Real Pub Food For All?

Pub food is big business nowadays, and many, if not most, pubs would find it hard to survive without their food trade. So it's disappointing how so much of the writing about pub food deliberately ignores the majority of pub-goers.

There's a very definite strand of pub food writing, which is often found in the Sunday colour supplements and is best exemplified by Egon Ronay's pub guide. To its credit, it has a strong emphasis on "real" food and natural ingredients. On the other hand, though, it shows a pronounced bias towards up-market rural "dining pubs", a lack of concern for value for money, a preference for elaborate recipe dishes over simple basics, and a contempt for anything that falls short of its self-imposed standards which often degenerates into rank snobbery.

There's a very fine dividing line between the claims of "we don't serve chips here" which are often recorded with approbation, and "we don't serve riff-raff here". Chips, if properly done, can be just as "real" as anything else, as indeed can burgers, which can be obtained freshly-made from the local butcher. The type of food should matter less than the way it's prepared.

In January 1994, Stephen Cox, writing in CAMRA's newspaper "What's Brewing", accused the Egon Ronay Guide and Alisdair Aird's Good Pub Guide of seeing pubs not "as a useful part of everyday life, but a rare service used by travellers and holidaymakers. Nothing else could justify the persistent bias against pubs used by ordinary people, and located in areas where a great many people actually live and work." Quite.

Even so, why should CAMRA take an interest? Not, I think, as a defender of the past. The good old days of food at the inn are beyond anyone's living memory. If you look back to the 1950s, pub food was either non-existent or mediocre. The great upsurge has largely come within CAMRA's lifetime. CAMRA's interest in pub food should be as a modern consumer movement, in the same way as we look at improving disabled facilities and ending outdated licensing restrictions.

This, incidentally, is why it is wrong to expect pubs to provide nothing but "traditional British" cooking. It certainly has its place, but foreign and ethnic dishes have now become part of the regular diet of most people in this country, and have added much-needed colour and variety to what we eat. To expect pubs to stick to what has always been eaten in these islands is narrow-minded obscurantism. I've had superb home-made curries, pizzas and Chinese dishes in pubs. Good pub food doesn't stop at beef in ale pie.

So how can CAMRA define an approach to food coverage which establishes a distinctive identity, that is inclusive rather than exclusive, yet sacrifices nothing in terms of quality?

  • The starting point must be an unequivocal declaration that real food is fresh food. It may be harder to look after and have a shorter shelf life, but, as with real ale, the results are worth the effort if you do it right. But always accentuate the positive; don't let it descend into a witch-hunt against tinned peas and sachets of sauce.

  • Like keg beer on a bar, we should be prepared to tolerate a limited amount of processed food on a menu so long as it doesn't try to masquerade as something else. After all, virtually every pub in the Good Beer Guide serves keg beer or cider of some sort, and CAMRA would have got nowhere if it had only promoted pubs that didn't.

  • Recognise that most of us live and work in urban areas; positively aim to seek out the good food in urban pubs that the other guides ignore and hold it up as an example for others to follow. There shouldn't be the automatic assumption that to get a really good meal in a pub you normally have to drive out of town.

  • Show a constant, strong emphasis on value for money. As a simple yardstick, ignore anywhere you can't get a square meal of your featured dishes for around a fiver or less. There can be rare exceptions!

  • Finally, always show a preference for the simple and unadorned over the fancy and elaborate. Apply this both to the dishes themselves and the style of menus and presentation; informality is one of the most valued features of eating in pubs. Ironically, this informality is much more often achieved in the South of England than the North. There's still an assumption in much of the North that you haven't got a proper meal unless there's meat, potatoes and two veg on your plate, and that menus in pubs should as far as possible echo the format of those in restaurants.

Nobody who really cares about pubs, as well as food, can afford to stay safe within the cosy confines of the "dining pubs" of the stockbroker belts and the National Parks, and look down their noses at the rest of the workaday world with its busy schedules and tight budgets. They must look at influencing pub cooks in practical and relevant ways to improve the quality of pub food wherever it is served.

The aspiration of "real ale in every pub" once seemed an idealistic pipedream, but in many parts of the country it's now true. What price "real food in every pub where food is served"?

(April 1995)

A piece that is as relevant today as it was then. "Around a fiver" needs to be uprated, probably to about seven quid, but any pub charging more than that for most of its main dishes really does have its nose in the air. The availability of high-quality, imaginative, informal snacks is still very patchy. And unfortunately "real ale in every pub" is looking a bit sick nowadays. (March 2004)

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