality" newspapers, in their food and drink or financial sections, that particular pub operators, or pubs in general, will have to put more and more emphasis on food in order to survive.

While this contains an element of truth, as a generalisation it shows a profound ignorance of the wider pub trade. Food does play a larger part in pub life than it did twenty years ago, and some pubs, presumably those frequented by expense-account journalists, have become dominated by food to the exclusion of all else. But thousands of pubs do a roaring trade without serving any food at all, while others make the effort to offer extensive menus, yet never get more than a handful of people dining.

Even the Royal Oak in Didsbury, featured in every pub food guide under the sun for its amazing cheese lunches, does no food at all in the evenings or at weekends, and yet is still packed out most of the time. Indeed many people deliberately seek out pubs without food because they don't want to drink in an atmosphere permeated by chip-fat. There's also a basic limitation to the demand for meals - you can go to the pub and have one drink, or six, depending on your mood, but, unless (naming no names) you're exceptionally greedy, you don't want more than one meal at a sitting.

In fact, in only a minority of pubs is food anything more than a sideline, and I suspect there isn't really much more scope for expansion in the pub food market - the obvious decline in lunchtime pubgoing must count against it, for a start. The crucial issue facing pubs today is how to protect and expand their wet trade, and in most cases selling more food isn't going to be the answer.

* By Golly, it Does You Good - Official! *

Much has been written about the government's belated but eminently sensible raising of the recommended maximum limits for sensible drinking. A key point about this announcement which may have been overlooked is the body-blow it deals to teetotalism.

For the medical evidence is now quite clear that, for all adults, regular moderate drinking is much better for your health than total abstention. This is especially true for the over-forties. In fact, even though the risk to health slowly increases for people drinking over 28 units a week for men, or 21 for women, you have to drink at well over twice this level before the risk begins to exceed that from not drinking at all.

This leaves the anti-drink lobby looking pretty silly, because it's been proved that avoiding alcohol entirely is actively bad for you. It's not surprising that they reacted to the announcement with such howls of anguish. For a minority of drinkers, alcohol can cause serious problems. But, if groups campaigning on alcohol issues want to avoid being made a laughing stock, they must learn to distinguish between the few problem drinkers and the many moderate, sensible drinkers, rather than tarring everyone with the same outdated brush.

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