Curmudgeon's "Opening Times" Column - August 1998
* Ye Olde Fake Hostelrie *
It has been reported that branded food pubs such as the Brewer's Fayre chain are losing their appeal, and the public are looking for a more individual dining experience. However, this won't automatically benefit independently-run pubs, as the big chains are alert to this trend and are tailoring their outlets to follow it. They are coming up with concepts which retain all the advantages of centralised ordering and menu planning, and deep down are just as standardised and regimented as what went before, but give the illusion of being individual and distinctive.
For example, next to Junction 10 of the M56, just south of Warrington, Bass have spent a lot of money converting an old farmhouse into a smart new pub called the Stretton Fox, which is signed as offering "Great British Food". There's nothing to indicate it's a Bass pub, nor that it is part of a chain. Yet only a few miles away at Heatley there's another pub, the Green Dragon, which has the same theme, the same menu and the same style, and once you know how to recognise them I have spotted them as far afield as Stafford and South Wales.
The Stretton Fox isn't an unpleasant place, and has quite an interesting, rambling interior. However, it's almost entirely lacking in pub atmosphere, and not at all a congenial environment to just go and have a quiet pint. There's no vault, no dartboard, no TV, no beermats, nowhere that even feels pubby with benches and settles - it is just a sequence of knocked-through rooms with mismatched chairs arranged around tables. The menus in these pubs are pricey and tend to offer little in the way of sandwiches and snacks, and in an attempt not to appear down-market they often don't even sell crisps and nuts. I'm no fan of the Brewer's Fayre style of pub, but at least they are cheerful and straightforward , while I find these new "designer country pubs" pretentious and offputting.
If you seek to attract an up-market clientele you must set standards to match. In one of these outlets I overheard a fastidious middle-aged woman making nit-picking complaints about her food. You have to accept that ordinary pub grub is going to be, well, rather ordinary, but she clearly expected something better, and was disappointed. I doubt whether she or her friends will be going back to that particular establishment, and I strongly suspect that discerning customers will quickly recognise these places for what they are - the same old frumpy chain pub in a trendy designer dress.
The threat of a lower drink-drive limit has called into question the future of out-of-town pubs, and it is undeniable that food must play a significant role - the days of the unspoilt rustic beerhouse are not going to return. However, it is also vital that pubs retain a distinctive character, which makes them worth visiting in their own right, and that they appeal to families, to their local communities and to regular customers. If their fortunes are founded solely on a fickle car-borne dining trade, they may find it deserts them just as quickly as it arrived, and then have nothing else to fall back on. In creating this new breed of fake up-market country pub, are the big pub chains missing this fundamental point?